This Day in Jewish History, 1944

Kinky Friedman, Whose Life Reads Like a Book With a Most Unlikely Plot, Is Born

Happy birthday, Richard ‘Kinky’ Friedman, founder of the band the Texas Jewboys and the ever-jesting, deadly serious political contender.

Man in Black Tequila

November 1, 1944, is the birthday of the musician, novelist and aspiring politician Kinky Friedman, one of those sui generis types who, if he were a fictional character – actually, he is a fictional character, his own – might not seem credible.

Friedman never ceases to surprise. At age 71, for example, he has just released his first studio album in 32 years.

Richard Samet Friedman was born in Chicago and moved with his family to central Texas at the age of 1. His father, S. Thomas Friedman, was a World War II air force navigator turned graduate student in educational psychology, and his mother, the former Minnie Samet, was a speech therapist. Both were children of Jewish immigrants from czarist Russia.

The Friedmans bought land in Kerrville, in the Texas Hill Country, where they opened a summer camp. Echo Hill, as it was called, was in operation until last year; after the death of the elder Friedmans, Kinky’s siblings continued to run it.

Friedman, who was a chess whiz as a child, attended Austin High School and then the University of Texas, also in Austin, where he formed a band called King Arthur & the Carrots and acquired the nickname “Kinky” because of his wiry hair.

Following graduation with a psychology degree in 1966, Friedman joined the U.S. Peace Corps, which sent him to Indonesian Borneo to teach agriculture.  He threw in Frisbee lessons.

On his return to America, Friedman settled in Nashville, where in 1971 he formed Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, a choice in name his father purportedly deemed a “negative, hostile, peculiar thing.”

Most of the songs Friedman wrote were satirical or parodic (and often puerile) – with titles like “How Can I Tell You I Love You (When You’re Sitting On My Face)” and “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

Reuters

But the Jewboys also recorded a haunting Friedman elegy to the victims of the Holocaust, “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy,” which compared the Shoah to a cattle roundup: "Dead limbs play with ringless fingers/ A melody which burns you deep inside./ Oh, how the song becomes the singers,/ May peace be ever with you as you ride."

The band stayed together until the mid-‘70s, by when Friedman was living in New York and spending his money as fast as he could make it, principally on cocaine.

Friedman then turned to fiction; beginning in 1984 he wrote the first of 17 detective novels about a PI he named after himself, peopling the pages with both made-up characters and real acquaintances. The books, together with a column in Texas Monthly, gained him a new and enlarged audience.

How hard could it be?

Friedman returned to the Hill Country in 1985, taking up residence at Echo Hill, where he also opened an animal shelter and generally cleaned up his act. The next year he made the first of his forays into Texas politics, which over the years have included runs for justice of the peace, state agricultural commissioner and governor (one of his slogans was “How Hard Could It Be?”).

His candidacies have been taken seriously enough that last year he forced a runoff in the Democratic primary for agriculture chief, though he has yet to win an election.

As a candidate, Friedman is a regular advocate of legalization of marijuana in Texas, but his strength among voters is probably his outsider status, evinced by the fact that he has run as a Republican, a Democrat and an independent. He never stops cracking jokes – running for governor, he declared: “If I win, the first thing I’ll do is demand a recount.”

But his candidacies are for real. This creates the dilemma, as The New Yorker’s Dan Halpern noted when quoting Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith:  “If he’s too much like the Kinky we all know and love, he risks not being taken seriously – but if he’s too serious he risks just being another guy.”

Early last month, Friedman released “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” a studio album that includes three original songs and covers of works by some of his favorite artists.