KINKY FRIEDMAN: SELF-PITY AND DIVORCE AND TRAGEDY AND ALCOHOL AND DRUGS AND GUNS

July 26th, 2010 | Interviews


illustration by emily ryan

Gubernatorial candidate, cigar aficionado, musician, commentator, activist, and writer Kinky Friedman pauses before kicking off his summer tour to share his views on segregation, veganism, Israel, sex, music, and the kids today. He is currently working on a book with Billy Bob Thornton, and manages to simultaneously maintain friendships with Bill Clinton and George W. while captivating the likes of Nelson Mandela with his mystery novels. This interview by Drew Denny.

Kinky Friedman: Where are you, Drew? Are you in L.A.?
I’m in Los Angeles. But I’m from Austin. I went to Austin High School, actually.
Kinky Friedman: Oh, you’re a fellow Maroon, huh?
Well, I didn’t graduate from there. What was it like when you were there?
Kinky Friedman: I don’t remember. It’s been a long time. Oh, I don’t know—it was good. Some great teachers. A simpler world. In many ways a better one. I had a band in high school called The Three Rejects. My first. Politics was later. I was not a hall monitor or a student council member like they all are today. At UT I dabbled a little in politics. My friend Ken Jacobs, I ran his cheerleading campaign. He was not a cheerleader, but he ran a campaign as a joke. With his slogan ‘I can jump high.’ He did very well. He did not win, but he came close.
I’ve read about you being very active in college—picketing and integrating that restaurant Plantation.
Kinky Friedman: Well, a lot of places, but that place Plantation was everybody’s favorite and my favorite place to hang out. The black kids couldn’t get in so they picketed outside, and the white kids that could get in … they only let in the ones that were friends of the place, like we were. So we slipped in and just ordered coffee and took up the tables for hours and days and weeks, drinking nothing but coffee. Not ordering. And that worked. The place caved within a few weeks. Today the street running by the restaurant—19th Street—is now Martin Luther King Blvd., and the Plantation is gone. There was the drug store there on campus that wouldn’t serve black kids—Rexall Drugs—that’s no longer there. … And then there was the whole Greek system, which was segregated. We tried to integrate that one but that was a tough one—we almost got there but not quite.
I heard Westlake formed as a school and a neighborhood just to avoid integration. Was that true?
Kinky Friedman: Very likely. Texas was devoted to avoiding integrating in the ’50s. The whole political process was against it. It was a vile time in Texas politics and there were people like Henry B. Gonzalez who had been through it before the blacks got there. As a Hispanic, he went through everything the blacks went through before the blacks got there—without Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe he was the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of Texas.
And during all this is when you first met the Texas Jewboys?
Kinky Friedman: I knew some of them already. Some of them I met when I was a little kid—here at summer camp. Some were from Nashville, and a few of them were not Jewish but Jewish by inspiration. And the Jewish thing I liked about them was not religious but that we were on the outside looking in. That’s the way I wrote—that I still write. I don’t write songs anymore, but being on the outside looking in was kind of the theme. It was a band with a social conscience. They were country songs—like ‘Sold American’ is a perfect example, or ‘Ride ’Em Jewboy.’ Two of Nelson Mandela’s favorites when he was on the island in prison for seventeen years—I didn’t know that until I went to South Africa.
Did you speak with him?
Kinky Friedman: I never met Mandela. But I met several of his aides who were also on Robben Island, and one of them was his right-hand man Tokyo Sexwale. He turned out to be a minister, a government minister, and he won a political license which is a pretty big thing. They all tried to get tape cassettes into prison, and they couldn’t get them. But he said, ‘Mandela listened to your tape a lot.’ I believe he got it from Helen Suzman, who was a Jewish woman who I later met in San Antonio. She visited Mandela in prison. She was the only pro-Mandela person in the entire South African government. I believe she gave it to him. He said he heard Mandela playing ‘Ride ’Em Jewboy’ and ‘Sold American’ repeatedly.
Contraband smuggled into prison—that’s incredible.
Kinky Friedman: When he was let out of Robben Island, everyone Mandela knew was dead. His heroes and mentors and gurus were dead, and his life was crazy. … Yet the guards all cheered Mandela when he won the election. The guards were brutal Nazis, and he won them—he won them over.
Are a few of the Texas Jewboys on tour with you this summer?
Kinky Friedman: Two of them. Washington Ratso. I met Ratso in the gangplanks of Noah’s Ark. He’s Lebanese—what I refer to as the ‘Little Lebanese Boy’ in the band. I consider ourselves the last true hope for peace in the Middle East. And I have Little Jewford. He’s a Jew and he drives a Ford.
Did you name everybody?
Kinky Friedman: I named those two. There were lots of others that I did not name. In some appearances, like in L.A., I think we’ll have Billy Bob Thornton and Van Dyke Parks and Danny Hutton off of Three Dog Night and Mojo Nixon and a whole bunch of other people.
Why did you stay away from the West Coast for so long?
Kinky Friedman: I don’t know. I don’t really have an answer. I always liked it. I guess, like Willy Nelson said, if you fail at something long enough you become a legend. So we’ve been gone a long time and now when we go to one of those places I think we’re gonna draw very well. It’s also not entirely music. There will be readings from the new book Heroes of a Texas Childhood and some political stuff as well. But it’s mostly music.
Do you think you’ll ever write songs again?
Kinky Friedman: Not unless some music publisher or record company pays me, probably. A lot of these guys continue to write songs and that’s great that they do, but most of them are pretty derivative. You could argue that the most important thing about Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan is that at least they’re out there—they’re playing and they’re on the road. It’s not that they’ve written a lot of great material recently. But even if they had, I don’t think we’d recognize it. Something has changed—either us or them—and it’s important that they stay on the road.
You’ve toured with both of them?
Kinky Friedman: Yes. Very different. With Bob it’s like touring with Howard Hughes. He doesn’t speak to the band much. Because I’m not working for Bob, I feel closer to him because I don’t see him much. He’s very nice. He’s a big reader—he reads my books. We’re old friends. I think Ken Kesey’s the one that said, ‘When you’re successful it distances you from your art.’ I think it would be very hard for Bob or Willie or Kristofferson, for instance, to write at the level that they once did. I’ve had a very limited success, but I’m doing very well and I’m very happy and money’s coming in and I’m getting these big crowds—and it’s harder to write. You have to be miserable to write something really good. Comedians know that. To be really funny you have to be unhappy. To paraphrase the great L.A. denizen Raymond Chandler, ‘Art is anything that burns with its own heat.’ When I get up there and play ‘Wild Man From Borneo’ or ‘Ride ’Em Jewboy,’ that really connects with an audience that may or may not have heard it before. That shows that it works—that’s not a record company humping it or some PR flack.
I’m glad you brought up Raymond Chandler because your books remind me of his—what got you to start writing detective novels?
Kinky Friedman: Maybe something Chandler said. He says, ‘Scarcely anything in literature is worth a damn, except what is written between the lines,’ and I think that’s very true of music too. Like a simple thing like ‘On the Road Again’ or Roger Miller’s song ‘King of the Road’—it’s not like they’re written today. Today it’s like a brothel or something. They have a whorehouse in Nashville where they have three people sitting there—they start at 8:15 and they work for four hours writing this song.
That’s so bizarre.
Kinky Friedman: Yeah—they’re writing something that will be a hit. It has to be two minutes and 43 seconds long. You don’t get anything great that way. Great country music requires self-pity and divorce and tragedy and alcohol and drugs and guns. You ask yourself—why could someone like Kris write the songs that he has that are classics? Could he sit down and write one today? The answer is … probably not. He would have to recreate that era for himself. You could try. I’ve always wondered if it would work. You could do some kind of experiment.
That would be a good art project.
Kinky Friedman: The great ones intermingle their lives and their art. They’re not like Alice Cooper, who I like. Alice Cooper would play golf with the music executives and at night he would dress up weird and act all weird on stage. Tom Waits and I—when we were in Hollywood—we would wear our sunglasses and we were in character 24 hours a day, whether we were headed for Duke’s Coffee Shop or the Tropicana Hotel or on stage.
Are you in character right now?
Kinky Friedman: Yeah. But on the other hand I’m not a performer primarily. I don’t know what I am. I’m a dreamer that never sleeps. Writing books is a different kind of a thing. What is it—29 books or 30 books that I’ve churned out? You know—carefully crafted. Let me tell you something, Drew—when you’ve written 29 or 30 books, that’s an index of an empty life. But on the other hand, a lot of people comment favorably that they don’t know how I’m able to keep up an animal sanctuary and write books and do music and politics. That’s a lot of stuff.
I have a few friends who worked for your campaign, and everybody I know was very excited back in 2006. I think my favorite slogan was, ‘Why the hell not?’
Kinky Friedman: I guess the mainstream media thought it was a joke, but every day I run into kids who say, ‘Kinky, I can’t wait until I’m old enough to vote for you. You’re the first person I’ve trusted in politics.’
Do you think your sense of humor worked against you?
Kinky Friedman: I think they used it against us, sure. Somebody coming from outside of politics—especially someone who’s funny part of the time—of course they overlooked the fact that both Ann Richards and Winston Churchill were funny. Molly Ivins was funny. You know my definition of politics, though. ‘Poly’ means more than one, and ‘ticks’ are blood-sucking parasites. That’s my definition of politics. And now that I’m getting older—I’m 65, although I read at the 67-year-old level—I’ve got my last will and testament worked out. When I die I’m to be cremated, and the ashes are to be thrown in Rick Perry’s hair.
Rick Perry’s a real scumbag, huh?
Kinky Friedman: He is, and so is anyone who’s been in office that long. There’s just something wrong with it. We’ve got to get rid of these incumbents—these people who’ve been around forever. Like I say: if Nancy Pelosi gets one more facelift she’ll be wearing a beard. We’ve got to get rid of them and get someone new in there. Anyone who runs as an independent, God bless them. One thing I have to say, it’s a giant step down from a musician to a politician. Musicians are decent people. If musicians ran the state, it’d be a better place. We wouldn’t get a hell of a lot done in the mornings, but we’d work late and we’d be more honest. We’d also be more creative than most politicians because that’s what governing is about—finding creative solutions to problems. I can’t think of any politician right now that I admire. I don’t admire Obama, not one little bit. He’s not getting through to me. … I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker that said, ‘I think Obama has the chance to disillusion an entire new generation of voters.’ I’m one of those. I voted for the guy and I’m very sorry I did. It has nothing to do with his policies. It’s that he runs foreign policy by ego, not to mention that he’s doing his best to destroy Israel. That’s somebody I would never vote for again. He’s one of them. That’s the worst thing I can say about a politician. He’s a hall monitor. This isn’t a political thing so much, but just based on Europe, the music is really clicking, and it’s fine. I remember the advice that Willie Nelson gave me back when I was running for governor: ‘If you wanna have sex with an animal, make sure you make it a horse. That way if things don’t work out at least you know you have a ride home.’
Which brings us right to your animal rescue project.
Kinky Friedman: I didn’t even have to switch gears for that. Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. That’s utopiarescue.com. It’s really worked well. We’ve adopted thousands and thousands of animals now over the past twelve years. If you’re ever back in Texas, come visit us. I’ve always loved animals. I never thought they got a fair shake in life, you know? And I think that when you see a stray animal cross your path, it’s a magical moment. It’s like meeting Jesus Christ, and what are you going to do about it? I think what you choose to do is really a measure of your humanity.
And what do you think of all the vegans and all the radical animals rights activists? We have a lot of that out here.
Kinky Friedman: I’m for anybody that’s for animals. I guess I’m a radical in my own way. I don’t know how effective PETA is, or maybe they don’t care—maybe they want to just put themselves out there so people know, and that’s good too. And people that want to be vegans, that’s good too. Dwight [Yoakam], he’s close to a vegan. He does it for health reasons, which I don’t approve of. That’s okay, but that doesn’t impress me. I guess I admire that he can keep up the discipline, but I wish he would do it for the right reasons, which is not to eat little baby piggies and other things like that.
Everybody wants to know about the cigars, so I have to ask you—when did you start making cigars? How’s that going?
Kinky Friedman: A couple years ago. They’re made in Honduras, and they’re some of the best names for cigars. Kinky Friedman Cigars are KFC. But Kinkycristo might be the best name ever. That one and the Governor and the Texas Jewboy are all excellent. Then there’s one named for Willie, and then there’s the Utopian that benefits the Utopian Rescue Ranch—all the benefits go toward the rescue. But it’s going really well, and all the new smoking regulations are just a sign of how fucked-up our priorities are in America. That’s one thing we’ve got complete control of—we’ve taught the whole world so stupidly, that now you see pubs dying all over England. The patrons can’t smoke in there—they’ve got to go outside on the street and block traffic until 4 in the morning because they can’t smoke, and it’s a problem they hadn’t forseen happening. There are six countries out there—Spain, Portugal, Israel, Japan, Greece and Italy, and I think France too, and they all have a much higher smoking per capita than America. All of those countries have a much higher life expectancy than America as well. What I’ve concluded from that is that speaking English is killing us.
And working too much.
Kinky Friedman: Yes. And also being the most hung-up society on Earth. We’re hung-up sexually and politically and religiously—in every way you can think.
You keep bringing me to my next question. A friend asked me if you were seeing anybody, and I noticed you had never been married. What do you think about monogamy.?
Kinky Friedman: Well, I thought that this last race that I just lost—I thought I was running for fag commissioner, that I was exploring my sexuality.
That’s exciting.
Kinky Friedman: What was the question?
What do you think about monogamy?
Kinky Friedman: Not too much. I try not to. But then again I’m not married and never have been. But that is personal. I’ve had a few tragedies in my life and lost a few people that I probably would have married, or should have married. … I’ve been in love a lot. And currently.
That’s exciting.
Kinky Friedman: Yeah, but it’s just not with one person exclusively. But you know, I’m older now. Who the hell knows. But I don’t feel that way.
You don’t sound that way.
Kinky Friedman: How old are you, Drew?
I’m 26. I just had a birthday on Wednesday.
Kinky Friedman: You had a breakdown on Wednesday?
No, no—a birthday!
Kinky Friedman: That’s the good thing about being deaf, other than requiring a medieval earhorn, you can imagine things. A breakdown would have been much more interesting than a birthday.
No, it’s just a birthday. It was fun though.
You’re getting a little old for the Kinkster. There’s still hope, though.
That’s good.
Kinky Friedman: I have no respect for young people, and I don’t like them, and I think they respect me for that. I don’t pander to them and I don’t try to do what they do and I think they know that.
Young people like it when you’re mean to them and then they crave your approval.
Kinky Friedman: I like to surround myself with people who are older than me, that’s why Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan and Don Imus and Billy Joe Shaver and people like that are my friends. I like to have somebody to look up to for wisdom and advice.
What about your buddies Bill Clinton and George W.—how do you maintain those friendships?
Kinky Friedman: I haven’t talked to George in years. I like him. I think he kind of went off the tracks there, unfortunately—if he had listened to Kinky and Laura and Colin Powell and his dad I think he would have been a lot better off than if he had listened to Karl Rove and that other guy. What’s that idiot’s name? Cheney. If you had Dick Cheney and Karl Rove whispering into your ear every morning and you listened to them, you’d likely be a tragedy too. But Bill, I think, is a wonderful guy. He really is what Obama campaigned to be, with the image Obama had in the campaign … We’re seeing now who he really is—it really is disillusioning. Inspiring people is what it’s all about. That’s why I joined the Peace Corps—because of JFK. Even though he died two years after, that’s something I wanted to do. Not just for me but for him, and the country. That was Thomas Paine’s idea on the deathbed. When clergymen were harassing him to tell them what his religion was and what his nationality was, he said, ‘The world is my country—to do good is my religion.’ That’s a good religion to have. I think it’s the best.

KINKY FRIEDMAN’S BOOKS HEROES OF A TEXAS CHILDHOOD AND WHAT WOULD KINKY DO? ARE AVAILABLE NOW ON KISMET AND ST. MARTINS. KINKYCIGARS.COM.