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Kinky Friedman: Put musicians in charge, put pols behind bars

- - Thursday, May 12, 2011

To speak with Richard "Kinky" Friedman — the singer-songwriter, pulp author, self-styled "Jewish cowboy" who once aspired to be governor of Texas — is to sustain a barrage of one-liners like mortar fire.

Aimed mostly at career politicians of both parties, with the occasional swipe at malefactors of great wealth from New York to Nashville, Tenn., they are no less biting for being canned.

On whether he responded to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent official plea that Texans pray for rain: "I believe I invoked the Native American Thanksgiving prayer — which is, 'Thanks for nothin'. "

On the killing of Osama bin Laden: "It's certainly a feather in Obama's cap — and it's arguably the only one to date. I think he's gonna be hanging onto this one like Dumbo the Flying Elephant."

His definition of "politics": " 'Poly' means more than one, and 'ticks' are blood-sucking parasites."

A proposal for limiting elected officials to a maximum of two terms: "One in office and one in prison."

Since running and losing as an independent candidate for Texas governor in 2006, when he garnered a respectable 550,000 votes, and stumbling again in 2010 for the Democratic nomination for Texas Agriculture Commissioner, just how low has Mr. Friedman's opinion of major party politicians sunk? This low: "They are the Crips and the Bloods." "They're the bullies of the playground." "They used to be hall monitors when they were kids." "They're insiders all the way." "They're basically bad people." He's even forced to pause in deliberation when asked if they're worse than pedophiles.

Through all this seeming cynicism, though, Kinky Friedman, who is appearing at the Birchmere Music Hall on Friday, is invincibly, even impossibly, idealistic.

For him, it's all about the taint of compromise: If he detects it, you're toast.

His 2009 book, the memoirish essay collection "Heroes of a Texas Childhood," is notable for whom it includes — and whom it does not. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a champion of the working class and minorities whose domestic legislative achievements have perhaps been blemished by the Vietnam War, is not included. But Lady Bird Johnson — the proto-environmentalist — is.

So who else passes Mr. Friedman's smell test? However jarringly, Mr. Friedman cites both the aristocratic British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the left-populist Louisiana Gov. Huey Long as model statesmen. Their commonality? Both men, he says, truly had the people's interest at heart.

And he says there are just three honest men left in Washington, each of whom, in his different way, meets Mr. Friedman's transpartisan standard of uncompromising idealism: Reps. Ron Paul and Dennis J. Kucinich, and Sen. Bernard Sanders.

Is it any wonder Mr. Friedman, 66, is quitting the politics game? What's worse, he has found Music Row every bit as rank as Washington and Austin, Texas. "In Nashville," he says, "they have these brothels, these publishing whorehouses, where they assign you, me, and one other guy to a songwriting appointment from 4:45 to 6:15. And we write some kind of derivative trash."

Having made a splash in the mid-1970s with satirical outlaw-country numbers like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed," Mr. Friedman, in the 1980s, tried his hand at detective fiction — "churning out, I mean, carefully crafting" 31 books.

He personally avoids digital technology, but Mr. Friedman says the Internet era has opened new avenues for his off-kilter sensibility — an oasis in the desert of dreary corporate sameness where both pop stars and pols reside.

His literary material is distributed online in a variety of formats — and, best of all, free from the "big publishing houses and chain bookstores." His live performances are a freewheeling mix of music, comedy and book readings — lonely artistic islands that have been spared from the "tsunami of political correctness" and cookie-cutter thinking that Mr. Friedman says has swamped American culture.

The musicianly lifestyle and the small but securely taboo-free social space Mr. Friedman has found on the road lately have him feeling like someone who has recovered from a nasty virus.

"Basically, it's a giant step down from a musician to a politician," he says. "Being on the road as a musician is a higher calling than being a politician." Conceivably, one career might have translated into the other: "It's quite clear to me, having been both, that musicians could better run the country than politicians. We won't get a helluva lot done in the morning, but we'll work late, and we'll be honest."

For Kinky Friedman, at least, elected office just isn't meant to be. He's OK with that. "I think the Lord has bigger things for the Kinkster," he predicts.

And when the Lord finally decides to call Kinky home, he'd like to be cremated — and his ashes "thrown in Rick Perry's hair."