The kosher cow­boy

KinkyFried­man is a singing, writ­ing, cigarsmok­ingTexan.Which doesn’t make him any less Jewish, he tells PaulLester

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books -

RICHARD S “KINKY” Fried­man has done it all. He toured Amer­ica in the ’70s as part of Bob Dylan’s leg­endary Rolling Thun­der Re­vue with his coun­try band Kinky Fried­man & The Texas Jew­boys; he has writ­ten 28 de­tec­tive nov­els; for most of this decade he has penned a col­umn for the mag­a­zine Texas Monthly; he runs an an­i­mal-res­cue ranch, and he was one of two in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates in the 2006 elec­tion for the of­fice of Gov­er­nor of Texas. Satirist, nov­el­ist, an­i­mal-lover — what­ever you call him, just do not call him a politi­cian.

“I’m anti-politi­cian,” he says, get­ting ready for a flight to Manch­ester where he is about to give a lec­ture on the mean­ing of life to fans of his witty apho­risms and ab­sur­dist world­view. “You want to know my def­i­ni­tion of pol­i­tics? ‘Poly’ means more than one, and ‘tics’ are blood-suck­ing par­a­sites.”

Fried­man is a strange one. He was born in 1944 in Chicago to Jewish par­ents, but to talk to him you would think he was a Texan red­neck. He does ac­tu­ally have cow­boy cre­den­tials — in the ’50s, his fam­ily moved to Ker­rville in cen­tral Texas, where he still lives, on Echo Hill Ranch where his cousin helps run the Utopia An­i­mal Res­cue ser­vice and his brother or­gan­ises an an­nual sum­mer camp for chil­dren.

So is he for real or just play-act­ing? Fried­man does not an­swer di­rectly, but he does say: “I hope I’m be­ing mis­un­der­stood. Most of the peo­ple I ad­mire were mis­un­der­stood.” Who, for ex­am­ple? “I’d start with Moses and Je­sus,” he replies. “They were two good Jewish boys who got into a lit­tle trou­ble with the gov­ern­ment. Os­car Wilde and Lenny Bruce were also pretty mis­un­der­stood.”

Among the no­to­ri­ous tunes he penned in his coun­try-rock hey­day was a lit­tle ditty called Ride ’Em Jew­boy, an ex­tended trib­ute to the vic­tims of the Holo­caust. “The pub­lic don’t un­der­stand the con­cept of satire very well,” he says in hind­sight. “The Texas Jew­boys were a coun­try band with a so­cial con­science. The in­tel­lec­tu­als un­der­stood the lyrics and the coun­try folk un­der­stood the mu­sic, but no­body quite got the whole pack­age.”

He is very pro- free­dom of ex­pres­sion, which he be­lieves is be­ing “stran­gled” and con­sid­ers “Amer­ica’s great­est gift to the world”. But then, as he adds: “Amer­i­cans them­selves are not what they used to be. They’re be­com­ing ‘wus­si­fied’. They’ve got a weak­ness of fi­bre — spir­i­tual, phys­i­cal and moral. I can’t be­lieve we live such a ho­mogenised, sani­tised ex­is­tence. Look at the smok­ing reg­u­la­tions: a guy can’t put a sign up say­ing ‘Smok­ing Al­lowed’.”

That is an­other en­try on his al­ready full CV: ci­gar man­u­fac­turer. Fried­man runs a com­pany called KFC, which stands for Kinky Fried­man Cigars. “I be­lieve ci­gar smok­ers out­live non-smok­ers,” he con­tends. “They’re good for stress.”

Fried­man left Austin High School in 1962 and grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Texas with a lib­eral-arts de­gree. Af­ter col­lege he served two years with the Peace Corps in Bor­neo, work­ing for “11 cents an hour in the jun­gle with na­tive tribes — it was prob­a­bly the best work I’ve ever done”. Did he wit­ness un­told hor­rors? “No,” he says, sud­denly se­ri­ous. “I saw things with un­fur­nished eyes, as [US poet] Emily Dick­in­son said. We’re too cul­ture-bound; we all need to be in the Peace Corps for a cou­ple of years.”

Of all the things he has done, where does his heart truly lie? He re­sponds with­out hes­i­ta­tion: “An­i­mal res­cue. I want to make Texas a no-kill state — no killing of dogs or cats or horses… or peo­ple.”

One of his key propo­si­tions dur­ing the gu­ber­nato- rial elec­tion, apart from his pro-gay-mar­riage stance (“Why shouldn’t ho­mo­sex­u­als be as mis­er­able as ev­ery­body else?” he asks), and de­ter­mi­na­tion to im­prove the stand­ing of teach­ers (“Teach­ing might not be the old­est pro­fes­sion,” he says, “but it’s the no­blest”), was the abo­li­tion of the death penalty. He is dis­turbed by the num­ber of ex­e­cu­tions in Texas. “What part of ‘Thou shall not kill’ don’t you un­der­stand? There’s more to Chris­tian­ity than hold­ing hands on a Sun­day and singing prayers,” he says.

How about Ju­daism — is Fried­man prac­tis­ing? He has got a stock re­ply for that one: “If I’m a prac­tis­ing Jew, I need to prac­tise a lit­tle more.” Nev­er­the­less, he is “a very strong backer of Is­rael”. Is­raelis, he de­cides, are “very much like Tex­ans: they both like to wear their hats in­doors”. Boom-boom! But he has a se­ri­ous point. “They’re also both gyp­sies, wan­der­ing in the raw po­etry of time. And they’re both dis­ap­pear­ing, whether they know it or not.” He com­pares and con­trasts Is­raeli Jews with the Amer­i­can variety. “The Amer­i­can Jew is a very un­com­fort­able crea­ture. So is the Bri­tish Jew. They’re wimps.”

The prob­lem, as Fried­man sees it, is that peo­ple, not just Jews, have be­come soft­ened up by our con­sumer so­ci­ety and its in­fat­u­a­tion with celebrity. “Money is a waste of time,” he as­serts. “And fame, as Ernest Hem­ing­way said, is death’s lit­tle sis­ter. I fight hap­pi­ness and fame at ev­ery turn. You don’t want to be happy — it’s the kiss of death for im­mor­tal­ity, es­pe­cially for an artist. There were a lot of peo­ple in Van Gogh’s day who were hugely com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful and we don’t even know their names! Hav­ing a pau­per’s grave is a very good idea if you want to be im­mor­tal. It worked for Van Gogh, Anne Frank, Mozart, Je­sus… You don’t want to be too suc­cess­ful in your life­time.”

To Fried­man, suc­cess is the en­emy of art. “I’m in dan­ger of be­com­ing too suc­cess­ful. When peo­ple come up to me say­ing how I’m their hero and they love my latest book, that’s not be­ing a writer. As Mark Twain said, the source of hu­mour isn’t joy; it’s sor­row.” Does Fried­man ex­pe­ri­ence sor­row? “Very lit­tle, but I’m aware of it. I’m also aware that just about ev­ery­body I love is dead and that I have no liv­ing he­roes; cer­tainly no po­lit­i­cal he­roes.” He does have mu­si­cal ones: coun­try leg­end Wil­lie Nelson, whom he calls “the hill­billy Dalai Lama”, and his friend Bob Dylan.

He and Dylan of­ten dis­cuss Amer­ica’s im­mi­gra­tion prob­lem. Their so­lu­tion is sim­ple: it is called “The Five Mex­i­can Plan” and in­volves putting Mex­i­can gen­er­als at five points on the border with a mil­lion dol­lars each and charg­ing them $5,000 for ev­ery il­le­gal im­mi­grant who slips through. “Our borders are not re­motely se­cure,” he says. “I heard Mex­ico dropped out of the Olympics be­cause ev­ery­body who can run, jump or swim has al­ready left the coun­try.”

What if there had been a sim­i­lar pol­icy re­gard­ing Jews the ’20s and ’30s? “Many Jews weren’t al­lowed in [to the US], in­clud­ing the ones on the ship St Louis that they sent back to the con­cen­tra­tion camps,” he replies, get­ting a bit heated. “But the ones who did come in came in legally — th­ese peo­ple are not com­ing in legally, that’s the dif­fer­ence!

“In my life, I’ve shared ash­trays with two pres­i­dents,” he says of his pass­ing friend­ships with Bill Clin­ton and Ge­orge W Bush. “But be­ing a Jew means re­main­ing on the out­side look­ing in, not just as a writer but as a hu­man be­ing.” For Fried­man, that means liv­ing life to the full and try­ing to en­joy it while you can. “Find what you like and let it kill you” — that is his ad­vice. “I like tour­ing, I like smok­ing cigars, I have four dogs, four women and four edi­tors.” Hold on... four women? How does he get away with that? “In a sense, I haven’t,” he says, cryp­ti­cally. “But in an­other sense I have. I’m just play­ing it as it lays. I’m not mar­ried — I’m mar­ried to Texas, to the wind.” Kinky Fried­man is cur­rently tour­ing the UK. For de­tails of per­for­mances, visit www.kinkyfried­man.com

PHOTO: AP

Kinky Fried­man at home in Texas. Tex­ans and Is­raelis are sim­i­lar, he says. “They’re both dis­ap­pear­ing, whether they know it or not”

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