Ruminator magazine, April/May 2005
Kinky Friedman interview (2005), magazine layout, p. 1
Kinky Friedman interview (2005), magazine layout, pg. 2
Kinky Friedman interview (2005), magazine layout, pg. 3
Kinky Friedman interview (2005), magazine layout, pg. 4
"KINKY FRIEDMAN: Author, Cowboy, SingerÖGovernor?"
Interview by Susannah McNeely (Schouweiler)
Richard Friedman was born near Palestine, Texas to an educated middle-class Jewish family. Heíll tell you thatís why he never made it as a country singeróhe just didnít have the same ďopportunitiesĒ for a fruitful career in country music afforded to those with troubled, impoverished childhoods. In college a roommate dubbed him ďKinkyĒ for his mess of curly hair and the moniker stuck. Inspired by Kennedy, Kinky Friedman joined the Peace Corps in the late-í60s and served in Borneo, where heís claimed his primary accomplishment was to introduce the Frisbee to the natives, which they used to make their lips big.
When he returned to the States, he had a brief but celebrated career writing and performing irreverent country songs with his band (Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys) like ďThey Ainít Making Jews like Jesus AnymoreĒ and ďThe Ballad of Charles
Whitman,Ē eventually even touring with Bob Dylan. Though the band developed a cult following, The Texas Jewboysí star faded by the late-í70s, and in the mid-í80s Kinky began a successful second career as a mystery novelist; his well-loved, hilarious mysteries feature a band of misfits called the Village Irregulars led by a hardboiled, politically incorrect detective (with whom Kinky shares his name and quick tongue) who solves murders and tosses off one-liners with equal ease. Heís one of the few authors who can count both President Bush and President Clinton among his fans. His newest, and final, installment in the series, Ten Little New Yorkers, has just been released. Heís an enterprising philanthropist. Taking cues from Paul Newman, heís tried his hand at life as a food impresarioóoffering proceeds from sales of Kinky Friedman Private
Stock salsa to the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch situated on his property and partnering with Farouk Shami to sell Holy Land olive oil, with all the profits going to fund summer camps for Palestinian and Israeli children to get together. At 60 years old, Friedman has stopped writing novels, and in early February he announced that he was making a bid for the office of Governor of Texas. His politics have grown more complicatedóheís not easily pinned to the Left or the Right, no longer the child who cried over Adlai Stevensonís loss. Ruminator spent some time recently talking with Friedman about his run for governor, the role of outsider candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, and about restoring the cowboy to a place of honor in Texas.
Susannah McNeely: I seem to remember a year or so ago in a television interview, you said that at 60 you wanted nothing more or less than to be the Salsa King of Texas. And after your bid for Justice of the Peace in í86, you said you were leaving ďthat worthless tar baby that is politicsĒ to the young people. What happened that changed your mind and prompted you to run for governor of Texas?
Kinky Friedman: Nothing changed my mind, thatís still correct. This is not a political campaign. Itís a spiritual oneóa spiritual calling.
SM: What do you want to do?
KF: I want to change the face of politics here in Texas, and I donít want to do it politically. Just like Arnold, I want to get rid of the career politicians. And once we do that, Iím going to get the Californians out of Texas.
SM: So youíve got a big problem with Californians in Texas these days?
KF: Itís part of my ďanti-wussificationĒ campaign.
SM: What is it that you think has become wussy about Texas?
KF: I think all of America has become wussified, and Texas is the last stand against wussification.
SM: How so?
KF: Well, youíve got people falling all over themselves to apologize for saying ďMerry ChristmasĒ for instance. Thatís a good example. Itís political correctness gone awry. Smoking regulations are strangling the live music scene in Austin, the live music capital of the world. Another example is prayer in schools: people are afraid of even nondenominational prayer in schools, and I say, whatís wrong with a kid believing in something? And now itís the cowboy, the wordís being used derogatorily; and I think thatís wrong.
SM: How do you think ďcowboyĒ has been used pejoratively?
KF: By Europeans, by some Americans . . . maybe itís because of George W., maybe not. Itís been used that way to mean a loose cannon or a bully. But a cowboy has never been that. A cowboy has always stood up for the little people. Heís always been a knight out of time, beloved by all the children of the world. I want to preserve the cowboy as he really is. I want to take us back to a time when the cowboys all sang and the horses were smart. Iím gonna beat this wussification, if Iíve got to do it one wuss at a time.
SM: As a spiritual leader of Texas, restoring the faith in the way things ought to be?
KF: Thatís right, Iím looking to do spiritual lifting instead of heavy lifting. Thatís what Iíd do as governor.
SM: So does this idea of the honorable cowboy have anything to do with why you threw your support behind President Bush in this last election? You did, didnít you?
KF: Yes. I did in this last election, but I didnít vote for him the first time.
SM: Who did you vote for in 2000?
KF: I voted for Gore then. I was conflicted. . .but I was not for Bush that time. Since then, though, weíve become friends. And thatís whatís changed things.
SM:] So itís your friendship with him thatís changed your mind about having him as president more than his specific political positions?
KF: Well, actually, I agree with most of his political positions overseas, his foreign policy. On domestic issues, Iím more in line with the Democrats. I basically think he played a poor hand well after September 11. What heís been doing in the Near East and in the Middle East, heís handling that well, I think.
SM: As an independent candidate running for office, if you get elected how will you get things done? Jesse Ventura won the bid for governor here in Minnesota, but once in office, he had a hell of a time getting much through the legislature. Part of that may have been related to his own confrontational way of dealing with people, but part had to do with a lack of political capital and allies in the legislature. How are you going to overcome those sorts of difficulties to get things done?
KF: Well, you canít get stuff done by going through the Texas legislature, anyway. Weíre only safe when theyíre out of session. Iíve said before, about Jesse, that heís really inspiring because he believed that the guy with the most money shouldnít always winóthat elected office shouldnít just go to the highest bidder. What Jesse didnít realize is that wrestling is for real, and itís politics that are fixed. And if itís fixed, I want nothing to do with it. Imagine a governor with no strings attached, nobody owns him, totally untainted by politics. Imagine a state where musicians run the government instead of politicians, with a lot of young people involved. That might really work. Arnoldís beginning to do the same thing in California. The real issue is whether we can knock down this windmill of politics as usual. If we can, weíll make the lone star shine again in Texas.
SM: But the comparison with Arnold doesnít really hold up. Heís embraced within the Republican fold, even if he started as an upstart candidate. Heís got plenty of allies in the party he can rely on for help in getting his ideas implemented as policy. You donít have that party support.
KF: Well, yeah, Arnoldís a Republican. But the thing thatís similar is that Arnold won when Californians decided to vote for an outsider, unencumbered by politics, rather than politics as usual. Thatís the real issue. He didnít take a stand on hardly any issues.
SM: Well, I suppose thatís true.
KF: But thatís fine, because the paramount issue is an idea whose time has come, thatís strong enough to defeat any army on earth. People were damned tired of Gray Davis and what he represented. Our governor is a lot like Gray Davis, but without the personality. Heís more interested in ironing his shirt than he is in ironing out the problems of Texas: his big issue is should he or should he not wear French cuffs.
SM: These general principles youíre offering may suffice for now, but youíve got two years of campaigning ahead of you before the election. At some point, people are going to want to know some of the substance behind what you plan to do if elected.
KF: They already know. Iíll answer anything about any issue you want to talk about, if I know something about it. If I donít, Iím not afraid to admit it and say, ďread my lips: I donít know.Ē
SM: Okay, then. Give me the most important elements of your platform.
KF: Letís start with education. I want to make sure no teacher is left behind. Iíll establish a Texas Peace Corps, bringing retired people back into service for their community, people that have a lot of love and a lot of skill. Iíd ask them to help out with art and music, the things that have been stripped out of public education. I donít want Texas to be 49th in funding public education.
SM: If you want ambitious education reform, thatís going to cost a lot of money. Iíve read that youíd want to legalize casino gambling in Texas, using the tax proceeds from that to cover the cost of funding education. Is that your plan?
KF: Yes, I would legalize casino gambling in Texas to help generate money that might pay for education. But I also wouldnít waste the money we already have. Even if there were billions of extra dollars, if you gave them to this current governor he wouldnít help education, really. Heíd put that money in all the wrong places: building stadiums, on computers, on more parking lots. When you think the problem with education is all about financial and technological shortfalls, youíre making a mistake, because the problem is human. The answer is to go out and find that great teacher, the one that changes lives; and when we find him or her, we place them in our under-resourced schools where theyíre most needed. And then we need to listen to that person when we make policy; learn from him or heróbring them to Austin or bring Austin to them. In other words, money may buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail.
SM: After youíve successfully recruited good teachers and allocated them around the state to underserved areas, you may still find that you need money to pay them and keep the schools running. Youíd have to work with the legislature, wouldnít you, to get that money flowing toward these educational programs? How would you convince the politicians to work with you?
KF: The way you do that is the same way that Arnoldís doing it: you inspire the people, make it the centerpiece of your table when you talk to them; you shine a light in the darkness and let everybody know about what you need to do. Right now, our governor is more worried about lagging behind Kansas in technology access for our schools than he is about the fact that weíre lagging far behind nearly everyone in terms of child poverty and funding for education. Thatís the much larger issue. Right now, the only states we beat on child poverty are Arkansas, New Mexico and West Virginiaóthese are some of the poorest states in the nation. I mean, Mississippi is ahead of us in all these areas. Itís ridiculous. If youíre lagging behind Mississippi, youíve got a problemóespecially a state like Texas. And I donít want Texas to rank first in executions. Two thousand years ago we executed an innocent man, Jesus Christómy question is, what have we learned in two thousand years? Actually, people may have learned quite a bit since then, but the government hasnít learned a thing. Texas, right now, is very close to executing an innocent man.
SM: Max Soffar? Youíve written about his case, I think.
KF: Thatís right. Iíll be speaking to Max tonight, and weíll find out soon if heís going to get a retrial. If he gets a new trial, youíre going to see that heís been railroaded. I believe Max to be innocent, and an increasing number of law enforcement officials are coming to believe the same thing. Recently released notes from the first trial indicate that even the prosecutor has serious doubts about Maxís guilt, but if the system makes a mistake, it covers it up. Thatís the problem, the system covers its mistakes to avoid embarrassment. Texas doesnít even have the option of sentencing someone to life without parole: here itís only inject or eject.
SM: Given your qualms about how the death penalty is being used, are there any circumstances under which you would be comfortable with it? As the system is in Texas now?
KF: Yes. Iím not anti-death penalty, but Iím damn sure anti-the-wrong-guy-getting-executed. Itís not going to happen on my watch.
SM: Practically speaking, how would you change the system so that you could have both?
KF: The first thing Iíd do is establish a board of people who could knowledgeably oversee the way the death penalty is used. And Iíd want to see, the way theyíve done in Illinois, if we have people currently on death row that donít belong there.
SM: It still sounds like youíre trying to have it both ways. Would you impose a moratorium on the death penalty while you and your board figure out what reform is needed?
KF: I donít know. Iíll have to see what we find out about those people currently facing execution; but, yes, probably.
SM: There is a rich tradition of support for the death penalty in Texas. Do you think youíll have public support for this kind of measure?
KF: Yep, thatís trueóa lot of people in Texas are very much in favor of the death penalty. But there may not be as many pro-death penalty people as you might think. Things arenít always what they seem. In Texas, youíve got a lot of people who hunt and who love guns; but youíve got even more people that love animals. They just havenít spoken up or realized that they can vote in enough numbers to make things happen.
SM: How do you feel about gun control? You wrote a column a while back in Texas Monthly about why you donít hunt, didnítyou?
KF: Iím not anti-hunting, I just donít hunt. As far as gun control goes, in Texas the conceal-and-carry law is working really well; itís cut crime and I think George W. did good with that one. I donít think he did well with the death penaltyóIím not as confident as he is that innocent men havenít been killed.
SM: When you imagine the voter youíre most likely to resonate withówho do you have in mind? Whatís important to them?
KF: Well, I think one thingís really resonating with those votersótheyíre tired of the choice between plastic or paper in their elected officials. Theyíre really tired of politicians who donít really get anything done that doesnít serve their own interests. If the Democrats get a good idea, the Republicans shoot it down. If Republicans get a good idea, the Democrats kill it. All they care about are their parties. Me, I care about Texas.
SM: Are you in agreement with Ralph Nader then? Are you suggesting that there arenít really any differences between the parties?
KF: Well, thereís a lot of insider scheming that weíre all tired of. Nader, Ross Perot, Pat Buchananómaybe none of them should have been President, but certainly, their ideas should be heard. And the parties are doing everything in their power to keep independents from being heard right here in the Lone Star State; the established political parties in Texas are making it almost impossible for anyone to do what Nader,
Buchanan and Perot have done. We havenít had an independent candidate successfully run for governor since 1859. Itís a classic battle of money against ideas. The last time around, the winner in the Texas governorís race spent over $100 million. $100 million worth of negative attack ads and media coverage to get a job that pays only $100,000. Now since Iím thinking in terms of this being a ďspiritual campaign,Ē do you think Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King would do that? They all died broke, right? Would Jesus have paid $100 million to buy an election? I donít think they would. Those guys were independent.
SM: But youíre a guy that shrewdly uses PR, too. You may not have to spend $100 million to do it, but I canít help but notice that your announcement to run for governor just happens to coincide nicely with the release of your new mystery novel.
KF: Well, thatís pretty accidental. And besides, this is going to be my last novel for reasons that will be become apparent to anyone who reads it. I figure literatureís loss is politicsí gain. Iím glad to be done with the series, really.
SM: Youíve been doing this series nearly 20 years. I suppose thatís a long time to spend developing just one character with a pretty limited formula?
KF: Seventeen books total. Itís incredible, really. Now, if I were John Grisham or Tom Clancy, maybe Iíd keep them going; it might be worth it. But Iím not in that mainstream category, and you know, I donít have a lot of respect for the mainstream anyway. I think theyíre going to be pretty irrelevant in the future; more people are going to be reading me than will be reading Clancy or Grisham, in the same way that more people read Bukowski now than read Harold Robbins.
SM: I have a question for you about Ten Little New Yorkers. Iíve noticed in the last few books, especially in this one, that thereís a lot of melancholy and self doubt plaguing your namesake character. And youíve commented a couple of times recently that youíre ďa serious guy that nobody takes seriously.Ē Are you beginning to feel trapped in this larger-than-life, wisecracking cowboy persona?
KF: Well, the problem with the mystery field is itís as deep as it is narrow. There are parts of the formula you canít get away from, that keep it limited and trite: the bodies in the library, the usual suspects, that kind of thing. The interesting part of it isnít cheap, dog-eared death; the interesting part is life, and the detective wondering if thereís life before death. Maybe Iím going through some soul searching too. After all, Iím 60 years oldóbut I read at the 62-yearold level. I think about things a little differently now than I did before.
SM: Is this why you decided to run for governor now? Youíve joked about it in your Texas Monthly column for a couple of years, but itís quite another matter to commit to seriously running for office. Was there one specific thing that prompted you to do it?
KF: I think there was. . . I was stranded, clutching on the side of a cliff for almost 48 hours in Cabo San Lucas five or six years ago. I was on vacation, and I got hit by a freak wave as I was walking on the beach one night that threw me up against the cliff. I thought I was going to die. And I was stranded on this cliff and it was pitch black; I was dehydrated, and I thought no one would find me. This was a private beach, with really expensive luxury homesóSly Stallone lives there, people like thatóand no one would ever think something bad could happen there. That same night a 16-year-old boy was caught in a similar riptide, along the same stretch of beach, and died. I was eventually rescued. While I was on the cliffside, I kept thinking that thereís got to be more to life than being a Ronald Reagan pitchman, you know? And I thought, if I live through this, Iím going to do something that might have more meaning, that might help people achieve their own dreams, like Iíve been able to achieve mine.
SM: But why now? Did something in particular get under your skin, make you angry?
KF: You know, Iím not really even running against the
current governor. Iím running against the whole damn
systemóitís corrupt, itís inefficient and itís soulless.
Weíve let these people run the show for a long time
now, and the results have been dreadful. Now letís see
if somebody else can do it better. I mean, arguably, Texas should be the most influential state, a leader; New York, California and Texas. I think the cowboy is the greatest export the U.S. and
Texas have sent to other countries. I mean, if you go
overseas the cowboy is what everyone knows and
responds toólittle kids, old people. They love the
cowboy everywhere: in Iraq, Vietnam, South Africa.
And Texas is the place they want to visit when they
come to America; theyíre not looking to go to New
SM: What is it about the cowboy that you think resonates
so much? And what does the cowboy signify
KF: It means to be able to ride, to shoot straight and
to tell the truth. Itís the opposite of being politicalóitís
common sense. Itís about finding that beautiful place
above politics where things get done.
SM: Do you think that when people enter the voting
booth that a personís character is more important than his/her policy stance?
KF: I think both are important. Iíve already told you a lot more about my policy stance than either Arnold or Jesse ever came forth with. This is a chance to vote for somebody, not against anyone. Like Iíve said, Iím not running against the governor; Iím voting to change the whole system. Itís a spiritual campaign against the status quo. Itís going to be really difficult to win as an independent candidate, but I want to be every manís horse in this race and every womanís horse in this race. Iím not running to placeóIím running to win. It doesnít really mean anything if a Democrat or a Republican wins in Texas, but if an Independent winsóthatíll send a shiver up the spine of every career politician in the country. What a great thing to happen! Talk about sending a message. That would do it.
Itíll be up to the people of Texas. Theyíre the only ones Iím listening to anyway. My fellow Texans are my heart; theyíll hear the same things Iíve told you, and theyíll never have to wonder what Iím about. They know that they, Texans all over the world wherever they may be, are my only special interest group.
(Copyright Susannah Schouweiler. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced without written permission of the author.)
DIRTY WORDS: An Interview with Paul Provenza (Ruminator, October/November 2005)
Knight Arts blog: St. Paul writer
MinnPost: "Arts Arena" blog
City Pages: 2012 Artist of the Year (Brian Frink)
Kinky Friedman--Author, Cowboy, Singer...Governor? (Ruminator, April/May 2005)
My Father the Penguin (Ruminator magazine, January/February 2005)
Fran Lebowitz On... (Ruminator, Aug/Sept 2005)
JUST SAY YES: An Interview with Anti-Corporate Pranksters, The Yes Men (Ruminator, January 2005)
NOT JUST A GOOD OL' BOY: A Conversation with Roy Blount Jr. (Ruminator, June/July 2005)
City Pages: 2008 Artist of the Year (Shepard Fairey)
Various contributions to "Secrets of the City" ("The Rake")
Rain Taxi/mnartists.org present: A Pictorial History of Isa Newby Gagarin