Week 29: Kinky Friedman, The Smartass

Week 29: Kinky Friedman, The Smartass

When Da Ali G. Show featured Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, sidling up to the stage in a redneck bar in the Deep South and singing an infectious ditty with lyrics like “Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free / You must grab him by his horns, then we have a big party,” it struck me as the single most Jewish thing I’d ever seen.

We Jews have survived millennia of bigotry, genocide, and oppression, in no small part by finding the pitch-black comedy in anti-Semitism. We’ve disarmed many an anti-Semite by making a self-deprecating joke of our culture. It’s a form of cultural jujitsu: We transform the stereotypes, slurs, and ugliness of Jew-haters into weapons in our eternal battle with the people who would destroy us.

Few artists have taken this tendency further than Kinky Friedman. In calling his band The Texas Jewboys, Kinky drained that slur of its power. If a Lone Star beer-drinking redneck nerd in a bowling shirt were to call Kinky’s sidemen a bunch of Jewboys, he wouldn’t be hateful or anti-Semitic, merely accurate.

Rather than soft-pedal his Judaism, Friedman thrust it in everyone’s face. He never let anyone forget that he was a member of the tribe. “We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To You,” the first track on his first album, 1973’s Sold American, even contains excerpts from a Jewish prayer. The song succinctly captures Friedman’s cantankerous aesthetic. All the elements that would define his career are there from the beginning—in-your-face Judaism, smartass digs at rednecks and anti-Semites, witty wordplay, a fierce identification with outsiders, and social satire that moves slowly but steadily from micro to macro.

Friedman is a devilishly clever storyteller and wordsmith. In “We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To You,” the title phrase takes on a different permutation every time it’s delivered. The first time we hear it, it’s being hurled at Kinky himself, as a diner proprietor sneers, “Take your business to Walgreens / Have you tried the local zoooooooo? / You smell just like a Communist / You come through like a Jew.” The second time Friedman encounters the phrase, he’s being admonished to make like a tree and vacate a Jewish synagogue, where he’s mingling with decent people even though he doesn’t belong to the schul or have a ticket to services.

In a nifty bit of escalation, the phrase is next uttered by Friedman on behalf of his fellow creeps, speaking to a military intent on forcing them to fight an unwinnable war in a distant land. It’s David taking on Goliath, a smartass outsider standing up to a war machine with the one weapon at his disposal: the power of no. In the final verse, Friedman comes face-to-face with the ultimate power ,uttering the ultimate no: Upon shedding his mortal coil, Kinky discovers that God is a “some crazy tall Norwegian bore” who utters the title phrase on account of Heaven already reaching its quota for “singing Texas Jews.” 

The album’s second song, “Highway Café,” could almost pass for a traditional tear-in-your-beer ballad about a truck-stop waitress who pines for the return of her true love, a strapping trucker, were it not for the unseemly delight Friedman takes in the trucker’s horrific death and a pair of highway patrolmen snarkily postulating that the dead trucker probably had a truck-stop waitress squirreled away in each of God’s 50 United States. Friedman’s songs have a way of shifting from the tried-and-true tropes of Nashville to the randy humor of the Borscht Belt.

Speaking of unseemly delight in the misfortune of others, Friedman transforms one of the most notorious mass slaughters in American history into a high-kicking bluegrass hoedown on “The Ballad Of Charles Whitman.” Friedman finds the lighter side of a disturbed young man climbing a bell tower and picking off helpless bystanders with a high-powered rifle. The song luxuriates in bad taste as Friedman plays up his subject’s all-American credentials, particularly his past as an Eagle Scout and ex-Marine. In the song’s most hilariously tasteless couplets, Friedman observes, “Some were dying, some were weeping / some were studying, some were sleeping / some were shouting ‘Texas No. 1!’” In Kinky’s mad, mad, mad world, not even mass murder can dim Texans’ pride in their home state.

According to a fascinating 2005 profile in The New Yorker, Friedman considers himself “a serious soul who has never been taken seriously.” Yet he delights in confounding expectations and offending people. He’s made it almost prohibitively difficult to take him seriously. Sold American, for example, contains a powerful, haunting song about the Holocaust and the eternal loneliness of life in the Diaspora. It’s a song so transcendently moving that it might have permanently changed the way people perceived Friedman, if not for its title: “Ride ’Em Jewboy.”

Friedman is the closest thing country has to a Randy Newman, a stinging satirist who enjoys slipping inside the skin of bigoted, ignorant people and observing life through their eyes. On “Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed,” he sings from the perspective of a proud chauvinist terrified that his woman’s liberation will transform her from a baby-and-biscuit-making machine to a bomb-throwing radical. Friedman finds exquisite pleasure in words, like when the proud Neanderthal sings, “Every single great man that’s ever come along / Had a little woman telling him that he’s wrong / Eve said to Adam, ‘Here’s an apple, you hoss’ / And Delilah defoliated Samson’s moss.” 

Sold American established Friedman as an outlaw among outlaws. He was misunderstood. Was he a cerebral smartass playing at being a good ol’ boy, or a good ol’ boy pretending to be a cerebral smartass? Was Kinky Friedman merely a character he was playing? That last question became even more muddled when Friedman, who writes that he “had many bad experiences with drugs, one of which lasted several decades,” bottomed out in the mid-’80s after years of abusing cocaine and speed. The eccentric Texan then decided to reinvent himself as the prolific author of mystery novels about an ex-country singer named Kinky Friedman.

When The New Yorker asked about the difference between himself and the mystery-solving protagonist of his novels, Friedman replied:

Well, he’s not an alter ego. I mean, he’s not a guy who does great things. All he does is, he stumbles around, he can’t get laid, and he fucks up. You have your life and your work, and you should get the two as confused and as mixed-up as possible. Make it all one fabric. Vincent van Gogh did that. Hank Williams did it, Allen Ginsberg, Bukowski, those kinds of people did it. Anne Frank, of necessity, did it.

Though he toured with Bob Dylan as part of his Rolling Thunder Revue and palled around with Willie Nelson, Friedman never sold many albums. The New Yorker piece quotes Jewboys drummer Major Boles complaining, “We don't have any groupies! All we got is Jewish sociology professors taking notes!'”

Friedman’s self-titled second album, released in 1974, features the same riveting, maddening combination of serious and silly, goofiness and substance that made his debut so refreshing and difficult to pin down. Friedman has described the melancholy first song, “Rapid City, South Dakota” as country’s first pro-choice song, but it’s a song of such sublime subtlety that it’s easy to overlook that it’s about abortion. What Friedman doesn’t sing is as important as what he does. “Rapid City, South Dakota” follows a lost young man who leaves town in a hurry, leaving behind only a goodbye note to his pregnant girlfriend and a lot of regret. The only other hint that the song is about abortion lies in a line about the newly minted drifter finding comfort in the fact that the woman he’s abandoning will be all right thanks to a “doctor in Chicago.”

As with “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” Friedman Trojan-horses sad songs into ridiculous packaging. “Popeye The Sailor Man,” for example, is a somber ballad about the loneliness of life in the open seas, not a tongue-in-cheek novelty song about the beloved pop-culture phenomenon. The rest of the album alternates between rollicking silliness (“Before All Hell Breaks Loose,” “Homo Erectus”) and plaintive ballads (“Wild Man From Borneo,” “When The Lord Closes The Door (He Opens A Little Window).”)

Kinky Friedman closes with “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” which finds Friedman once again mixing it up with an ignorant redneck anti-Semite and emerging triumphant. It’s Friedman’s story in miniature: the Jewish outsider beating the rednecks at their own game. 

Time hasn’t been terribly kind to Friedman’s discography, which is mostly long out of print. And he hasn’t put out an album of new material since 1983’s Under The Double Ego. So newcomers eager to check out his discography will have to settle for the 30th-anniversary edition of Sold American (which I highly recommend) or a number of live CDs and compilations. Friedman’s mystery novels, on the other hand, are widely available. In a typical bit of self-deprecation, Friedman has quipped that the purpose of his novels is to “entertain Americans on their aircraft.”

But a second act wasn’t enough for the Kinkster. He angrily demanded a third one. In 2006, he ran for governor of Texas as an independent. The old questions remained. Was he for real? Was his entire campaign just an elaborate hoax, or a publicity stunt to sell books? Did Friedman really want to be governor, or did he just enjoy the spotlight? Friedman didn’t win, but he scored a more-than-respectable fourth-place showing with more than 12 percent of the vote. Remarkably, Friedman raised more money during his run than the Democratic nominee. I don’t know if that says more about Friedman’s enduring appeal or the weakness of the Democratic Party in Texas. Probably a little of both. 

Friedman doesn’t seem particularly interested in writing songs and making new albums, so it fell upon his fans and admirers to keep his music alive. In 2007, heavyweights like Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Guy Clark, and Tompall Glaser contributed covers of Friedman’s songs to Pearls In The Snow: The Songs of Kinky Friedman. It was the ultimate test of Friedman’s oeuvre. How would his songs fare without his outsized Jewish Will Rogers-on-mescaline shtick?  

They hold up beautifully. Nelson contributes an understated, exquisitely weathered and tender version of “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” Glaser blusters his way through a raucous take on “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven And Your Buns In The Bed” and Yoakam delivers a heartbreaking, empathetic “Rapid City, South Dakota” that leaves the original in the dust. The tribute serves as a reminder that of all the personas and roles Friedman has adopted throughout his life and career he should be remembered first and foremost as a great songwriter. 

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Filed Under: Music

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