It Only Hurts When He Laughs

Kinky's bravado hides a dark vision of politics and life

Kinky Friedman, photo by Troy Fields

In early September, a small legion of journalists descended on Kinky Friedman’s South Austin campaign headquarters. The country singer, mystery writer, essayist, former Texas Monthly columnist, and now Texas gubernatorial candidate planned to unveil his KISP (Keep It Simple, Politicians) proposal. There wasn’t a whole lot to the KISP plan. In a press release not much more than a page, Kinky outlined his wish to revoke the state’s recently expanded business tax and his pitch to spend $100 million on new Houston cops to reduce the city’s rising crime rate. Kinky attributes the increase in crime to the city’s Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The day before, during a similar news conference in Houston, Kinky had called the refugees of the greatest natural disaster in American history a bunch of “thugs and crackheads.” It caused a bit of a stir.

Unconventional is what Kinky does. His campaign slogan—found glued to car bumpers all over Texas—is, “Kinky for Governor: Why the Hell not?” His right-hand man answers to the name Little Jewford. In the span of a single speech, Kinky can invoke the wisdom of writer Oscar Wilde and the Rev. Goat Carson. (The good reverend, it turns out, is a Katrina evacuee himself, a New Orleans musician and street preacher who came to stay at Kinky’s Kerrville ranch and animal rescue.)

A Kinky Friedman press conference is excellent theater. He likes to cast the reporters as the straight people in his act. While the self-proclaimed anti-politician dodges questions as adroitly as any seasoned pol, he at least cracks up the room in the process. Kinky took the podium, and after giving a few sketchy details on the KISP plan, opened the floor to questions. Does he really think, a reporter asked, that the evacuees are crackheads and thugs? Well, not all of them, Kinky said, but enough of them. Another reporter asked what programs he would cut to make up the lost revenue from the business tax he wanted to repeal. A most basic campaign question. “What would I cut?” Kinky said, searching for an answer. “How about that question?” He then launched into a riff on the wonders of casino gambling, which he wants to legalize to fund public education. Not only would casinos bring in money for the state, he said, but they could help revive towns like Corpus Christi. That reminded him of another story: Jimmy Buffett had agreed to come play a benefit concert for Kinky’s campaign. Buffett wanted only one thing in return. “What’s that?” Kinky said he asked. “Port Aransas,” Buffett had said. That sounds like a joke, Kinky admitted to the press, but “what if you ceded Port Aransas to Jimmy Buffett for four years?” Talk about a tourism explosion! In fact, he said he’d already talked with some folks in Port A, and they were kind of keen on the idea.

At this, R.G. Ratcliffe, the veteran Houston Chronicle reporter, asked, “How are voters to know when you’re joking and when you’re being serious? Like the five Mexican generals is a joke…” Oh no, Kinky interrupted, the five Mexican generals plan might actually work. (He proposes stemming illegal immigration by giving five Mexican generals $2 million, stationing them on the border, and deducting cash from their take for every person that crosses illegally.) After all, he said, the Mexican army knows how to stop emigration—we just need to give them an incentive. After a moment, Kinky added, “The five Mexican generals is a joke that lies close to the truth.”

Kinky has conceded that his campaign for governor began two years ago as something of a lark—not unlike his failed 1986 run for justice of the peace in Kerr County (he promised to lower the speed limit to 54.95). For nearly a year—and especially since his campaign collected the more than 45,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot last spring—it’s become increasingly evident that Kinky is not only in the race to stay, but that he genuinely wants to win. In fact, Kinky has polled as high as 22 percent in some recent surveys. For Democrat Chris Bell and independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who hope to dethrone Rick Perry, Kinky’s poll numbers are no laughing matter.

Yet the central question hanging over Kinky is the one Ratcliffe asked: Is he serious? Is the Kinky campaign really about helping Texas or helping Kinky promote himself? Does he really want to cede Port A to Jimmy Buffett? When you spend time with Kinky, you realize none of those questions really matter to him. He’s not sweating the details. What Kinky is principally offering voters is himself. He isn’t asking you to vote on his plans or his ideas or his potential appointments; he’s asking you to vote on Kinky—Kinky the personality, Kinky the celebrity. He has convinced himself that the force of his persona is enough not only to fuel a campaign, but to govern the state as well.

All of which leads to the question of who, exactly, is Kinky Friedman? That’s a tough one. The man is a series of contradictions in a black cowboy hat and preaching coat. He presents himself as the anti-politician, and yet in his dealings with the press and public reminds one of, well, a politician. He runs a style-over-substance campaign that borders on farce and satire, yet he insists he’s a serious candidate—and becomes annoyed when anyone insinuates otherwise. He pledges to end political corruption and take on greedy politicians while he heads a campaign fueled by aggressive merchandising, including the sale of his own CDs, from which he profits. He possesses sterling wit, is always quick with a one-liner, and is by far the most charming man in the race, but he also struggles with intense bouts of loneliness and depression. Most of all, beneath all the jokes lies a font of cynicism—a pessimistic man running a cynical campaign. And that, in the end, is not very funny.

A few weeks after the KISP press conference, Kinky hosted a packed, happy-hour campaign rally at the Flying Saucer bar in northeast San Antonio. When Kinky strolled in with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a palpable excitement whipped around the room. Ventura was touring the state’s colleges with Kinky to court the ever-fickle youth vote that was crucial to Ventura’s surprise election win in 1998. (Consultant Dean Barkley, who steered Ventura’s campaign, is also running Kinky’s.) There was no doubt whom people had come to see. A crush of supporters pushed to get close to Kinky. Some snapped quick photos with their cell phones. Others reached to shake his hand. Kinky and Ventura mounted a stage in the back of the bar. Jewford—Kinky’s longtime sidekick and former bandmate with Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys—handled the introductions. They begin every event the same way. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Jewford boomed as if he were opening a boxing match, “please welcome the man who’s breathing life back into Texas independence—Kiiiinky Friedman!” Kinky bounded to the mic. “Thank you, folks. That, of course, is Little Jewford. He’s a Jew, and he drives a Ford.” Big laughs. Pointing to Jewford’s ever-present purple and green sport coat, he added, “He’s wearing Elvis’s shower curtain today.”

Kinky on the stump won’t remind anyone of Bill Clinton. His speeches contain a few brief strands of public policy he’d like to enact as governor. But mostly it’s one-liners and funny anecdotes. “Rick Perry’s not a bad guy,” Kinky told the crowd. “He’s likable. You have to be likable to be a yell-leader [at Texas A&M]. The problem with Rick Perry is—he may go to the same coffee shop every morning. I guarantee you, he doesn’t know the waitress’ name. I know the waitress’ name. Sometimes I even ask for her phone number.”

The speeches lasted about five minutes. Then came the merchandising. Jewford returned to the mic: “The merchandise line is right here; the signing line is right here. Kinky and Jesse will be signing. Purchase, purchase, purchase! Everything goes to the campaign.” A mass of people surged toward tables offering a veritable flea market of Kinky paraphernalia: various kinds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, the talking Kinky doll, mugs, posters, and an eclectic assortment of Kinky and Jewford CDs. You could buy any of these items and fluidly shuffle over to the roped-off “signing line” to have your bounty autographed.

Roughly 18,000 people have contributed to the low-budget campaign—more than the other three campaigns put together—mostly through merchandise sales. The campaign has raised more than $5 million. Much of that comes from the Internet. In the “store” section of kinkyfriedman.com, you can buy Kinky silk-screen prints; yard signs; hats; “koozies;” and the Kinky Friedman campaign cookbook, Always in Good Taste, which contains recipes from various Kinky supporters. Also for sale are eight CDs of Jewford’s and Kinky’s. The selections include Kinky classics from the early 1980s and more recent fare such as Kinky Friedman and Little Jewford: Classic Snatches from Europe; Kinky and Billy Joe Shaver’s Live from Down Under; and Jewford’s latest solo effort, Live from Uranus. The publicity efforts have been so successful that now there’s a market for everything Kinky-related, even Live from Uranus. Without the Kinky for Governor campaign, the album probably would be gathering dust in discount bins. Instead, it’s making Jewford as much as $15 a pop on the Kinky Web site.

The campaign buys the CDs wholesale from Sphincter Records, a Houston-based company owned by Kinky and Jewford that has produced and marketed their music and books since 2000, according to records from the Texas secretary of state. The campaign then sells the CDs to supporters at a marked-up price. So while the CD sales do fund the campaign, Sphincter Records—and presumably Kinky and Jewford—also profit. The heaviest sales for Kinky ware will likely come in the final weeks before the election, when more people are paying attention, but between November 2005 and September 2006, the campaign purchased more than $29,700 worth of CDs from Sphincter, according to campaign finance reports. During the same 10-month span, the campaign reported paying Jewford, whose given name is Jeff Shelby, consulting fees totaling $76,400. Jewford is paid as part of the campaign staff, Kinky has said.

As the lines wrapped around the bar, I sat down at one of the emptied picnic tables. Next to me was Diane Dowdell. She describes herself as a “rogue” academic, so Kinky’s a natural for her. Dowdell teaches marketing and creative thinking at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. So she also has a professional interest. “I wish I had brought my students here,” she said. You could write a marketing thesis about the Kinky campaign’s use of branding. From the beginning, Dowdell said, every element of Kinky’s operation has been designed to set the campaign apart and to attract voters who feel orphaned by politics. “First, humor is a great way to get through to people,” she said. “Any politician has to get through the noise, and humor is a great way to do that.” But, she said, Kinky’s efforts go far beyond good one-liners. She picked a pink-and-yellow-and-black campaign flier off the table. “He’s using color differently,” she said. “If you look at most campaign materials, they use red and blue and white. Here, we have different colors. He’s also made himself different with the merchandise. When you buy the T-shirts, it’s almost like a club—’I’m for Kinky.’ What he’s selling is difference.” She nodded toward the purchasing line and added, “and a lot of people are buying ‘different’ because they’re so fed up with the status quo.”

Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith has known Kinky for more than a decade and used to edit Kinky’s humor column for the magazine. “What people don’t understand about Kinky is that he’s a brand,” Smith told me. “He’s not a person, he’s not a candidate, he’s a brand. He writes books, there’s his video productions, there’s his music, there’s his whole shtick. I assure you he really wants to win… but this is a terrific branding opportunity for him.”

There’s no debating that the campaign has made Kinky an A-list celebrity. In the past 18 months, Kinky’s been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, 60 Minutes, The New Yorker, and the Weekly Standard, among many others. On college campuses, students who weren’t even born when Kinky’s music career was in its heyday line up to buy Kinky T-shirts and albums.

When I asked if the campaign was an exercise in self-promotion, Kinky responded, “Bullshit. That’s nonsense. The people will decide what I stand for and what I don’t.” Kinky was adamant that he’s not profiting in any way from the campaign or merchandise sales. He says he doesn’t draw a salary from the campaign, and says every penny raised from merchandise goes to pay for staff salaries and campaign overhead. “It’s not just a scam for me to get rich and a publicity stunt. Only the most cynical, weak-minded fucks in the state would believe that. Only the most cynical, political mind would believe that, because nobody else does… I’m so disgusted with you guys. I know you’ve got to ask questions, but it’s hideous. You guys are pathetic.”

As ornery as Kinky can sometimes be, he’s an undeniable charmer. Anyone who has read his essays knows he’s also prone to somber moods, a seeming wellspring for his dark humor. Yet in the wave of news stories and magazine features, Kinky’s loneliness—his most interesting and genuine side—has gone mostly unremarked.

On a Friday morning in early October, I accompanied Kinky and Jewford to a radio interview at the Reading and Radio Resource Center—a Dallas all-volunteer nonprofit that produces radio programs and textbooks-on-tape for the blind.

Most of the interview consisted of Kinky’s usual routine. But toward the end of the 45-minute taping, the host, a spry 83-year-old named Adell Campbell, asked Kinky to read a piece he had brought with him. Kinky opened one of his latest books—a 2005 collection of essays called Texas Hold ’em: How I was born in a manger, died in the saddle and came back as a horny toad—to a piece entitled “The Hummingbird Man.”

I live alone now in the lodge, where my late parents once lived, and I’m getting used to it. Being a member of the Orphan Club is not so bad. Sooner or later, fate will pluck us all up by our pretty necks… I’m married to the wind, and my children are my animals and the books I’ve written, and I love them all. I don’t play favorites. But I miss my mom and dad… They bought our ranch outside Medina in 1952, named it Echo Hill, and made it into a camp for boys and girls.

It might have been 1953 when my mother hung out the first hummingbird feeder on the front porch of the lodge… And those first few brave hummingbirds had come thousands of miles, all the way from Mexico and Central America, just to be with us at Echo Hill. Every year the hummers would make this long migration.

Now, on bright, cold mornings, I stand on the front porch of the old lodge, squinting into the brittle Hill Country sunlight, hoping, I suppose, for an impossible glimpse of a hummingbird or of my mother and father… And I still see my dad sitting under a dead juniper tree, only the tree isn’t dead and neither is he. It takes a big man to sit there with a little hum
ingbird book, taki
g the time to talk to a group of small boys. He is telling them that there are more than 3,000 species of hummingbird. They are the smallest of all birds, he says, and also the fastest. They’re also, he tells the kids, the only birds who can fly backward. The little boys seem very excited about the notion of flying backward. They’d like to try that themselves, they say. So would I.

Kinky closed the book, and Campbell was quiet. “I asked Kinky to read something,” she said finally. “I didn’t know what he was going to read…” Her voice broke. She began to cry. “You’ve got me in tears.” She gathered herself for a moment and said, “I wanted to see all the faces of Kinky today, and I think I like this one the best.”

“One eye’s crying,” Kinky said, “and one eye’s laughing.”

In late September, Kinky gave an especially raw interview, even by his standards, to WFAA-TV in Dallas. When pressed repeatedly about what specifically he would do in office, Kinky lashed out. “All the little issues you’re talking about are bullshit. It’s all bullshit!” he said. “You can talk about—I would deregulate this and my plan is to give a 7 percent raise in the textbooks—it’s all bullshit! Because the people who are doing these things are all crooks, and they’re corrupt, and they don’t give a shit about the people of Texas. That’s the truth.”

Here was Kinky distilled—without the charm and disarming humor. He seems to have reached a level of cynicism in which he’s lost faith in the functionality of government. In his speeches, Kinky asserts, with little direct evidence, that many state politicians are corrupt, that our democratic system is broken, that lobbyists are pocketing money from the state’s general revenue fund. There is corruption in Texas, but Kinky’s rhetoric—the system is so wrecked it needs a total reinvention—appeals to people’s worst suspicions about their government. He has worn down populism to rank negativity.

It is, however, quite liberating for the candidate. When you believe the public-policy process is broken down and corrupted—a nowhere-to-go-but-up mentality—it doesn’t matter if your campaign consists of jokes and one-liners or if your policy proposals are short on details, because you can’t make it any worse. That thinking also apparently frees Kinky from any guilt about potentially playing the role of spoiler.

Recently Bell, the Democratic nominee, asked Kinky, unsuccessfully, to leave the race. The Bell camp fears Kinky will draw enough progressive votes to sink Bell’s candidacy and hand the election to Perry. I asked if Kinky found the spoiler argument convincing. “I think it’s complete and utter bullshit,” he said. “It’s what they say every single time… Those votes don’t belong to the Democrats or the Republicans. They belong to the people. People will decide where those votes should go, not Chris Bell… In fact, I wouldn’t be running if I believed he was that much different than Perry. I don’t.” Kinky argues Bell and Perry are equally corrupted by “politics,” and the only difference between Democrats and Republicans is which special interest groups hold power. Unless he wins, Kinky says, nothing will change.

“Some of what I’m saying is getting through,” Kinky told me the last time we talked. “Some of who I am is getting through.” It was a telling remark. Kinky presents himself as the only medicine for a corrupted government. He’ll clean up the mess. And if he can’t, well, it doesn’t matter because the situation has gotten so bad that Kinky can’t make it any worse. As it turns out, the slogan on those bumper stickers isn’t just a cute line and a clever piece of marketing—it’s his political ethos, the ideology of a cynical man.

In short, Kinky’s pitch really is, why the hell not?

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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