When it comes to the Jewish spin on the American West, Kinky Friedman is especially fond of recounting that Anne Frank, not unlike many star-struck European girls her age, had a thing for American film cowboys. The young Dutch teen-ager would tack pictures of them on the wall over her bed in the Amsterdam warehouse that offered her family a lengthy, if sadly impermanent, refuge from the Nazis.
Richard (Kinky) Friedman, 44-year-old founder of the now seldom-heard but oft-lamented country and Western ethnic ensemble, the Texas Jewboys, imagines, sometimes, that horrific roundup that herded Anne Frank and her family to Auschwitz.
Now pursuing a successful career as a mystery novelist, Friedman remains haunted by that image, and as eager as ever to grapple with the aftershocks it continues to trigger in his psyche.
His latest novel, “Frequent Flyer” (William Morrow & Company), pits his detective hero “the Kinkster” against a Nazi revival in, of all places, Borneo, where Friedman served in the Peace Corps. He has written four books--the others are “Greenwich Killing Time,” “A Case of Lone Star” and “When the Cat’s Away"--since 1985, and he appears in each of them as the Kinkster, a kinky-haired, wise-cracking, Jewish ex-country crooner turned Greenwich Village gumshoe.
Mystery master Robert Parker says Friedman has “a wonderful eye for detail, a good grasp of irony, the same kind of sense of humor I have, and a nice social conscience.”
But is the world truly ready for a Jewish country and Western New York detective? Says Parker, “I don’t think the world has ever been ready for Kinky, but there he is.”
Although Friedman doesn’t fancy himself a writer of “Jewish” mysteries, his Yiddishkeit or Jewishness, remains as much a part of his crusty persona as his gleaming white Stetson, his trail-worn cowboy boots and his Western tie with a mother-of-pearl map of Texas.
Part of his literary success can be traced to his decision to set the exploits of Kinky Friedman, amateur sleuth, in New York, where Friedman spends about half his time. He believes that had he kept the Kinkster in Texas, the New York literary establishment would scarcely ever have given him or his literary alter ego any notice.
It also helps, he said, that he spends the rest of his time in the Texas hill country living in a trailer with three cats and a tame armadillo. This is the stuff legendary dust jackets are made of.
A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he completed a four-year liberal arts program, Friedman is the son of a psychologist from Chicago and a speech therapist who moved to Texas during the early ‘50s to establish a Jewish summer camp. He began songwriting between 1966 and 1969, while a Peace Corps volunteer.
In 1973, Friedman assembled a group in Nashville, which he christened with a name inspired by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. The Texas Jewboys signed a contract with Vanguard Records, a small folk label, and hit the road.
The commercial expansion of country music during the 1960s had already lured a gaggle of ethnic outsiders eager to tear a hole out of the industry’s Anglo-Protestant consensus.
During his first year touring honky-tonks and Hillel centers with fellow Jewboys Billy Swan, Willie “The Singing Chinaman” Fong Young, Thomas “Wichita” Culpepper, Kenneth “Snakebite” Jacobs and Jeff “Little Jewford” Shelby, Friedman wrote a country ballad about the Holocaust, “Ride ‘Em Jewboy.”
Friedman still meets Orthodox rabbis, Jewish Defense League alumni and American-born Israeli Army vets who say “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” became a personal anthem akin, in some respects, to the civil rights movement’s “We Shall Overcome.” The tune, which appeared in 1973 on his first album, “Sold American” (Vanguard Records), offended many American Jews as well.
“Many people,” recalls Friedman, “never could get past the title of the song or, for that matter, the name of the band. It got a lot of people’s backs up.”
Another tune that gained the Jewboys notoriety was “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Any More” (which novelist Joseph Heller has declared to be his all-time favorite tune).
Despite the often irreverent nature of their material, the Texas Jewboys were never a novelty act, Friedman hastens to note. Many of his songs received considerable airplay on country and Western stations, and “Sold American” became a genuine hit. In 1974, Friedman cut a second album, “Kinky Friedman,” on the now defunct ABC Dunhill label, with some help from fellow country stars Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson (who produced the record) and Tompall Glaser.
“And our third album, ‘Lasso From El Paso,’ featured just about everyone on the planet, including Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, Lowell George, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton,” says Friedman.
At their height, the Jewboys were big enough to appear at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, where Hank Snow’s son, the Reverend Jimmy Snow, announced that Friedman was the first “full-blooded Jew ever to play the Opry.” In 1976, Friedman joined Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. But, as Friedman is fond of recounting, the distance between the limousine door and the gutter is a short one. The Jewboys were undermined, he maintained, by a spate of unsuccessful associations with record companies and internal strife.
The Jewboys broke up in 1979, and Friedman began a solo career. Moving to New York, Friedman found a niche for himself at the Lone Star Cafe, the center of the urban cowboy scene of the time. There, Friedman performed regularly with pick-up bands, becoming sort of a Sunday night institution.
An incident that occurred in 1984 proved to be what he calls his “road to Damascus.” Friedman left his apartment in the Village to buy some cigars and noticed a woman being severely beaten in a bank by a man “whose eyes were rolling around far more than was fashionable,” while some 40 passers-by looked on and did nothing. Friedman hurled himself through a glass door and came to her rescue, pinning the assailant down until the police came. The next day, the papers extolled Friedman’s rescue, and he decided to embark upon a new career, writing about crime.
‘Something Pretty Hot’
“Greenwich Killing Time” was rejected by the first 17 publishers who saw it. “Of course I quickly realized I had something pretty hot here,” recounted Friedman. He was right. The 18th publisher, William Morrow & Company, bought the book. It would sell more than 15,000 copies in hardcover.
The critics were surprisingly kind to his literary debut, and Friedman returned to Kerrville, eager to get on with the next book.
The life of a man of letters is one that fits Friedman as snuggly as a new pair of chaps. “My whole life I’ve been looking for a life style that doesn’t require my presence,” he said.
The only downside of the corduroy-jacket circuit, as he calls his national book publicity tours, is that the better hotels where his publishers book him don’t often cotton to his manner of dress. Friedman, who had lived in Los Angeles for five years during the mid-'70s, was particularly miffed that the Polo Lounge, downstairs from his room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, wouldn’t let him wear his Stetson at the bar.
Friedman’s novels have been optioned by producer/director Ron Howard’s Imagine production house, in partnership with the Showtime cable channel. “Greenwich Killing Time,” with a screenplay by John Mankiewicz, is the first Kinkster novel slated for production sometime next year. “The book’s appeal,” said Mankiewicz, “is Kinky’s idiosyncratic, eccentric character. I don’t think we’ve ever seen the country and Western New York City detective done before.”
A Small Irony
If made, the films will feature Friedman’s own music. Moreover, Friedman has learned that his first album, which with all his others has long been out of print, will be reissued on cassette and compact disc in October by Vanguard Records. This is apparently the result of Lawrence Welk’s recent buyout of the company, an irony which gives Friedman no small pause.
This, and a literary career that has never appeared more promising, may even, Friedman said, lead to a revival of interest in the Texas Jewboys, if not to a revival of the band itself.
“I’ll tell you though--there’s something pathetic about all these middle-aged rockers prancing about in front of 17-year-olds. I don’t know if I can handle it.” But Friedman fans needn’t regard it as an impossibility--the Kinkster’s next novel, in fact, will be about just such a reunion.
Moreover, Friedman will soon be embarking upon a 30-city solo performing tour at clubs and honky tonks throughout the Midwest, into Canada and back down along the East Coast. The exercise, he said, could well serve as a dry run for the actual reincarnation of the Jewboys.
“Time sure has changed the river,” says Friedman. “When the Jewboys were on tour, people only wanted to hear our new stuff. Now everybody wants to hear the old stuff.
“It’s become very fashionable to be a fan of the Jewboys. When I’m in the larger cities I meet mobs of people who contend they saw us play in Max’s Kansas City in New York, when we first started off. Of course, if all them people had really been fans, I’d be playing at Madison Square Garden instead of the Lone Star next month.”