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Kinky Friedman, provocative satirist and one-time gubernatorial candidate, dies at 79

Kinky Friedman is shown at his ranch in Medina on Dec. 12, 2013.
Todd Wiseman
/
The Texas Tribune
Kinky Friedman is shown at his ranch in Medina on Dec. 12, 2013.

Richard “Kinky” Friedman — the provocative and flamboyant Texas satirist who mounted a spirited campaign for governor in 2006 and was known for his boundary-pushing music and deep love for animals — died this week. He was 79.

Friedman died at his longtime family home at Echo Hill Ranch in Medina, his friends Cleve Hattersley and Kent Perkins said. Friedman had Parkinson’s disease, Hattersley said in an interview.

"He was a communicator. An unusual, but very pointed and poignant communicator," Hattersley said. "He could bring you to tears on stage. He could make you roll on the floor in laughter."

The iconoclastic Friedman ran for governor as an independent against Republican incumbent Rick Perry in 2006. Despite a colorful campaign, Friedman finished fourth in the race.

“Kinky Friedman was a larger than life Texas icon and will be remembered as one of the most interesting personalities in Texas politics,” Perry said in a statement to The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “Kinky’s run for governor in 2006 made an otherwise grueling campaign cycle actually fun. May he rest easy after a life lived to the fullest.”

Friedman also ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner in 2010 and in 2014. He rose to Texas celebrity status for his outsized persona, pithy one-liners and signature look: curly hair poking out from beneath a black cowboy hat, cigar in hand.

“He has been described as a provocateur, and it’s not in a negative way,” Perkins said. “His objective was to provoke thought to make people think.”

Friedman was born in Chicago in 1944 to Russian Jewish parents. The family moved to Texas the year after Friedman was born and eventually settled in Medina, where his parents founded the Echo Hill Ranch summer camp. He graduated in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

In the early 1970s, Friedman formed the satirical country band Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys — which penned songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.” The latter song, which made fun of feminism, helped Friedman earn the National Organization for Women’s “Male Chauvinist Pig Award.”

At the same time, he gained the respect of musical titans like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

Perkins, an actor, met Friedman at a work Christmas party in the mid-1970s. Perkins was with Columbia Pictures, and Friedman with Columbia Records. They found each other among hundreds of guests because both wore cowboy hats with their tuxedos.

The man Perkins got to know was a funny, honest, deep thinker who enjoyed fame but didn’t care about money. Friedman would meet someone at a concert and remember their name if he ran into them later at another city’s airport. He would invite Perkins for a “financial bloodletting” in Las Vegas when he got paid for a book deal. He might tip $30 on a $10 lunch.

“Anyone that wanted to befriend him, he was kind to; he didn’t shut people out even when many others did,” Perkins said. “Kinky was adored and loved in the entertainment industry by giants.”

In the late 1970s, Friedman played every Sunday night at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City, Hattersley remembered. Hattersley’s job became getting him on stage and keeping him there. Hattersley recounted the storied guests who came to see him, such as actor Robin Williams and John Belushi and other cast members of Saturday Night Live.

There was no one else in country music like him, Hattersley said. He recalled his larger-than-life friend as a “connection point” who introduced him to all sorts of people he never would have met. And his lyrics were “insane” — a reflection of the revolutionary times of the 1960s and 1970s in which they’d lived.

Once, Friedman famously sprayed the New York Rangers hockey team and their wives with beer while wearing a long jersey, cowboy boots and no pants.

"The irreverence that he was able to get away with opened up more ideas,” Hattersley said. “Right now we're in kind of a time in society where word usage is being suppressed, and language is being codified almost to the point of hieroglyphics and so much is being left out. Kinky never left anything out.”

Later, Friedman turned to writing books, publishing novels that often featured a fictionalized version of himself, including “Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola” and “Armadillos and Old Lace.” He avoided the Internet, didn’t send text messages and wrote his books and columns for Texas Monthly with a typewriter.

In politics, Friedman staked out unusual positions at the time for someone seeking statewide office in Texas, like legalization of marijuana and casino gambling. He supported same-sex marriage in 2006, long before the Supreme Court legalized it nationally, quipping, “I support gay marriage because I believe they have right to be just as miserable as the rest of us.”

Friedman also supported crackdowns on undocumented immigration, boosting pay for Texas teachers and ending the death penalty.

Friedman befriended former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He launched his gubernatorial campaign in front of the Alamo, where he called for Perry’s “unconditional surrender.” After he lost to Perry in 2006, Friedman backed the former governor in his failed 2012 presidential bid.

Friedman made his Jewish identity a core part of his public persona — evident in his slogans during his 2006 gubernatorial bid, including “My Governor is a Jewish Cowboy,” and his music such as the song “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” a dark meditation on the Holocaust.

“His Jewishness was central to his politics, his music, hIs books, his life,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, who is Jewish and served as Friedman’s press secretary during the 2006 campaign. “That was pretty cool for a lot of us younger folks.”

Friedman took in old dogs when their humans died, Perkins said, and in the late 1990s he founded an animal rescue called Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. Friedman traced its beginnings to an injured kitten he found while driving with his dog, Mr. Magoo. A doctor amputated the kitten’s leg. The cat was called “Lucky.”

As he neared death, Friedman’s hospital bed faced his beloved hummingbird feeder, Hattersley said.

Sometimes Friedman would ask Perkins to pick up fried chicken when he went to town. He fed it to his dogs, smoked a cigar and smiled. A few days ago, Perkins went to visit Friedman and saw fantastic-looking dishes of rice and beef stew. He reached for a plate and the cook stopped him. The food was for the dogs.

“That’s just so Kinky,” Perkins said.

Renzo Downey contributed to this story.


From the Texas Tribune