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Kinky Friedman: Success against all odds

Kinky FriedmanIf American letters had an official court jester, his name would be Kinky Friedman.

Starting with his first mystery, "Greenwich Killing Time" in 1986, through such fractured who-cares-who-done-its as "Armadillos & Old Lace," "Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola" and his latest, "Prisoner of Vandam Street," Friedman's eponymous, black Stetsoned, cigar-chomping alter ego has stumbled ever blindly toward, if not exactly enlightenment, then random illumination. He may eventually solve the crime, but more often than not the clues seek him out as he holes up in his Greenwich Village walk-up with a decidedly disinterested cat, a hissing espresso machine and copious amounts of Jameson's Irish whiskey to assist cogitation. His fans include Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Kinky is perhaps the least likely of modern literary success stories. In the '70s, the droll Texan parlayed his knack for social satire into semi-stardom on the fringes of country music as Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. The band's stage shows were outrageous, thanks to Friedman's redneck-baiting, chauvinistic stage persona and such bitingly hilarious anthems as "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and the tongue-in-cheek antifeminist ode, "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (And Your Buns in the Bed)." His "Ride 'Em, Jewboy" remains the only country song ever recorded about the Holocaust.

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Country music has rarely been fertile soil for satire, so it was little wonder that Kinky's music delighted the critics and offended almost everyone else. When his band broke up, Friedman spent the next decade "living on 11 different herbs and spices" in and around New York's Lone Star Cafe.

In the mid-'80s, he borrowed pal Mike McGovern's typewriter and rattled off "Greenwich Killing Time." Suddenly, unaccountably, the Kinkster was a novelist.

Today, with 15 novels to his credit, Friedman boasts a legion of fans worldwide, many of whom are unaware of his previous incarnation.

This spring, he officially announced his candidacy for governor of Texas with the slogan, "How hard could it be?" Kinky-philes fondly recall his previous campaign for a Texas judgeship and its classic campaign slogan, "I'd be a fine judge if I'm any judge at all."

Bankrate caught up with the Kinkster on his cell phone as he played $10 slots at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

Bankrate: How were you as a kid with money?

Kinky Friedman: As a Jew, I've always handled money very poorly, which may surprise some people. I don't remember the first half of my life. All I say is a happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life.

Bankrate: How was it starting out as the leader of an iconoclastic country band like the Texas Jewboys?

Kinky Friedman: I'm pretty much like Sam & Dave -- I think the publishers screwed us. The record company screwed us for sure. And, of course, the road gets to you. But my attitude all along was very Gandhi-like. The only currency I value is the coin of the spirit. That's very important in my life.

Bankrate: What was it like to finally land a recording contract?

Kinky Friedman: It was thrilling -- 1973 with Vanguard Records, the company that turned down Bob Dylan. We got our deal through Commander Cody, who connected us with the Glaser brothers in Nashville. Chuck Glaser produced our first album, "Sold American." It was one of the snowplows for the Outlaw movement. When I play shows around the world, the songs are older than most of the audience.

Bankrate: Did you handle the money for the Texas Jewboys?

Kinky Friedman: Oh, hell no. I've never been good with money. My brother Roger probably did it. He's a little better than I am. We were broke a lot of the time. I remember we tennis-shoed a lot of hotel bills in those days as we crisscrossed America. We were a country band with a social conscience.

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-- Posted: April 14, 2004
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