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Kinky's Mexican Riptide

A near-death experience convinced Freidman that 'I have to do more with my life'

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Feb. 17, 2006

Born in Chicago on Halloween in 1944, Kinky Friedman came to Texas a year later with his parents, both educators. In 1953, they opened the Echo Hill Ranch summer camp, which continues to operate on the family's 400-acre spread in Medina, where Friedman still lives, sharing with 60 dogs that call Utopia Rescue Ranch home. He graduated from UT (with honors) in 1966 and did a Peace Corps tour in Borneo before returning to the U.S. Since then, Friedman has achieved a fair amount of success as well as notoriety, first as the lead singer and songwriter for the Jewboys, and later as a writer of novels and essays.

Aside from a 1986 foray into Kerrville politics, when he ran as a Republican candidate for justice-of-the-peace, previously Friedman has only danced on the edge of political life. He did this often in ironic and sometimes edgy Jewboy ditties such as "Ride 'Em Jewboy," a ballad about the holocaust, and in "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," a lament over women's liberation from the point-of-view of a chauvinistic boyfriend (a tune that, in a double-dose of irony, earned Friedman the National Organization for Women's 1974 "Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year" award); more recently he's addressed social and political questions in his writing, as in a March 2004, Texas Monthly piece about the state's paper-thin case against Texas death row inmate Max Soffar. (Soffar's conviction was overturned on April 21, 2004. At press time, he's being retried in a Harris Co. court.)

It took a Mexican riptide and an Irish heckler to convince Friedman to make a direct jump onto the political stage. The transformation began five years ago, he says, during a vacation in Mexico with his friend, hair product mogul John McCall, now his campaign treasurer. Friedman was alone, taking a walk on the beach when a "freak riptide" engulfed him, tossed him around, and spit him out, forcing him to scramble up a cliff to safety. "I was lost [and] dehydrated," he recalls. "While I was on the cliff-side, I was prepared to die. I thought, I have to do more with my life," he recalls. It wasn't about near-death deal-making with the Almighty, he insists, but a realization that "I am not really a musician or an author; they're really both extensions of my personality, somebody who wants to be a truth-teller."

About a year later, at a Jewboys gig in Northern Ireland, he was approached by a man who'd just seen the show. "'The patter between songs is much better than your music,'" Friedman recalls the man saying. "'Kinky,' he said, 'you're not really a musician, you're a politician.'" The observation didn't exactly charm Friedman. "My heroes are not [U.S. Rep.] Tom DeLay or [former California Gov.] Gray Davis," Friedman says. "They're Will Rogers and Mark Twain; they were humorists, not clowns."

Still, the man got him thinking about his Mexican cliff-side epiphany, and about Texas, his home. He began to look at things differently, and he didn't like what he saw: the state's public education system a mess, with teachers merely "teaching to a test" and not free to truly educate; the state's capital punishment machine churning forward, while serious questions of innocence (as in Soffar's case) seem to go unanswered; the border with Mexico a sieve, and people "dying in the backs of trucks." And no one – least of all the Republicans, led by Rick Perry, who had effectively swallowed state government whole – appeared to be doing anything at all to turn things around. "People are tired of these two parties … [of politicians that] never get off their asses except to attack someone," Friedman says. What the people need, he says, is what he has to offer: "A little bit of honesty; that's what people are dying for." It all made sense, he says: he would run for governor. "All the stars are in a line, boy; it's time."

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