The Austin Chronicle

Kinky's Mexican Riptide

By Jordan Smith, February 17, 2006, News

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."

Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.