The 102nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
Kinky Friedman introduced the Frisbee to Borneo, where he ate raw monkey brains. He made his name as a country singer in the 70s with his band the Texas Jewboys and songs like “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”. Now he’s a bestselling author of six wise-cracking mystery novels featuring a former country singer called Kinky Friedman who, like the author, keeps his cigars in a bust of Sherlock Holmes. He recently toured here with Rita Jo Thompson, Miss Texas 1987, and told Nigel Cox, “Course, in Texas we consider anyone a homosexual who likes girls better than football.”
WRITE ’EM, COWBOY
QU: How come you’re called Kinky?
KF: My real name is Richard Kinky Big Dick Friedman, you can just call me Dick, if you like. Kinky came basically from my moss, which before I got my most recent haircut looked like a Lyle Lovett starter kit — moss being hair.
QU: And are there a lot of Jews in Texas?
KF: They’re kind of like leprechauns, there’s actually a bunch of us, but it’s hard to pick out who they are because Jews tend to — it’s like a survival thing, like a chameleon — get very much like the kind of people that they’re living around. The Jews in Texas would just be these big guys with the pickup trucks, you know, and the gun racks and everything else.
QU: One wouldn’t normally ask that, it’s just that you’re a very Jewish Jew.
KF: Well I’m not a religious Jew. I’m not a religious person. I believe in Tom Paine’s credo “The world is my country, to do good is my religion”, being serious for just a small moment in time there. But being Jewish in Texas is interesting, because you can pass for a Texan if you want. I think both have this in common, they’re both independent-minded kind of peoples, and both are vanishing breeds, at least the Jew and the cowboy are, I would say. And I also like the way that they stand a little bit apart from people, from the world as a whole, look at things from the outside in, which is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from being a Jew. It’s real helpful as a writer, gives you a kind of interesting slant, that a member of the country club might not have.
QU: Texas has a wonderful musical heritage, but you wouldn’t necessarily think of Texas as the home of country music.
KF: I think Hollywood is what did it. Even though the movies were shot in Hollywood they all appeared to be emanating from Texas. By the time Anne Frank found out about the cowboy, it was Texas, and that’s why she had pictures of cowboy stars on her wall in her secret annex. The cowboy has reached a lot further than he ever dreamed, thrown his lasso to the sky quite a ways, to have captured the imagination of children all over the world. Texas means something. Texas is a very progressive state and a very primitive state, simultaneously. Makes it very, very interesting. A lot of wide open spaces, in general and between people’s ears, and out of that sometimes comes a creative thought, an original thought.
QU: Who’s your favourite Texan?
KF: Jack Ruby, the guy that killed Oswald. He was a very glamorous, ﬂamboyant type, he was the first Texas Jewboy I would say, and he kinda got a bad shake. People don’t realise, Jack Ruby was one of Hank Williams’ last friends on Earth. Although Hank had the biggest funeral in the world — both of his wives set out on the road immediately afterwards, calling themselves Mrs Hank Williams, with bands, quite a tribute — nonetheless, Hank had very few friends, and in the last few months of his life nobody would book him, nobody would play in his band. Jack Ruby was one that stuck with him; continued to book him, took him on trips. I believe they went to Cuba together. I’d like to know more about that, that is something I might like to research myself, just as a historical thing, Hank Williams in Havana.
QU: How long did your musical career last? You’re playing some gigs on this tour, but you’re not playing so much.
KF: No. My career with the Texas Jewboys was almost exactly as long as Hank Williams’ recording career, which was a little under four years. Following that I toured with Bob Dylan and with Willie Nelson but that was mostly without the band by that time. I think the really good music, the good work is usually created by people who are under-appreciated at the time. It makes me wonder about some of these guys like Tom Clancy or Stephen King or Garth Brooks — they must, inside, be asking themselves, Am I really worth a shit, if this many people like me? Do I really have much to say?
QU: What was it made you wind up that career?
KF: When ]oseph Heller said in the mid-70s that “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” was his favourite country song, that was my warning flag that I might not be a mainstream country artist. After that — Damon Runyon said that all of life is six to five against. That’s basically it: if there’s a way for people to misunderstand you, they will. Like my old friend Doug Kenney, who started National Lampoon, said, you’ve got to learn to roll with the bullets.
QU: What happened between the Jewboys and the books, which didn’t appear until 1987?
KF: I was in a liberal arts programme at the University of Texas, a highly advanced programme mainly distinguished by the fact that every student in the programme had some form or other of facial tic. I graduated from there, went on to the Peace Corps, and the 70s were big with the Jewboys. Late 70s the Jewboys were already on the wane, and the 80s was pretty much between cases, as Sherlock Holmes would say. But it was out of that emptiness and that unhappiness, I think, that I started writing. My first piece was for a magazine called High Times, a drug magazine my friend Ratso edited. It was called “My Scrotum Flew Tourist: A Personal Odyssey”, about my Peace Corps experiences, and that was my first prose. Now I think of myself more as a pointy-headed intellectual mystery writer, the Raymond Chandler school of writer, though maybe that’s limiting, for him, or me. . . I’m surprised that more of these clever writers in music don’t or can’t write prose. When I was 43 I found out I could do it. There was a voice there, I suppose.
QU: You named your hero after yourself, so I’m talking to a character out of a book here. Do you have to walk around and be that character?
KF: That’s fatal. That’s what happened to a lot of people. I think it happened to John Belushi, Iggy Pop — you have to be real careful with that. You’ll die if you try to be a character. I’m very close to the Kinkster, in the books, and most of the people in the books are pretty accurate, but there is a casino of fiction and it’s a wonderful place, and often deals with the truth, more often than the real world does. I often quote the old Turkish proverb, “When you tell the truth, have one foot in the stirrups.” Because it’s murder. But in fiction it isn’t.
Of course, I’ve been accused of not beating myself to death inventing new characters, but why bother when you’ve got these guys? You’re stuck with these old friends and as I’ve often said, you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your friends off on your saddle.
QU: Do they mind being in the books? Was Chet Flippo pleased with the picture of him in Lone Star?
KF: I think Chet now is pretty flattered to have passed into fiction. You walk a close line when you’ve got a character that’s evil. I’ve seen Chet since then anyway, he speaks to me. I spoke to the class he teaches on writing in Tennessee, so he must be relatively ﬂattered to have passed into the casino of fiction with Robin Hood and Sherlock and Ivanhoe.
QU: I read that something specific started you off on the writing.
KF: Yeah, there was an incident in New York, in January ’83, where I rescued a woman from a mugger in a bank in Greenwich Village. She was being stabbed to death, it looked like to me, at least when I got into the bank, so I held the guy, the assailant, until the police arrived and in the morning there was a newspaper headline, “Country Singer Plucks Victim From Mugger”. And the girl turned out to be Cathy Smith, the woman who’d been with John Belushi when he died. She gave him the drugs. Well, she looked vaguely familiar. See, I’d lived with Belushi for a while when I first came to New York. I thought that was really weird, that out of 12 million people I would rescue this one — not to tarnish my role as a hero at all, but that I would rescue Cathy Smith. Tom Waits later commented that he thought that was the baby Jesus telling me to stay away from drugs, which is possible also.
Anyway, I went home from that experience, the randomness of it just blew me away, the whole thing, and I started writing the first book in a Georges Simenon-like style, starting with just an address on the back of an envelope and ﬂying by Jewish radar, never having written anything before. And also Shel Silverstein helped, telling me, “Just write, ‘He said’, ‘She said’. Keep it really ruthless.” That worked, for me, anyway. The voice seemed to be there, and the characters I knew, and I loved mysteries.
I fancy myself as a sort of country-and-western Dorothy Sayers. So it’s worked, particularly like in England, where the books are now bestsellers, maybe because the British cherish eccentricity, I don’t quite know why it is, but the Australians have now really picked up on it big, and I think we’ll do well in New Zealand. Probably all that means the kiss of death in America, but we’ll see. Americans may be coming around too — we're a little slow out of the chute, to use a rodeo term.
QU: So you think you're a bigger star as a writer in England than you are in America?
KF: No, we’re selling more books in America, because it’s bigger. Remember Chandler was a bestseller in England, but he was not that big in America until after his death. Elmore Leonard’s written how many, 60 novels? Now somebody is finally making him a bestseller. ]ohn D MacDonald is another great writer that went through that, and Rex Stout is another one, with Nero Wolfe. All of those three guys are as literary and as great as the other kind of authors that are lionised by the New York Times, except we’ve always considered them mystery writers until very recently.
QU: Who are your heroes in the crime-writing world?
KF: I like Robert B Parker. He and I are adult pen pals — he commented that anybody who dots their i with a Star of David can’t be all bad. I like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, of course, and I like Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter. I like those British guys, and I don’t go for too many of the smart-ass American types like myself. Chandler once said that the business of fiction is to re-create the illusion of life, which is a rather laborious way of saying, you forget you’re reading a book. Dick Francis does it well. Dick Francis is a guy who doesn’t have a great deal of lyrical talent, his books are formulaic almost, one after another, they’re pretty dry, but somewhere in there you forget that you’re reading a book, and this is his genius.
The really good writers, Chandler, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Crumley, don’t write too much, they’re not real prolific. Elmore Leonard, he’s a real pro. He’s pretty even. It’s almost incredible how long Elmore Leonard was regarded as a pulp kind of guy. It goes back to what F Scott said: if you write one book, you’ve written one book. If you write two books, you’re an author. And to that I always add, if you write three books, you’re a hack.
QU: There are six Kinky novels all set in the Greenwich Village, but the new book is going to be set in Texas.
KF: It is. Tragic mistake on my part. [Lights another cigar.] You never take the detective out of his milieu. I hoped we could conduct this interview without using the word milieu, or genre, but, it’s happened.
Simon & Schuster, I signed a three-book deal with them and they said, do two mystery novels and a, ah, real book. Forget the Kinky stuff and the mystery stuff, and really stretch, let’s try and write a really great novel. But Elvis, Jesus And Coca-Cola, the first one, has done so well that now they’ve said, forget the real book, stay with the Kinky thing. Moving to Texas was a device at the time we thought might widen the audience, before we realised that the book was doing real well.
When I moved to Simon & Schuster from my first publisher the sales jumped about eight times over, it became very close to being a bestseller in America. It would have been if they’d printed enough books — one of those deals. Catch-22 was never a bestseller. Sold 20 million copies, has never been a bestseller. .
An author is probably the worst person to ask certain questions of. I’ll just point out Conan Doyle’s belief that The White Company was his great masterpiece that the world would long remember him for. We all know that seven people in New Zealand have read it, if that many, and seven people in North America: that’s about it. And likewise Heller thinks that Something Happened is his great work. Bob Dylan probably has no sense of what he’s done. So all I can do is look back down the hill and I’m amazed that I have six books out and Armadillos and Old Lace coming out of the chute. I think the books are getting better, which is good, and I’m not that tired of the Kinkster where I have to kill him off yet. When it happens it’ll be a little uncomfortable. I’m very close to the character.
QU: I’m amazed at how you keep going.
KF: I have a brilliant pharmacist.
QU: I think I’ve just about used up my questions.
KF: And I’m fresh out of charm, Nigel, so it works out very nicely. You’re a fine New
Zealander. I’ll give you a good-luck guitar plectrum. Did you get one? Have two.
So here is Kinky Friedman in Dublin in 2003 performing Joseph Heller’s favourite country song, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More”: