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But Seriously, Folks

The humorist and musician takes a nip at his Austin campaign headquarters:
The humorist and musician takes a nip at his Austin campaign headquarters: "All politicians speak in one-liners and sound bites. They're just not as funny as mine." (By Thao Nguyen -- Austin American-statesman Via Associated Press)

The cameraman gives him the signal.

"Hi, folks, it's Kinky Friedman, here to wish the Houston Comets a happy tenth anniversary." He pauses, then leans forward and jabs his cigar at the camera. "Houston Comets basketball -- it's not just for lesbians anymore!"

The cameraman cracks up, then quickly stifles his laughter and asks Kinky to do something a bit more conventional. Kinky obliges, but he's not happy about it.

Back in the car, he starts grumbling again. "If those [bleeps] don't see that as the perfect slogan for them," he says, "they're crazy."

The Second Career

Kinky Friedman has lived a life that could, and soon might, inspire the world's most entertaining political attack ad.

"I've been stoned a lot of times," he says. "And I've been involved with a lot of beautiful women. And I don't regret any of it."

He was born Richard Friedman in 1945 in Chicago, but his parents soon moved to Texas. His mother was a speech therapist, his father a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas. In 1952, they founded Echo Hill, a Jewish summer camp in the Texas Hill Country, where Kinky worked as a counselor and began performing with Jewford, singing old folk songs and a new one that Kinky wrote at age 11: " Old Ben Lucas, had a lot of mucus coming right out of his nose . . ."

"He was energetic, he was pushing the envelope and he was doing things to irritate people," Jewford recalls. "He was pretty much the same as he is now."

At the University of Texas, he was nicknamed Kinky -- a reference to his hair, not, alas, to anything more risque. After graduating in 1966, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Borneo, where, he says, "I was supposed to teach agriculture to people who had been farming successfully for 2,000 years."

Back home in the early '70s, he formed the Texas Jewboys. Kinky, who played guitar, wrote some soulful, sensitive ballads, but what inspired a cult following were his outrageous comic songs: among them, a satire of anti-feminists called "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed," and a parody of Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" called "[Lower End of the Intestinal Tract] From El Paso," which suggested that men from that Texas city were a tad too fond of sheep.

Kinky had some success -- he played the Grand Ole Opry, joined Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and toured with Willie Nelson -- but by the early '80s, his career was tanking, his longtime girlfriend had died in a car crash and he was doing way too much dope.

"He was high on 27 different herbs and spices," says Jimmie "Ratso" Silman, a Washington TV cameraman who has played backup guitar for Kinky off and on since the '70s. "He was a different person back then, definitely fairly repellent as a human being."

"I quit doing cocaine," Kinky says, "when Bob Marley fell out of my left nostril."

Actually, he quit doing cocaine when he moved into a trailer on the grounds of his parents' camp and began a second career writing comic mystery novels. The novels -- he wrote 17 -- feature a country singer-turned-detective named Kinky Friedman, who smokes cigars, cracks a lot of jokes and occasionally solves a case.

"The point wasn't the mystery, it was the voice," says Evan Smith. "The guy has got one of the most extraordinary authorial voices."

When Smith became editor of Texas Monthly in 2000, he hired Kinky as a columnist. The column was funny and very popular, but editing the Kinkster wasn't always easy. Once he did a column about . . . well, we can't say what it was about, for the same reason that Smith wouldn't run it.

"Kinky is 60 going on 12," Smith says.

A few years ago, Kinky called Smith at 7 in the morning, grumbling that he couldn't think of an idea for a column. Smith blurted out a suggestion: "Why don't you run for something?"

So Kinky wrote a column about running for governor. Smith thought he was kidding. So did everybody else. But Kinky -- who, in his only other stab at elective office, ran unsuccessfully for justice of the peace back in the '80s -- decided to make a serious run.

"I said, 'If you're really serious, you can't write for us,' " Smith recalls. " 'When you announce officially, I'm going to have to fire you.' "

Early in 2005, Kinky announced his candidacy on the Don Imus radio show and Smith fired him. Now, Smith hopes Kinky will lose so he can start writing the column again. He's fond of Kinky. In fact, he's fond of both Kinkys.

"There's definitely the act and the person," he says. "The person is more insecure and more sweet. He is one of the most genuinely sweet-tempered people I've ever met. You see it when he's with children or animals. . . .

"There's a definite sadness about him. He's alone. His mother and father are dead -- he was very close to them -- and he's not married. In a way, this campaign is a way for him to be out with a lot of people."

Hitting the Jackpot

"I gotta go to Vegas," Kinky says.

He's eating lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth and longing for a slot machine. His campaign promise to bring casinos to Texas is not mere wonkery: Kinky loves playing the $5 slots. "It's meditative," he says. His love was reciprocated last summer, when he won $45,000 playing $5 slots in Louisiana.

"God help the small child who steps between me and a slot machine," he says, smiling.

His lyrical ruminations on gambling are interrupted when a woman comes to the table to ask for his autograph. A few moments later, a couple stop by to pose for a picture with Kinky.

This happens all over Texas. The previous day, in Houston, a Republican geologist recognized Kinky on the sidewalk and pledged his support. A few hours later, at a Waffle House in rural Ennis, two elderly cowboys said they'll vote for Kinky, too. Later, a waitress in Fort Worth told Kinky that her coven had voted to endorse him.

Now, in the Mexican restaurant, Kinky's shaking hands and posing for pictures.

"He'll get my vote," says Ray Lopez, 32, an auto technician eating with his family. "I know it's a cliche, but I like the underdog. And I like the individualism he brings to the campaign."

Kinky wallows in the love. "I'm predicting landslide," he says on the way back to the hotel.

As he strolls into the lobby, Kinky is recognized by a retired autoworker named Billy Vann.

"I like your style," Vann says. "If you get in, it'll be because of your style."

Always the Maverick

Chowing down on eggs Benedict, Kinky grumbles about his shirt.

It's the morning after his speech at the Flying Saucer and he's wearing the same black shirt that he'd found a tad too fragrant last night. It's a problem: He packed only one black shirt, and he can't very well appear in public out of costume. They need to go to a drugstore, he tells Jewford, to buy some of that Febreze stuff that you spray on shirts to de-funkify them.

It's crucial to get Febreze today , Kinky says, because tomorrow he'll be addressing a Dallas convention of the National Association of the Blind.

"They're blind, " Kinky says. "That means they have a heightened sense of smell."

Maybe he's joking. But he looks serious.

Anyway, there's no time for shopping now. They've got to hustle down the highway to join Willie Nelson for a news conference on biodiesel fuels.

A couple of hours later, the news conference begins at Carl's Corner, a biodiesel gas station off Route 35. But Nelson is a no-show, and a panel of earnest environmentalists drones on about renewable resources.

"This is stupefyingly dull," Kinky says, watching from the back of the crowd.

But he's got exciting news: He just thought of a great new line to use in his stump speech. He pauses dramatically, then reveals it: "I'm not like them."

He's smiling. He loves this line. He whips out his notebook and writes it down in big block letters: "NOT LIKE THEM."

He's right about that. No matter who "them" is, Kinky's not like them. If Texans want to elect a certified non-them as governor, they'll know where to find him.

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