FEATURE ARTICLE

A Second Act for Kinky Friedman

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., April 10, 1997) -- Kinky Friedman is fond of quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum about there being no second acts in American lives. You would be, too, if like Friedman you stood as living proof to the contrary.

Long after his career as leader of the notorious country cult- outfit Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys had peaked, Friedman seemed to have reached a dead end around 1985 -- a dead-end perilously close to the real thing. Then, pulling himself out of the haze and fog of alcohol and drug addiction, Friedman stumbled upon a talent that would gain him much wider recognition.

A decade and nine books later, Kinky Friedman is now perhaps best known worldwide as the author of mystery novels with titles such as "Armadillos and Old Lace," "Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola" and "The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover."

And now, at the top of his game as a bestselling writer, his phone is ringing off the hook with offers begging him to return the stage to perform such old hits as "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven (And Your Buns in the Bed)," "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "(Proud to Be an) Asshole From El Paso."

Friedman turns most of those offers down, having long ago decided that "Americans had their chance with the Kinkster," as he put it in a recent phone interview from his home in Kerrville, Tex., referring to himself by one of his several affectionate nicknames. (The message on his answering machine greets callers thusly: "This is Richard Kinky `Big Dick' Friedman....")

He occasionally says yes, however, to certain individuals who stood by him when others in the fickle country music business wouldn't give Friedman the time of day, much less hire him to perform. One of those was Mort Cooperman, the North Pownal, Vt., music impresario who founded the Studio in Pittsfield and the Night Shift Cafe in North Adams. Friedman was a fixture at Cooperman's New York City nightclub, the Lone Star Cafe -- which was a sort of Texas outpost in the Big Apple -- performing there weekly and hanging out the rest of the time as "a sort of Joe Louis greeter of the place," he said.

"Mort and I got to know each other pretty well," said Friedman. "Not that we always agreed on everything, but we're still speaking, so that says something." Apparently, it says enough so that Friedman is playing a rare date at the Studio -- one of only three on a quick swing down the East Coast which will also touch down in New York and Washington, D.C. -- on Thursday, April 10 at 8, in the former England Brothers department store on North Street in Pittsfield.

"Mort had the right idea at the right time," said Friedman about the Lone Star, the roots-rock nightclub Cooperman founded in the mid- '70s. "He got real Texans coming up there, and he got everybody else wanting to be Texans. He'd get John Belushi and John Matuszak of the Oakland Raiders, the New York Rangers hockey team, Nolan Ryan, Mickey Mantle and all kinds of pointy-headed intellectuals drifting through that club."

As Cooperman tells it, "I saw Kinky doing `Saturday Night Live' -- this was about 1977 -- and I thought he was funny and I just sort of got determined to bring him into the Lone Star. He arrived with his road guy, the two of them looking like Texas anarchists, and that's how Kinky Friedman walked into my life. Starting the next year he began playing every Sunday night for a period close to ten years. He's got some funny lines coupled with some profoundly sensitive lines. He's sort of a cross between Groucho Marx, Mark Twain and Liberace."

Friedman immortalized the Lone Star in his books, most notably in "A Case of Lone Star," his second novel, in which Friedman -- in his fictional guise as a private eye -- solves a series of murders that take place in the famed music venue, much to the chagrin of New York City Detective Sergeant Mort Cooperman.

Cooperman is a recurring character in Friedman's mysteries, as is Cooperman's former real-life partner, Bill Dick, who plays the owner of the Lone Star in the books. In fact, besides Friedman himself -- whose country singer-turned-private eye is not such a stretch in light of his subsequent real-life success as a writer of mysteries -- Cooperman is the only one of a crowd of real-life characters whom Friedman has disguised. The rest appear warts-and-all as themselves, including rock journalists Larry "Ratso" Sloman and Chet Flippo and Daily News reporter Mike McGovern, among other denizens of downtown New York.

Friedman's next book, "Road Kill," comes out in September and stars his real-life friend Willie Nelson. "It's a murder mystery surrounding Willie," said Friedman. "I've got to get to the bottom of the mystery before we wind up in a bar singing Jimmy Buffett cover songs. With Willie's marital history with ninety-seven former wives, the case becomes rather complex." The book Friedman is working on now takes place 20 years ago, he said, "when Mort Cooperman was just a patrolman giving people tickets."

It's been a long road that has taken Richard Friedman, 52, full circle from Kerrville as a child and back again. The son of Tom Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, now retired, and Min, a speech therapist who died in 1985, Friedman attended the university as a psychology major, after which he joined the Peace Corps.

His lifelong dream, however, was to be a country singer. "I've since figured out that if you have that dream as a child you'll wind up being a bestselling novelist," he said. It was actually in the jungles of Borneo, where he served in the Peace Corps, where he first wrote songs like "Ride 'Em Jewboy" and "Sold American" -- songs which would later garner him a modicum of fame as an offbeat antidote to the sterile music churned out by the country-music establishment in Nashville.

Back in Austin, he fell in with the burgeoning country outlaw movement, and with the help of musicians like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Billy Swan, began recording albums in 1972. By 1976, he was appearing alongside Bob Dylan in the latter's traveling musical circus, the Rolling Thunder Revue. He moved to New York in 1979, and slowly began the unrequited love affair with "Irving Berlin's white Christmas" -- one of his more colorful nicknames for cocaine -- which would eventually lead him toward his second career as a writer.

"It was just despair," said Friedman when asked what made him give up music and try his hand at mystery writing. "I was just playing the Lone Star every week like a motorized tie rack and flying with eleven different kinds of herbs and spices. I was totally broke -- very much like Sherlock Holmes between cases snorting cocaine -- full of self-pity as only a country singer can be. I had no career, no family, nothing. And a lot of my friends were on drugs or going to Jesus. Then Hank Williams fell out of my left nostril and told me to stop doing drugs. So I tried to write a mystery."

He wrote "Greenwich Killing Time" in a matter of months. It took two years to find a publisher, which in the end wound up being the English publishing house Faber and Faber. "They grabbed it and it became an immediate bestseller, and since then everything has gone through the roof in England, Ireland and Scotland," said Friedman.

"I don't know why they hit big in other countries first," said Friedman about the curious phenomenon of this quintessentially American author whose books sell better abroad than they do at home. "Possibly because they see them as commentary on America. I don't really think they're mystery novels either. They should work on one level as mystery novels, if you're stupid enough. Of course my fans are either very, very stupid or very, very smart."

Friedman recently garnered acclaim in Germany, when the German populace voted "Armadillos and Old Lace" the best American novel of 1996. "The British book was `Trainspotting,' and there was also a German book in there, probably `Mein Kampf,'" said Friedman, referring to the bestselling memoir by Adolf Hitler. "If the Germans think my books are funny in German translation, they must be pretty funny, that's all I can say."

While Friedman has pretty much put performing behind him, he hasn't totally opted out of country music. He is busy right now putting together a tribute CD featuring other artists -- including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Guy Clark -- performing his songs. The album will appear on his own label, KinkaJew Records, and be sold exclusively on Don Imus's radio program, on which Friedman is a frequent guest.

Also in the works is a movie deal, which Friedman claims is being brokered by none other than President Bill Clinton. "The president has been very helpful," said Friedman. "He's a fan. He's read all my books. Right now he's trying to set up a movie deal for the books, which is great. In fact he invited [movie executive] Sherry Lansing to the White House and put her sitting right beween me and him at the table there to try to negotiate something. And he's joked around about being my agent so he'll have something to do when he gets moved out of public housing. He's also asked me to defer his commission to the year 2001. Or better yet to pay him now by getting Imus off his case and back on his side. I'm working on that."

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 10, 1997. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.]


Seth Rogovoy
rogovoy@berkshire.net
music news, interviews, reviews, et al.

Next Article Previous Article
Back



Copyright © 1996 Zenn New Media, LLC