Coming to terms with Kinky: New biography bares Friedman's 'failures' and complicated soul

The word he uses is jarring: failure.

Richard "Kinky" Friedman -- notorious provocateur and master of the turn of phrase -- isn't joking when he talks about his legacy, or at least how he perceives it. He's a failed musician, he says. Even worse as a politician.

Up to this point, our recent phone conversation has been jovial. He regales me with witticisms and rakish wordplay. And, though I'd heard many of his one-liners before in other interviews, onstage, and in his books, they are no less enjoyable when they are recited just for me.

But when we get to "failure," I'm stung.

That's because Friedman has spent his life upsetting people -- the National Organization for Women, for example, named him Male Chauvinist Pig of the Year in 1973 -- and, with that comes a certain reputation, one that our conversation has completely challenged. He seems humble and self-reflective, a "serious soul nobody takes seriously," as he says his friend Billy Joe Shaver describes him. When he says "failure," it's as if he doesn't see the floods of refracted light streaming through the haze of his hallmark cigar smoke.

That light is shed most clearly in Mary Lou Sullivan's just-released authorized biography, Everything's Bigger in Texas: The Life and Times of Kinky Friedman. Sullivan and Friedman will sign copies of the new book (and anything else -- take from that what you will, Friedman says) at a concert and book release party at Poor David's Pub on Nov. 17.

Reading an early draft of the biography, Friedman says he was "struck" by its conclusions about his legacy.

"I don't think I lit the music world or the literary world on fire," he says. "But, of course, as Willie Nelson says, if you fail at something long enough you become legend."

But, why a biography to tell the legend? Friedman's nothing if not prolific. Why would the author of more than 30 books -- fiction and nonfiction combined -- entrust his story to another's pen?

First of all, he's busy.

He's written a new mystery novel and, spurred by a serendipitous late-night call from Nelson, a close confidant, Friedman has at the age of 73 returned to his first "failure," songwriting.

There is now an album's worth of new material, which Friedman hopes to release by the end of the year and about half of which he'll play at Poor David's Pub. The record follows 2015's The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, a critically acclaimed collection of covers, mostly, save for the title track, written in the 1970s. That album was Friedman's first studio recording in close to 40 years.

Mary Lou Sullivan (left) spent seven years getting to know the real Kinky Friedman. Bless her heart.

But, there's another reason the book needed an objective eye: Kinky Friedman is misunderstood, primarily by Kinky Friedman. The deeper one delves into the mystery, the further conflicted the persona becomes.

"Kinky is very hard on himself ..." Sullivan says during a recent phone call.

That's one of the most surprising things she learned about him, she says, along with his moodiness, which was hard for her to not take personally at first, and especially his tenderness.

"He has a reputation for being kind of rough -- and he can be rough -- but there's a real sweet, caring guy underneath that," she says.

Sullivan's book doesn't chip away rocky excess to reveal an idol beneath the oft-maligned man. If anything, each new chapter adds layers and layers of complication.

In conversation, she likens Friedman to the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part of the elephant's body and draws an assumption about the animal's essence based on just a single tactile piece.

Kinky's never been a saint, and he's not likely up for beatification; let's get that right. But, there's something resoundingly magnetic about him she wanted to explore. Among those drawn to him are poets and folk heroes: Bob Dylan, George W. Bush and Dwight Yoakam, to name a few. That's not to mention the thousands of rescue animals saved by the "never kill" shelter, Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, he co-founded with Nancy "Cousin Nancy" Parker-Simons and Tony Simons.

Counterpoint: Don't ask folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie for a positive recommendation; an entire chapter of Sullivan's book is dedicated to a 1975 taping of Austin City Limits during which an enraged Sainte-Marie ripped a Native American headdress from Friedman's head. Deemed too offensive for TV, the episode has never aired.

The underlying point: It's hard to make heads or tails of Friedman. Even more so if you think you might like him -- or even be like him.

His political platform reads at times like a progressive wishlist (pro-choice, pro-marijuana, "anti-the-wrong-guy-getting-executed"), and most recently, he ran as a Democrat in 2014. But Friedman has been harshly critical of Barack Obama and says -- as recently as our phone call last week -- he thinks a Donald Trump presidency might turn out well for America.

Civil rights has always been at the forefront of his public life. He talks frequently about his personal heroes -- Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela -- and, according to the biography, fought to desegregate University of Texas fraternities and picketed in the 1960s.

But, whenever he runs for office, he is accused of racism for using slurs -- yes, even that one -- in song, novels and stand-up. His defense of such claims has always been that he was writing in the voice of a character.

"Lenny Bruce espoused this decades ago -- if you say, 'You can't say this...' it lends power to racial slurs," he is quoted in Sullivan's biography. "All through my career, if there's one thing that is consistent, it's skewering false morality. This does not seem to be understood in America very well... "

In a 2010 analysis for the AV Club, writer Nathan Rabin agrees, calling Friedman "the closest thing country has to a Randy Newman, a stinging satirist who enjoys slipping inside the skin of bigoted, ignorant people and observing life through their eyes."

He calls his subject "an outlaw among outlaws," delineating a central question in Friedman fandom: "Was he a cerebral smartass playing at being a good ol' boy, or a good ol' boy pretending to be a cerebral smartass?"

But, one thing Friedman has never approached with ambiguity is his own position as an outsider.

Sullivan considers him a country music pioneer; early appearances in Nashville were notable for several reasons, not least of all the way he was once introduced by the Reverend Jimmie Snow as "the first full-blooded Jew to ever appear on the Grand Ole Opry," the biography recounts.

When other artists of the time -- Dylan, Freddie Mercury, Steven Tyler -- anglicized their last names as they entered show business, Friedman instead called his band the Texas Jewboys, a play on Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. He embraced the nickname "Kinky," a reference to his curly hair, and penned songs like "Ride 'Em Jewboy," which, despite any levity its title might suggest, is a somber cowboy song about the Holocaust.

Friedman says he considers it the best song he's written. He believes -- with reasons detailed in the video below -- that Mandela listened to the song nightly while in prison, and Friedman treasures the thought. It is more important to him, he says, than any country music award or political office he hasn't won.

So, when it comes to Richard Friedman, does the biography uncover the real man behind the Kinky persona? One guess is as good as the next, which seems about as good as Friedman's own. But, Sullivan thinks so.

Independent research was crucial for unearthing a well-rounded story, she says. She read critical articles, spoke with Friedman friends and frenemies and spent more than half a decade persisting through Friedman's deflections, which roll from his tongue with the dizzying elusiveness of a linguistic contortionist.

"I realized if it's something he doesn't really want to talk about, he makes a joke or quotes one of his friends," she says. When Sullivan first approached him about the book, a guarded Friedman sent her instead to talk with other people about his story. She sees it now as a test; it was a way for him to determine her intentions.

Kinky Friedman and biographer Mary Lou Sullivan will sign copies at Poor David's Pub on Nov. 17.

But, this wasn't Sullivan's first rodeo. As a journalist, she spent decades befriending and learning the nuances of the type of artistic temperament Kris Kristofferson famously described as a "walking contradiction."

Sullivan put those delicate skills to use in her first authorized biography about another outrageous Texan, Johnny Winter, which was released in 2010. When she moved on to Friedman, she came prepared to earn, tend and deserve his trust.

The resulting book isn't a sugar-coated tribute from an adoring fan, though both Sullivan and Friedman say they became friends through the process. Nor is it a sensationalized tell-all, despite the outlandishness of Friedman's most controversial moments.

Instead, it depicts an artist both crass and sensitive, a friend who is as deeply empathetic as he is mercurial, and a man who is obsessed with cult heroes yet forever unsatisfied with his own Texas-sized contribution to popular culture.

"It looks like the book I didn't write is going to be extremely successful," Friedman muses.

Meet Kinky Friedman and Mary Lou Sullivan during a concert and book signing at Poor David's Pub on Nov. 17.

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