By Kinky Friedman
Forming a country-western band and calling it the Texas Jewboys was either a very smart or a very stupid thing to do. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Borneo. I was stranded in the jungle for a year and a half once and the idea crossed my desk. I was living in a Kayan longhouse upriver from the town of Long Lama in Sarawak. The Kayans had been headhunters as recently as World War II and they still kept souvenir skulls in hanging baskets on the porch. The skulls in baskets were to the Kayans what green hanging plants are to many nonsmoking vegetarian roller skaters today.
Most Americans are too civilized to hang skulls from baskets, having been headhunters, of coarse, only as recently as Vietnam.
I remember we were returning from a fishing expedition on night, paddling up-river by torchlight. We were chewing betel but and drinking tuak, a brutal, gnarly, viciously hallucinogenic wine carefully culled from the vineyards of Lord Jim.
The Kayans don't give a flying Canadian whether they catch any fish or not. They claim to be "visiting the fish". This quaint and primitively poetic little notion, unfortunately for them, does not culturally compute.
Yet I came to share their timeless, tribal outlook. I visited the fish. I watched the river flow. I got so high that I started to get lonely. It was a strange, gentle feeling, like warming your hands in a Neanderthal campfire. Not cosmic. Not mystical. But not the kind of thing you'd really want to share with the Charlie Daniels Band.
I never saw God in the jungles of Borneo, but it was during this time, on a dark, primeval night, that I did see a 900-foot Jack Ruby.
I still vividly remember what Jack said to me. He said, "Kinky, this is Jack. I, like yourself, am a bastard child of twin cultures. You know, I just never could forgive Dallas for... what they did to Kennedy. Didn't like what they did to the Redskins either... Kinkster, baby, it's up to you now, sweetheart..."
In the monsoon months ahead I became almost obsessed with Jack's messianic words. Again and again I saw him in my dreams, jumping out of the shadows. I felt his warm, comforting, sleazy presence rushing through my veins in the middle of the dank jungle night like the screaming of an endless subway circus train. I saw American dreams going up like little puffs of smoke from the infamous Texas Cookbook Suppository Building in Dallas. I was proud to share Jack Ruby's heritage. Proud to be a Jew like Jack. I felt almost elated that he had shot Lee Harvey Oswald. It seemed fitting and proper that one of my countrymen had taken the law into his own hands and actually assassinated the assassin. "Jesus," I remember thinking at the time, "Ol' Jack must have really had some pawnshop balls!"
Years later, of coarse, I was a little surprised and a bit disheartened when they finally exhumed Lee Harvey Oswald's grave and found Ernest Tubb.
Jack Ruby's spirit was already abroad in that land. I had determined to form a country-music band as soon as I returned to the States, and I had sworn to myself that it would be known as Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. The torch had been passed.
A Peace Corps psychiatrist was flown in by helicopter to give me a checkup from the neck up. By this time I was pretty much cookin' on another planet. (The only other visitors I'd had in almost 24 months had been my parents, Dr. and Mrs. S. Thomas Friedman from Austin, Texas, who had taken a Borneo taxi, incredibly enough, all the way to the last outpost on the river. I was, naturally, thrilled to see them. I was also rather amazed to see the driver of the taxi was Harry Chapin.)
The Peace Corps psychiatrist listened to a few of my songs and determined that I was definitely out where the buses don't run. Finally, much to my chagrin, the Peace Corps director ordered that I be returned immediately to my own culture. Little did he dream that what was the Peace Corps's loss was soon to become county music's loss.
I left Borneo with nothing but my guitar and my wheelbarrow. I had run into a bit of elephantiasis in the jungle and I had to carry my scrotum in a wheelbarrow.
The very next day I was winging my way back to the States. The Peace Corps was gracious enough to buy me a first-class ticket. My scrotum flew tourist.
I got to New York just as Robert Young began filming the first of his Sanka coffee commercials for television. These, I felt, were a step down from "Father Knows Best" but certainly a step up from "Marcus Welby, M.D." Robert Young was, fortunately, a rather distant friend of the family. I had always admired him, and now I thought I'd drop by the studios and have a few words with the wise old bird.
When Robert saw me he was shocked and disturbed at how pale and thin I was. I weighed about 29 pounds and was in a rather deep state of shock at the time. I told him I liked Borneo but that my Peace Corps director had recommended that I be returned to my own culture because I was getting very nervous in the service. Robert Young recommended that I and a rather irritable young Negro airline stewardess who was also on the set to switch to Sanka brand.
Three weeks later, Robert said, "Well Kinky, now how's your our returned Peace Corps volunteer feeling?" By then, I weighed about 28 pounds and was in a severe case of culture shock.
"I'm feeling great, Robert," I said. "That goddamn Sanka brand really did the trick! In fact, I'm leaving Texas today. You might check on that stewardess, though, if you get a chance."
The young Negro stewardess was hanging from a shower rod right there in the studio. Robert Young walked right up her and put his hand on he shoulder. As I walked out he smiled and I heard three short, rather hollow laughs: "Ha-ha-ha." Maybe that's the way Robert Young always laughed," I remember thinking. But it gave me kind of a strange, gentle feeling. Kind of like warming my hands in a Neanderthal campfire.
I went back to the ranch in Kerrville, Texas, to round up the band and rehearse and hit the road to country music's hal of fame (or shame, depending on how you looked at it). The songs I had written while in Borneo, including "Ride 'Em Jewboy," "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You" and "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore," had a little something to offend almost everyone. I knew if I could just reach on person out there that I'd be a success. But little did I know that I would go on to become probably the best nationally known Jewish entertainer from Texas. That is, of coarse, unless you want to count Tom Landry.
In these early days I could sing, burp, tell jokes, smoke a cigar and play two instruments - the guitar and the Jewish cornet (sometimes referred to as the nose). But not unlike the great Hank Williams, I had serious problems with personal life. It was not a pleasant sight for many audiences or fellow band members to see me wheeling my scrotum off the stage after the show into the waiting U-haul trailer. But the band played on.
We had rehearsed for six days back at the ranch, and on the seventh day we had a sound check. The band contained many former greats and many future greats and no bass players from Los Angeles.
When the Jewboys were hot they could really send your penis to Venus. But some people and some places were not quite ready for our music. So we barrel-assed across the country - a dusty station wagon pulling a U-haul trailer down those lost highways. From Kerrville to Nashville from Austin to Boston, from Luckenbach to Los Angeles. Schizophrenic Sons of the Pioneers - providing bad taste in perfect harmony - setting out to prove that the world really wasn't square.
At first, we got run out of town so often that we didn't get to go home, take a shower and get changed for three months. But that didn't bother us. Even our harshest critic had to admit: "Their music may occasionally suck bog water, but this band consistently smells bad." Actually, we kind of dug it. We figured we probably just smelled like real outlaws, like hard working Negroes, like people smell who live in Europe.
Probably the whole thing started with Bob Dylan back in Greenwich Village where he never bathed, shaved or brushed his teeth for years at a time. The only time he ever brushed his hair was before he went to bed. I once ask Bob why he did it. He said, "You know Kink, I gotta make a good impression on my pillow."
Pretty soon Bob had the whole country looking and smelling like Sirhan Sirhan. "Talent's one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration," Bob wrote in one of his songs. "Now, Annette Funicello, won't you lay across my big brass bed?"
One might say that Bob's total disregard for personal hygiene, wither dental or mental, ended a golden age of blond-haired Aryan dominance and brought about a new kinky haired, more funky, fairly tedious era. It marked the end for Tab Hunter, Sandra Dee and Fabian, but it would herald a new beginning for Isaac Hayes, Ira Hayes, Woody Hayes and Gabby Hayes. And purple haze, for that matter.
We played one of our very first gigs in Luckenbach, Texas - a small German ghost town where they still tied their shoes with little Nazis. This was before Willie or Waylon had ever heard of Luckenbach. It wasn't on the maps or the charts. The jukebox contained mostly old German drinking songs and warped Wagnerian polkas. The only two popular titles I recognized were "You Light Up My Wife" and the great all-time standard, "Send in the Kleins."
I was a bit nervous until I looked out over the krauts. They were big and friendly and goose-stepping in time to the music. Soon they stopped polishing their Lugers altogether, clicked their heels and broke into a moderately Teutonic variant of the bunny hop.
The days ahead were filled with excitement for me and the Texas Jewboys. We were attacked by wild Indians onstage in San Francisco for wearing those funny little dime-store Indian war bonnets and singing a funny little Indian song, "We Are the Red Man Tall and Quaint." We were attacked by dykes on bikes in Buffalo for singing "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed." One called me a "male show business pig." We needed a police escort to get out of town. Negroes chased us in Denver, Red ran us out of Nacogdoches, Texas, on two different occasions. Mild mannered, pointy-headed, liberal Jews called us a shanda in New York and born-again nerds in the Richie Furay Band tried to shut us down in Atlanta when I sang "Men's Room, L.A.", a religious ballad:
I saw a picture yesterday
In a men's room near L.A.
Lying on the floor beside the throne
Had I not recognized the cross
I might have failed to know the boss
I though "Lord you look neglected and alone".
I picked it up with loving care
I wondered who had placed it there
The I saw there was no paper on the roll
I said "Lord what would you do
If you were me and I were you
Take a chance, save your pants or your soul?"
And a voice said "Kinky, this is Jesus
I ain't square. I got these pictures everywhere
From Florida on out to Frisco Bay
So boy, if your hung up on the pot
Feel free to use my favorite shot."
I saw a picture yesterday
In a men's room near L.A.*
Finally, I had to send the Texas Jewboys off on sabbatical for a while. "When the time is right," I vowed myself, "I'll bring them all back and give them each two or three hundred dollars." I hope someday still to make that dream a reality, though I'm not too sure about the tow or three hundred dollars.
The point was people were beginning to hear my songs. The point was also, rather unfortunately, right on top of my head. People were beginning to accept me for what I was - a highly ambulatory, some what unpleasant American with a terminal case of syphilis that I had apparently run into somewhere in the jungles of Borneo. In his unbridled eagerness to give me and my scrotum the hook, the Peace Corps doctor had overlooked the latter.
Meanwhile, I kept traveling the American countryside playing my songs, telling my jokes, and consciously infecting toilet seats practically everywhere I went. This included (in what was to prove an unfortunate career move), Kenny Rogers's brand new 40-foot jade toilet seat.
I still vividly remember emerging from Rogers's extremely ornate dumper into his sequined living room. The Southern California sun was ricocheting ferociously from the chandelier to the swimming pool to the tennis courts and back again into my right iris.
"You ol' storyteller you," I said humorously. "I can understand the chandelier, the swimming pool, the tennis courts... but Kenny," I asked, shaking my head incredulously, "why in the world would you need a forty-foot jade toilet seat?"
"Well, Kink, you know," he said rather wistfully, "we never had one when I was growin' up."
But "the times they were a'changin'" as Willie Nelson sang in one of his songs. Negroes were coming out of the woodpiles, Christians were coming out of their mobile homes, women were coming out of the kitchen, and homosexuals and Jews were coming out of the closet.
I was coming out of a men's room in Denver, Colorado. It was one of the last stops on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, and back then I was as happy as the shah of Iran. I had just taken a rather large and highly gratifying nixon... I had walked miles and miles of bathroom tiles... I was thinking of many things. Weird phrases peppered my cerebellum. "Save Soviet Jews - Win Valuable Prizes"... "Here I Sit / Straining my pooper / Tryin' to give birth / To a Texas state trooper." I flashed on other times, other dimes, other walls, other stalls, other balls, other halls, other words, other turds, other nerds... young couples shopping for flavored toilet soaps in Georgetown, D.C.... myself teaching Frisbee to the natives of Borneo... some of the natives stealing the Frisbees... setting back my Frisbee program. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Holiday Inn sanitary wrappers shimmering in the night... truckstops... rubber machines before the Trojan War... airports and runways and young couples buying ludicrous, Freudian-flavored thought associations.
When I came to, a steaming cup of Sanka brand coffee was on a tray at my side and Robert Young was smiling down at me. An orderly was wheeling a wheelbarrow with a white sheet over it out into the hallway. "What happened?" I asked. "Where am I?"
"Take it easy now, Kinkster," said Robert Young. "You've had a bad accident and you're in the Cedars of Tedium Hospital. Apparently you were run over by a bookmobile as you were coming out of a men's room in Denver, Colorado. To save your life we had to give you a transfusion using the blood of a person of the Negro persuasion."
"That's moderately unpleasant," I said.
"Well, there's a good side of things, too," said Robert Young. "Your welfare checks should start coming in a few weeks, and your penis just grew twelve inches. Ha-ha-ha."