Getting Kinky: Songwriter, novelist and political candidate Friedman not one to blow smoke

Kinky Friedman is probably more comfortable holding a cigar in his hand than he is a guitar or microphone.

“I smoke eight to 10 a day, and I hope to live forever,” Friedman says.

Even so, the iconic Texan can’t quite recall the first time he ever puffed on a cigar.

“I forgot the first half of my life,” he admits. “But I would bet it was a King Edward or a rum Crooks in high school.”

Friedman, a songwriter, novelist, humorist and one-time Texas gubernatorial candidate, has evolved considerably in his appreciation of cigars. Today he’ll appear at Centro Cigars, 1520 Wakarusa Drive, to promote his new Kinky Friedman Cigar line. He’ll autograph cigar boxes, discuss politics and possibly perform a few songs.

And he’ll do it in a town that has enforced a smoking ban since 2004.

“I think these rules and regulations and political correctness – like smoking bans – are turning this country into a condo association,” Friedman says.

“It’s destroying our most precious gift to the world, which is freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom to be different, freedom to be who we are. You should be able to set up a bar in which you say, ‘No smoking allowed in my bar.’ And I should be able to set up a bar next door that says, ‘Smoking allowed.’ That’s what America should be.”

He adds, “If you ask these bureaucratic, officious little boogers that are behind all this why they’re doing this, they’ll tell you it is your health. But the fact is the countries of Spain, Portugal, Israel, Japan, France and Italy all have much higher smoking rates per capita than America, and much longer life expectancy. All we can conclude is that speaking English is killing us.”

Least serious vice

Centro Cigars proprietors Rich and Rus Spangler say they are delighted to bring such a “colorful character” to Lawrence.

“We first became aware of Kinky through our father, who was a big fan of his mystery novels and irreverent songs. When Kinky started his own cigar line we had to sell them, and we are currently the only reseller in Kansas and Missouri,” Rus Spangler says.

Friedman launched his signature product last year with a line of “very good cigars” blended from Honduran and Nicaraguan tobaccos. They come in five sizes: the Governor, Kinkycristo, Willie (named for musical pal Willie Nelson), Texas Jewboy and Utopian – the latter’s proceeds benefit Friedman’s Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch located in his hometown of Medina, Texas.

“If I could get off the Cubans and smoke exclusively Kinky Friedman Cigars, then I could save a fortune. It’s not my most expensive habit, but it’s right up there,” he says of the items, which retail between $8 and $12.

“Gambling and women are where I spend most of my money. Of those three, I spend the most on Vegas. Cigars are my least serious vice. Plus I think cigars give you longevity by reducing stress.”

Musical rise

Today will mark Friedman’s first appearance in Lawrence – from what he can remember conclusively – since performing on a shared bill with English rock act Mott the Hoople somewhere between ’73 and ’75.

Friedman came to prominence as the result of his music career. Born Richard S. Friedman, he was given his infamous nickname by songwriter Chinga Chavin in regard to his kinky hair.

In the early ’70s his band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys found a unique niche in pop culture as a satirical country-western act.

Songs such as “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Get Your Biscuits In The Oven and Your Buns In Bed” turned into cult classics, impressing heavyweights such as Bob Dylan, who joined Friedman on tour.

Friedman earned his widest audience in 1976 when he was the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” which was notable as the first episode in which comedian Steve Martin served as host. (“I remember very little about it because I was doing a lot of Peruvian Marching Powder with John Belushi,” Friedman says.)

The artist is continually surprised that his material has cultivated a fan base of people who are often younger than the tunes themselves.

“My songs that come in vogue and out of vogue, an example being ‘They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,’ which has a lot of racial epithets in it, but it’s really an anthem against bigotry. But you can’t do that song without people jumpin’ on you these days – it’s got the ‘N’ word. On the other hand, ‘Sold American’ is about a songwriter who dies, but it’s taken on a deep political meaning. People hear it and they say, ‘Oh man, everyone’s been sold American,'” he explains.

Political kinks

Friedman expanded his repertoire in the 1980s to include writing mystery novels and “advice” books. He’ll have a new satirical tome that hits stores next week titled “What Would Kinky Do? How to Unscrew a Screwed Up World.”

This project is peppered with bits of wisdom he learned from his 2006 campaign as an independent candidate for governor of Texas. Backed by the slogans “How Hard Could It Be?” and “Why The Hell Not?,” Friedman earned 12.6 percent of the vote and placed fourth in a five-party race.

“I got more votes than Ralph Nader got nationally,” he says. “It’s a lot of votes considering we got screwed in a lot of ways running as an independent. I think you got to be a Crip or a Blood. If I’d run as a Democrat, I’d be governor.”

His experiences coupled with his pithy commentary have made him a staple on TV and radio talk shows. (He counts polarizing hosts Bill O’Reilly and Don Imus as close friends.) But he concedes his words often go unheeded.

“No one ever takes good advice. We take pop advice and glib advice and bad advice, but not good advice. The only way you can get any advice across is obliquely, accidentally – like in a song. If you set out to write the great American novel, you’re not going to. It’s written by a guy who’s trying to pay the rent or someone like Dostoevsky, who’s paying gambling debts,” he says.

Friedman can now add cigar entrepreneur to his list of writing, musical and political accomplishments. Too bad these feats rarely intersect, he claims.

“It’s the curse of being multitalented: No one takes you seriously,” he says. “The people who love my books and take them seriously don’t even know I write music, and vice versa. If I could have gotten those audiences together … but now it’s too late. I’m 63 years old, which is too young for Medicare and too old for women to care.”