Kris Kristofferson at 80: An Appreciation
Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who turns 80 this week, is known for saying, “heroes happen when you need ‘em.” If that is so, then I’ve needed Kristofferson -- in persona, songs, stories, and poems -- for the last 50 years. After writing so many tributes to great artists who have left us for that song circle in the sky, it is a great pleasure to write this appreciation for one of America’s walking, breathing national treasures. A poet, a picker and a "walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."
As Kristofferson turns 80, I find myself at a turning point in my own life, marking an entrance into some kind of autumn that I haven’t quite begun to fathom. I only know, when I see the age in his eyes and hear the shaky weariness in his voice and feel the fight in his spirit, that it’s all going to be all right, this business of growing old. If I can do it with half the grace of Kris Kristofferson, I’ll be a happy man.
My first recollection of Kristofferson isn’t “Me & Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin. I first heard his song on an album called Hello I’m Johnny Cash, in 1970. It included a unique song about a songwriter’s conversation with the devil -- titled, "To Beat the Devil." In it, the devil derides the hero by saying his songs will never make a difference. It was the first time Johnny Cash recorded a song by Kristofferson, who, a few years earlier was a janitor in Columbia Studios in Nashville and a National Guard helicopter pilot. The now-legendary story has Kristofferson landing his helicopter on Cash’s front yard to persuade him to listen to a tape of his songs. Cash later admitted this got his attention. He confessed that he used the demo tapes given to him by aspiring songwriters to skip, like stones, across the lake on his property. He most likely did this with “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” before Kris got enough gumption to land his helicopter in front of Cash’s home.
In the summer of 1970, the wild years of the late ‘60s were dying down. Rock music was becoming a corporate business that would soon be regulated by economics and commercial interests. The one community from '60s counterculture who remained true to themselves in the summer of 1970, a year after Woodstock, was the singer-songwriter community. They held a fascination for me. The song, “To Beat the Devil” stood out in my mind.
So, when I stumbled on the writer of the song on the Smothers Brothers' summer show’s Poets Corner segment, I was surprised to see a down-to-earth, bohemian-looking, long-haired, deep-bass singing, soft-spoken singer-songwriter named Kris Kristofferson. He was equal parts William Blake and Hank Williams. He may have played two or three songs. I don’t remember what they were as much as I remember connecting with spirit, the way he held the guitar and softly sang his words without any sense of ego or flash. When I saw his face darkly peering out at me, cigarette in hand, from the cover of his first album in a local record bin, I bought it immediately.
In context, it was before most of Kristofferson’s most well-known songs had become hits. Or they were becoming hits like Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and Ray Price's, “For the Good Times.” (Both were released in 1970.) But, the songs that stood out from the rest were the lesser-known, “Blame It on the Stones,” “Best of All Possible Worlds,” “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” “Darby’s Castle,” “Casey’s Last Ride,” and, of course, “To Beat the Devil.” Kristofferson's version of the song opened with a narrative about a friend who was in a studio and was close to dying. That friend was Johnny Cash.
His songs -- all of them -- did something beyond what any songwriter had done to my imagination, including Bob Dylan. Kristofferson was the first songwriter I heard who could do what a good writer of fictional literature could do: create an alternative world through a story, complete with characters that had their own sense of soul and truth. This album and those that came after it -- including The Sliver Tongued Devil, Border Lord, Jesus Was A Capricorn, and Spooky Lady Sideshow -- all had the same effect. These albums formed the foundation of his legacy. When he would lose his way in celebrity and stardom, it was the sense of soul he created on those albums that he would return to, that would allow him to create more of the same on latter day classics like To the Bone, Repossessed, and A Moment of Forever.
Even Kristofferson's film career, while admittedly inconsistent, contains work that is an extension of his songs. Most obviously is the little-seen Cisco Pike, his second film. It is the story of an L.A. singer-songwriter turned drug dealer. Later, he worked extensively with Sam Peckinpah, most memorably in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid -- arguably Peckinpah’s best film and maybe Kristofferson's as well.
But, his music became his anchor. His band -- including Donnie Fritts, Billy Swan and Stephen Bruton, known as the Border Lords -- were always by his side, fanning the flame of his songs. His concerts were testaments to his character and his strength as a performer, songwriter, and outspoken critic of injustice. In concert, he has a way of connecting with his audience that is similar to his way of pulling the listener into the alternate reality of the story of the song. At his most dynamic, he carried himself onstage like the legend he has always been. Onstage, he becomes more John Wayne and Henry Fonda than country star -- a desperado with the breath of a song to guide him.
Over the last ten years, he's begun to appear alone, with his guitar. His films have become fewer and his concert appearances have doubled.
I saw his 2011 show in Glendora, California where, for two hours, he held the audience in the palm of his hand, with just that low, deep voice, the soft strum and picking of his guitar, and the power of his songs. I've seen him many times with his band over the years, but this little show was as good as the rest of them. In some ways, it may have been better.
It was in this auditorium, which Kristofferson managed to transform into an intimate room, where he became the original artist I saw on television in 1970. Once again, he created special magic -- an intersection of sorts, where art and story, song and voice, soul and spirit create an alchemy that is greater than anything we could imagine would come from just a voice and a guitar.
Kristofferson’s most recent albums, This Old Road, Closer to the Bone, and Feelin’ Mortal, are recreations of that matinee show I saw in 2011. His voice, warm and up-close, sings the words to new songs that serve to confirm the greatness of his talent. The world that only Kristofferson has been able to create is, once again, there in the sonic realm. It’s a place with sawdust-floored honky-tonks, preachers and pushers, devils and wounded angels, the obsessed, the possessed, and the repossessed. It’s a place where justice and truth is a thing we can depend on, not to be longed for like some unattainable ideal. It’s a place for heroes -- the kind who happen when you need ‘em.
As Kristofferson takes his 80th turn around the sun, I wish I could tell him how important his music and his life has been to my own crazy experience. How, when there's grief and turmoil, I've been able to turn to the songs and the sound of that deep, rough voice, singing his words of truth with such courage, to find the comfort and the strength I’ve needed to carry on.
Most of all, it’s the legacy of song that Kristofferson continues to share with world, as he returns this year to a full tour schedule, that is most important. Maybe, in some future time, some lonely kid will pick up that first record and hear those songs for the first time. Then Kristofferson will certainly know that he has beat the devil.
Kristofferson has shown through his life that it is always the song that matters. Thank you, Kris, for teaching us all this life lesson.
As he has said, “Tell the truth, sing with passion, work with laughter, love with heart, ‘cause that’s all that matters in the end.”