'Sunday Morning,' coming up

Kris Kristofferson has lived a dozen lifetimes, and they keep on coming

Trying to capture Kris Kristofferson's life in a 2,000-word story is like trying to offer up the whole of the Atlantic Ocean in a teaspoon. Even now, at the age of 63, the man himself is astonished by what he has done, by whom he has known, by what he has been. Oh, every now and then he used to sit back and wonder, "What the fuck have I done with my life?" Hell, he says with a raspy laugh, "I used to do that every day. Oh, God. Yeah. Jesus." He guffaws some more, until he begins choking on the laughter.

"Those moments of doubt would come up whenever I'd look out at the big empty horizon out there," he says from his home in a remote part of Hawaii, where he and his family (including five children, the youngest of whom is 5) have lived for the past decade. It is a place, he says, where the horizon is vast, filled only with the blue of sky and water. "You look out there and you think about life, especially when you get to be my age. You think about life and what's it all about, what did you learn, what do you still have to contribute, and what's the best way to live out the rest of it."

Most of us spend our lives struggling just to get through each day without getting fired, without falling out of love, without going broke. Most of us spend our lives trying not to fail, hoping that tomorrow will be slightly better than today, or at least not as shitty as yesterday. Such are the pursuits of small, mundane people trapped in small, mundane worlds crafted out of routine, habit, and fear. We never even consider the options, because too often we've been told by our parents, our friends, our bosses, and our television sets that they don't exist. We quit living before we even begin. We die before we give ourselves a chance to be reborn. Not Kristofferson, who has lived better, and worse, than most mortals.

Friend to Muhammad Ali and Willie Nelson. "That's ridiculous," says the boy from Brownsville.
Friend to Muhammad Ali and Willie Nelson. "That's ridiculous," says the boy from Brownsville.
Kris Kristofferson, a thousand Sunday mornings ago
Kris Kristofferson, a thousand Sunday mornings ago

He may be plagued by self-doubt, he may wonder how much he has left to contribute, but that is only because he has already hopscotched across so much history and left footprints the size of small countries. Long before he became a household name, long before Janis Joplin and Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash put his words in their mouths and in our heads, Kris Kristofferson led an extraordinary life. The past 30 years, during which he has become a hall-of-fame songwriter and a gold-plated singer and a million-dollar movie star and best friends with legends, have simply been the roach at the end of one long, fat joint. Here's a man whose whole life has been made up of the good stuff.

Those who continually refer to the man as a walking contradiction fail to understand how easy it is to reinvent oneself, how simple it is to walk away from this when there's a better that just around the corner. It's not at all difficult to reconcile the myriad Kris Kristoffersons that have existed since he was born the son of an Air Force major-general on June 22, 1936, in Brownsville.

After all, only a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford could have written such literate, lyrical songs such as "The Silver Tongued Devil and I," "Me and Bobby McGee," and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Only a creative literature major could have written such perfect, piquant moments as "Why Me?," "For the Good Times," and "Nobody Wins." And only a recovering Army Ranger and ex-helicopter pilot whose songwriting dreams landed him a job emptying ashtrays and sweeping up the Columbia Records studios could have written the hangover poetry of "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

Kristofferson is one of those men who doesn't know about such trivial things as regret and nostalgia. After all, it's out of his experience -- good and bad, and often a combination of both -- that such transcendent songs arise.

"I think one of the richest parts of my life is the fact I got to be so many different people," he says. Again, he ends his sentence with the gruff chuckle of a man who finds amusement in everything. He uses laughs the way other people use periods.

"I got to be a soldier, a helicopter pilot, a Ranger, a paratrooper. I got to be a firefighter, a janitor, a failure, a fired helicopter pilot -- but a real good pilot. I got to be these people. And then when I decided to follow my heart into the business I was in love with, the business of writing songs, I eventually got successful at it. And the next thing you know, I'm doin' movies and I'm performing my songs. It's pretty amazing to me today. It's like my whole life has become that amazing, ya know, because I'm close friends with Muhammad Ali and Willie Nelson. It's ridiculous."

Kristofferson doesn't even seem to mind much that, in some circles, his name has been relegated to the margins of history. All too often, he has heard from bewildered strangers who did not know that he wrote "Me and Bobby McGee"; they always figured Joplin wrote it, since she made it immortal. Same with "Help Me Make It Through the Night." What -- you mean Willie Nelson didn't write that? The man has been recorded by virtually everyone who has ever stood in front of a microphone: from Frank Sinatra to Claudine Longet, from Elvis Presley to Olivia Newton-John, from Johnny Cash to Acetone, from Bob Dylan to Carly Simon. But fewer and fewer people paid attention to the tiny-type songwriting credits. If anything, people knew Kristofferson as the guy who was directed by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah and John Sayles, who starred in A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand or Semi-Tough with Burt Reynolds. Or Big Top Pee-Wee.

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