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.
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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.
If nothing else, Kristoffer-son thinks his brand-new record The Austin Sessions, containing a dozen of his best-known songs as performed by the man himself and a handful of crack guest stars (among them Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Alison Krauss, and Mark Knopfler), will change that. Maybe people will buy the record or come out and see him perform during his mini-tour in support of the release and discover the man behind the footnotes. He wouldn't mind that happening. After all, once he's gone, these will be his contributions -- the children he fathered 30 years ago, only to watch them grow up and move out on their own.
"There seems to be a lot of interest in the music again," Kristofferson says, with not a little gratitude in his voice. "For a while, they weren't connected to me somehow. People are coming up to me going, 'Jeez, I didn't know you wrote 'Me and Bobby McGee' or 'Help Me Make It Through the Night,' and there's no reason they should know that. It's interesting to see the respect that the songs are getting now. My only problem is, I have a hell of a time selecting what I am going to do in the show, which is three times as long as the album. And all the songs sound good to me, ya know?" He laughs. "I think there are some pretty good ones out there.
"It's just interesting to see different songs from different periods, and there are really some good ones I had forgotten about. It's so much like your children. That's why it's so difficult for me to decide which 25 songs to do during the show, because there are maybe 100 out there I'm real close to. And as they live on the road with ya there for 30 years, they become their own people. They pick up little different flavors from what you learned and from other people who sing 'em. By the time they're as old as these songs are, they carry a lot of weight."
The Austin Sessions began as something of a sequel to Jimmy Webb's 1996 release Ten Easy Pieces, which featured the man who wrote such songs as "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park" performing his best-known tunes for the first time on a single disc. Producer Fred Mollin wanted to do something similar with Kristofferson, if only so the man could reclaim a little lost glory after so many years spent without a label to call his own. When Guardian Records folded, Mollin took The Austin Sessions to Atlantic Records. It marks the first time since 1990 that Kristofferson has been associated with a major label -- and even then, it has been nearly 20 years since the music business has given him much of a thought.
Four years ago, Kristofferson released what ranked among the finest albums of his career, A Moment of Forever, produced by Don Was. But the Houston-based Justice Records promoted it as though Kristofferson owed the label money; copies have been spotted in cutout bins, marked down for pennies on the dollar. Kristofferson was so disappointed and so burned out that he withdrew from the business, refusing to tour since 1996.
"I think I got tired of beating my head against the wall," he says of his retirement. "For many years, I was working without the support of a record company and losing money, and that gets depressing. And then you're going to places where they don't even know you're comin', and that gets depressing. Then I put out a record that was probably the best record I ever made, A Moment of Forever. I thought it was great, and Billboard said it was transcendent, and nothing happened with it. So I thought, 'Shit, if I gave it my best shot and nothing happens, then maybe I'm doin' something wrong.' This record sort of pulled me back into it, the fact Fred Mollin wanted my signature songs, which sounds egotistical, I guess, but the goddamned things lived, and they're still valid today, 30 years after the fact."
Kristofferson likes to talk about how his style of songwriting has never changed, how all he's ever done is try to write from deep within the most vulnerable spot. He talks of how a songwriter should be honest, painfully so; he even says he's been too revelatory at moments, refusing to point out those songs because he is, frankly, too embarrassed.
He was 11 years old when he wrote his first song, something titled "I Hate Your Ugly Face." It was, he recounts, about a guy who had not a single regret about dumping his girlfriend. Of course, Kristofferson back then had never been in a relationship, had never been in love. Years later, he would write "For the Good Times," a toast to parted love. Only a man who has seen so much and been so much could have written words so honest, so visceral that you would swear on a good (or really bad) day that you wrote those songs.
"I think so far what I've had to contribute has been a certain way to look at things, at emotions," Kristofferson says of his work. "And I think in general my work has been human and made people respond to the things I like to respond to. That's the way my brain responds to my experience. It works it out in lines when it's working the best. It doesn't always work it out like that, but it works it out in lines that make sense. It makes more sense than you think it would. But I do think you can wear your heart on your sleeve, and mistakes I've made in that direction have usually been when I was under the influence of something that made me more confident of my surroundings than I deserved.
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"But when I decided I was going to write songs, I decided I was gonna do it right -- be true to the best of it -- and I think I was pretty idealistic. I thought I would show, in the best way I could, all the emotions I could."
Without a doubt, the best thing Kristofferson ever wrote, ever performed, is "Sunday Morning Coming Down," sung by a man who wakes up with his head in one hand and a beer in the other. It's about a guy who stumbles out of bed only to realize he's got no place to go, who shaves his face and combs his hair even though there's nobody to give a shit about him. He staggers out into the street and is hit in the face by the smell of fried chicken, the lonesome sound of "the sleepin' city sidewalk," and the sight of a father with "a laughing little girl" he's pushing on a swing set. "On the Sunday mornin' sidewalks, wishin' Lord that I was stoned," Kristofferson croaks, "'cause there's something in a Sunday makes a body feel alone." Not for nothing was that song a favorite of Kurt Vonnegut's, Sam Peckinpah's, and Robert Mitchum's.
"That song was literally what I was living at the time, and it just expressed itself," Kristofferson says. Then he considers it for a moment, pondering how enormous a difference 30 years makes.
"Aw, Christ, with that song in particular," he says. "In that song, there's a guy swinging this laughing little girl as I walked past him. Shit, I'm the guy who's swinging the little girl now. And, man, for that, you've gotta feel gratitude." And he laughs some more.