Kris Kristofferson Is
Still Living His Epic Life
By Turk Pipkin
May, 2014, Esquire Magazine
(Note from Turk / After reading the story,
continue to my footnote about a corrected
diagnosis of Kris's condition that has helped
him greatly since my story ran in Esquire.
Love you Kris - always!)
The fog descends and the memory is fickle, and a songwriter to compare with the greatest songwriters ever is having some trouble summoning his own lyrics. But at seventy-seven, by God, with his old Gibson, and his harmonica, he's sharing the secrets of his soul.
The Crest Theatre in Sacramento is an old movie palace, one of those places from another time that was magnificent in its day, then spent a long time empty and abandoned, only to be revived by somebody who saw some life there still and knew a good thing when he saw it. And so the Crest is magnificent again.
What Sacramento lacks in magnificence, it makes up for in authenticity. Like one of those places that Kris Kristofferson might write a song about. And so it seems right natural to see the man up there onstage, singing what he says is his favorite of the many songs he has written.
"Busted flat in Baton Rouge, heading for the trains, feeling nearly faded as my jeans …"
All around me, a thousand people sway and sing along, eyes fixed on the man standing onstage alone, with just his old Gibson and a harmonica. Janis Joplin made this a blues song when she made it famous, because every time she opened her mouth blues came out, but coming from Kristofferson the song is more straight up and down, a country song. The fact that his voice is not great has always been its greatness. Like the voice of his Texas compadre Townes Van Zandt, Kristofferson's never quite seemed to take flight, but his being stuck down here with the rest of us mortals made him that much more one of us. It's a voice held together by scars, and the songs that he made up out of his imagination always had the benefit of being founded on some kind of truth, like that voice in your ear you just know is right.
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Kristofferson will tell you the same thing. One day he stepped up to the first tee of Willie Nelson's nine-hole golf course, out west of Austin. Driver in hand, slick cowboy boots on his feet, Kris promptly sliced one into the woods.
"Nobody ever accused me of being a golfer," he said.
"No one ever accused you of being a singer, either," Willie replied.
Tonight's his last date in the States for a while—who knows when he'll be back? This show is actually a political benefit, with the proceeds going to local sustainable-agriculture causes and to the support of industrial hemp. But there are no political speeches from the stage, and something as prosaic as politics might just ruin this moment, anyway. And that would be a terrible shame.
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, and nothing ain't worth nothing, but it's free… ."
Beside me, a couple hugs close. The woman reaches up to wipe a tear from her cheek. She turns to the man and smiles sweetly. There is something almost unbearably intimate about this setting and something almost unbearably vulnerable about the man standing up there by himself.
It's not the way he looks, because he looks great. Kristofferson's in black and wearing the same pair of cowboy boots he's worn for thirty years. He still has the lean flanks of the boxer he was coming out of Brownsville. His cheekbones, cut from granite, are tight-wrapped in the kind of wrinkles you get from laughing hard for a long time. As he's aged, his eyes have receded deeper into the geology of his face, deep-blue pools set back in a way that makes you look at them more intently. And the surest sign of his years is in his voice: The deepest baritone will erode to a higher pitch in an old man, and so it is with Kristofferson, whose voice has gone a bit feathery now. You might say that his voice has finally caught up to his words.
The man is seventy-seven years old.
"I'd trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday… ."
These solo performances are still pretty new for him, ever since Steve Bruton up and died, way too young and way too soon for Kris. Bruton was his bandleader and friend for forty years, and when he died at sixty in 2009, Kristofferson decided that he wasn't going to stop performing, he couldn't stop if he wanted to, and that he would just go it alone from here on out. A solo act at seventy-three, still selling out theaters from here to South Africa and Australia and New Zealand, where he's headed for a long spell after he leaves California. He can't perform enough these days, almost as if he has so much left to do and is just trying to get it all in.
His finishes up the song and says a quick "Thank you" before reaching over to change harmonicas. "Me and Bobby McGee" is obviously a sincere experience for the thousand present, and they let him know it, loud and long. Without another word, he starts "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," and just like that we are all on that sleeping city sidewalk, knowing what it's like to be alone.
When he comes to the line "I don't care what's right or wrong" in "Help Me Make It Through the Night," he can't help but add "Yes, I do."
And then something happens, almost imperceptible. A change comes over him, a slight hitch in the song, a slight disorientation behind his eyes. The poetry that came out of his own mind as a younger man—he can't quite find it, and, well, he is confused. He looks out, imploring, "Did I already sing this verse?" The past couple years have seen his memory slip. His mind is no longer as sharp as it once was.
The crowd laughs, relieving the moment, and he glances at the iPad prompter at his feet to check. Sitting to the side of the stage and streaming his lyrics in case he needs them, his wife, Lisa, laughs and nods her head.
Kristofferson laughs at himself and reads the next few lines of his song. When he sings "This may be our last good night together," the crowd knows it's more than a line in a love song.
Full disclosure: Kris Kristofferson ruined my education.
In 1972, I was a freshman at the University of Texas with a heavy course load, two crappy jobs, and absolutely no direction. One day, I wandered into Inner Sanctum Records and picked up an album that had just arrived that day. It was called The Silver Tongued Devil and I, and it was by this guy from south Texas, Kris Kristofferson.
I didn't know anything about Kristofferson, except that he had written that amazing Janis Joplin song, and, buddy, that was good enough for me.
Back at my apartment, I listened to the record again and again. From the heartbreak of Jody and the Kid to the love and loss of a junkie friend named Billy Dee, I was entranced by the stories in his songs and the words in his rhymes, and they changed me. He sang of a freedom, love, and longing that I wanted to get started on right away.
You might say I was impressionable.
One day later, I quit the college I couldn't afford and started my search down a lot of wrong turns and dead ends. Under the incorrigible influence of Kris Kristofferson, this straight-arrow kid from west Texas realized that you don't have to do what's expected, that you can follow your own road and just see where it takes you.
I didn't know that after a Rhodes scholarship to study Blake, Kristofferson had followed his road to the Army as a helicopter pilot. He had even passed through Ranger school before turning down an assignment to teach English literature at West Point, choosing instead to take a job as a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville—just to be nearer the life he meant to be living. I didn't know that his family never quite forgave him for turning his back on respectability.
He was sweeping floors in the halls as Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde, but he couldn't bring himself to approach the reclusive Dylan for fear of being fired, an uncharacteristic timidity that he would soon make up for. Working weekends flying choppers for oil companies, Kristofferson had written a new batch of songs while sitting on a drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, and one day, during a National Guard training flight in Nashville, he made a detour and landed his helicopter in Johnny Cash's backyard. It was Cash who would record Kristofferson's number-one hit "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," starting a long string of hits that would see him win his first Grammy for "Help Me Make It Through the Night," a song inspired, Kristofferson says, by a quote from Frank Sinatra he had read in Esquire. Asked what he believed in, Sinatra said: "Booze, broads, or a Bible … whatever helps me make it through the night."
I didn't know any of that, because my dusty road out of Texas had taken me to a gig in the Navy and a cruiser in the Pacific, where, among other things, I was a part-time ship's projectionist, trying to get ahold of Kristofferson films because by then he was becoming a genuine movie star. I managed to trade films with another ship for a copy of Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love, starring George Segal and Kristofferson. When I say we traded films, I mean a giant cable was slung between two massive ships moving on a parallel track at twelve knots, and the film canisters were slid on pulleys above the churning waves.
Much to my relief, my fellow sailors had refined tastes and loved the quirky little movie about a guy who's in love with his ex-wife (and with her hippie boyfriend, Elmo, played by Kristofferson). For the next few weeks, Elmo's catchphrase was heard all over the ship. No matter how tough the challenge, there was "Nothing to it."
He still uses that line, even when it's not necessarily true.
Three years ago, I saw him tape an episode of Austin City Limits, and for the first time that I'd ever noticed, he seemed nervous and had trouble remembering some of the lines to his songs.
Now, I hadn't been so bold as to go and land my chopper on Kris-tofferson's lawn, but because life is funny and life is good, Kris and I had met by then and become friends. And backstage that evening was the first time he apologized to me in advance for his porous memory.
"My memory's not that good," he said. "I don't like it, but you can't go back and undo the concussions. The doctors say the concussions I had playing football and boxing have added up to me not remembering everything I should, so don't be surprised if I go blank on something," he warned me, his eyes searching mine.
An hour later, he told me the same thing again.
Backstage in Sacramento, I struck up a conversation with a big, friendly guy named Bucky Kahler.
"What's your connection to Kris?" I asked.
"I'm his best friend," Bucky beamed. "Since the fifth grade, when he moved from Brownsville to San Mateo. We did everything together, including football and boxing. It's the concussions from football that are hurting him now."
"I know he was a Golden Gloves boxer, but did you see him get tagged a lot?"
"I tagged him a few times myself," Bucky says. (And from the looks of him, he learned how to use his mitts.) "Tagged him hard. I wish I hadn't, but I did. We just didn't know."
Kris loved his early life in the Rio Grande Valley and credits those years with teaching him how to see the world. "South Texas seemed like the Garden of Eden," he told me recently. "I loved the flowers and the orchards and the ruby-red grapefruits. Brownsville was more Mexico than Texas, and that I loved.
"My mother once took me to a big parade for Jose Lopez, a guy from Brownsville who'd won the Medal of Honor. There was a lot of prejudice against Mexicans then, and at this whole parade we were the only Anglos in the audience. I'll never forget it. That was the kind of thing my parents did that gave me a sense of what I should do. That day affected the way I've lived every day since.
"And along the way, I felt like it was my duty, whether people wanted to hear what I had to say about the Contras or nukes or not, that it was my responsibility to speak up, and if I didn't live up to it I wouldn't be doing what God wanted me to do. A lot of people probably think I'm a Marxist or something," he says, laughing. "Hell, I'm not even a good Democrat. I don't much care for politics. It's about doing what you think is right.
"There was a thing Blake said that always rang with me: 'If he who is organized by the Divine for spiritual communion should refuse and bury his various talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation shall pursue him throughout life, and after death, shame and confusion are faced to eternity.' "
(It must be noted that the man with the fading memory recited Blake perfectly.)
"So if you're given the tools, you have a responsibility to use them," he says. "I'm doing what I'm cut out to do, the best thing I can do, until they throw dirt on me."
"I'm seventy-seven," he says. "For my family, I'm getting close to the end of the line. But I got a little wear left on these boots and I'm in no rush to get there."
On his feet that night in Sacramento, at the golf course outside Austin, and nearly every other time I've seen him, Kristofferson has been wearing the same pair of beat-up cowboy boots.
"They've brought me lots of luck."
A lot of people don't end up thinking they've been lucky.
"Why wouldn't I feel lucky? So many good things have happened in my life it makes me feel like someone else was writing the script."
So, after all these years, did your song come true? Did you beat the devil?
"I guess maybe I did. I'm pleased to find that I'm just grateful for the way my life has been. Lisa and I have been married for thirty-three years, the people who are my heroes ended up being my friends, and I've got eight children who love me. I don't know how much more I could want."
For a couple decades now, Kris has meant to publish his memoirs, to write his life down in what would be an epic book. The press releases from various publishing houses have noted that Kristofferson, being more than enough of a writer himself, would be writing "without benefit of a coauthor." The last release, from 2003, quoted him with regard to the prospect of telling his life story: "William Blake said, 'The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.' We'll see."
The last anyone heard, the book was supposed to have come out in 2005. Since then, the publisher has kept a respectful silence. Lisa says that Kris would still like to write the book, someday.
On Oscar night this year, the phone rang. It was Kris. All the excitement from Hollywood on the television had him thinking back on that part of his life. He has been in ninety-three films. "One benefit of my memory slipping is I don't remember all my movies. So I'm really enjoying watching lots of them again. My favorites are A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and the one with, um, you know, he's nominated tonight … McConaughey! … where I played the badass sheriff. It's called … it's called … "Lone Star!"
Years ago, I wrote a Christmas novel called When Angels Sing, and I used Kris as inspiration for a character called the Colonel, a retired Air Force pilot who is emotionally estranged from his son. Last year, a film based on the book went into production, to a great extent because both Kris and Willie agreed to act in it.
The love Kris feels for Willie cannot be overstated.
"Willie had been the hero of serious songwriters in Nashville," he's told me. "We knew all his songs. I remember waiting at his farm where he lived outside of Nashville. I went there and just waited, but I never saw him. The first time I met Willie was in Mexico, on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Willie came down to visit. I had him play some songs for Sam Peckinpah. When Willie played, Bob Dylan was in the room, and Bob was so knocked out that he asked Willie to keep playing, and Willie played all day long on the floor in the room.
"He's the great artist of our lifetime. You and I will never meet another artist like him… . Willie will be the last to go. I'm not sure he's meant to die, ever."
When it comes to expressions of love, Kris's mind is as clear as a bright-blue sky. And because your heroes sometimes become your friends, one day I found myself on the set of this movie with Kristofferson, Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britton, Willie, and a supporting cast of Texas music greats. In the scene, the family was singing Christmas carols at a holiday gathering, and Kris, as the Colonel, kept forgetting the final line of an emotional exchange with Connick's character, Michael. It was actually one word he was forgetting, and it was very moving to watch him search his mind for it, take after take. "Michael, I'm not …" he'd say, then he'd go blank, cuss himself, and we'd start again. "Michael, I'm not … Michael, I'm not …" As his frustration grew, I decided to write the word he was forgetting on the palm of my hand, where he could see it, as a spur to memory—the way Lisa stands nearby him with a prompter, to remind him of the words he himself once dreamed up that are now leaving him. But on the last take, without looking at me, the word came to him.
"Michael, I'm not senile!" Kristofferson said.
Then he turned to me. "Nothing to it," he said.
Footnote from Turk: Less than a year after my story ran in Esquire, Kris received a new diagnosis that his principal medical issue was Lyme Disease. After doctor's switched his medication, his memory rebounded considerably. Three years later, he is still touring.