23 March 2008
There’s a car park at the giant Tesco in West Kensington, and underneath there is a coach park. Not many people know that. In the coach park, there are two big black buses belonging to the “band and crew bussing” company Beat the Street. In one of these, clad in black but for his lucky, battered, beige cowboy boots, is Kris Kristofferson.
This may seem an odd place to find the writer of the country-music standards Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make It Through the Night and Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, one of the greatest movie stars of the 1970s, the lover of Barbra Streisand and Janis Joplin, and, with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, a member of the magnificent rat pack known as the Highwaymen. Two of them are dead (Cash and Jennings), but Nelson and Kristofferson are still, triumphantly, on the road that goes on for ever. Which is why, when you think about it, there’s nothing remotely odd about meeting him in the coach park underneath the giant Tesco in West Kensington.
Many years ago, I went to see Sam Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid because it had a score – a fine one – by Bob Dylan. I went into the movie wanting to be Dylan, I came out wanting to be Kristofferson. He played the Kid with such languid, insolent, majestic cool that he even drew your eyes away from James Coburn, Chill Wills, Jason Robards, Harry Dean Stanton and Dylan himself, playing Alias, which really was the name of one of Billy’s sidekicks. As Billy, Kristofferson looked about 7ft tall, but here he is greeting me in his Beat the Street bus, and he’s only about 5ft 8in. He emits a low, growling chuckle when I point this out.
Two of them are dead (Cash and Jennings), but Nelson and Kristofferson are still, triumphantly, on the road that goes on for ever
“Everybody thinks I am bigger than I am,” he says. “They used to think my father was taller than he really was.”
Kristofferson is 71. The waist is thickened and the cheeks are hollowed, but the grey hair is as full and wavy as it ever was. Above all, he still evokes the adjective “rangy”. Combined with his slow drawl and lucky boots, this makes him look and sound like the whole state of Texas. He was born there, in Brownsville, the son of Lars, who was to become a major-general in the US Air Force. His paternal grandfather was in the Swedish army. His mother was Scots-Irish, but I reckon the Swedish genes won out; the Scots-Irish are not known for ranginess. The kuttings tell me he had a brother, Kraigher, and a sister, Karen, which seems pretty krazy. He says all the ks are some kind of Swedish thing.
He was a sports star at college and he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, as did Bill Clinton: “Yeah, we kinda dispelled the myth that there was anything brilliant about Rhodes scholars. And look at Clinton, he’s doing it again.”
He’d been writing songs, and even recorded a few for Top Rank, in London, but they were never released.
In 1960, he went into the army. He became a helicopter pilot and rose to the rank of captain, but in 1965 he decided he couldn’t take it any more: “There wasn’t anything I liked about the army except the people I met and flying. It was just like one big rule waiting to be broken.”
Kristofferson was being lined up to teach literature at West Point, but he left to become a writer of country music. His father understood, but his mother all but disowned him. In Brownsville, he’d grown up amid the sounds of Mexican and country music. “My first big hero was Hank Williams,” he says. “He was emotionally so strong. It wasn’t an intellectual thing, it was just something that moved your heart. I could never sing with the passion Hank Williams did, but I could be as honest as he was, and the people I came to respect and admire – listening to Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Cash, and trying to be like them. Pop music then was very thin – How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?, that kind of thing. There was blues or soul, but I wasn’t equipped to do that. I can’t play the guitar that well, and I certainly can’t sing that well – but better than Willie Nelson says I can.”
His genuine and almost alarming modesty runs through our entire conversation. Everything he says about himself is footnoted with the name of somebody who does it better. He says it’s not modesty, it’s realism. But he underestimates what he can do, which is, as he puts it in his song Final Attraction, “pick up that guitar and go break a heart”. That’s what all the best country music is about. Listen to his album The Austin Sessions and you’ll see what I mean.
I can’t play the guitar that well, and I certainly can’t sing that well – but better than Willie Nelson says I can
In the beginning, he didn’t see himself as a performer, just as a writer. He was advised not to sing his own demos; his guitar-playing and voice were regarded as just too mediocre. He was making a living as a commercial helicopter pilot and a kind of janitor at some studios in Nashville. The first led to his now heavily mythologised assault on Johnny Cash’s garden. He’d been trying to get Cash to sing his songs. Finally, he got his attention by landing a helicopter on his lawn. “John had a creative memory. He said I got out of the helicopter holding a beer in one hand and a tape in the other, and the song I was selling was Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down. Well, I drank a lot in those days, but never when I was flying, and it wasn’t Sunday Mornin’.”
He was janitoring around the studios when they were taken over by Dylan and his band. They were recording Blonde on Blonde, arguably the greatest rock album ever made. “I was the only songwriter in Nashville allowed in at the time. There were police round the building. Bob was doing a great thing for Nashville, giving it credibility. I never said a word to him – I didn’t dare – but I spoke to his wife and son. In Nashville at the time, if you didn’t cut three songs in three hours, you were being extravagant and wasteful. He just went in there and sat down at the piano, all by himself, and wrote all night long. The band were playing ping pong and waiting for him. I’d never seen anything like it. I respected him. To me, he lifted songwriting up to an art form that was worth committing your life to, like poetry… To me, it was like watching Van Gogh go through different stages of his painting and his inspiration. He’s working all the time now, Bob is.”
In the early 1970s, Kristofferson was doing a gig at the Troubadour, in Los Angeles, when Harry Dean Stanton gave him the script of a film called Cisco Pike. He passed the screen test and found himself starring with Gene Hackman, Karen Black and Stanton. The film wasn’t a big hit but, in the business, Kristofferson was. “It made an impression on some people,” he recalls. “I remember a journalist telling me Robert Duvall had said something praiseworthy about my charisma. Movies got me into the position where I could carry myself through the lean years musically.”
And so Karisma Kristofferson became a film star, a process that led to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, then, in 1976, to A Star Is Born, with Barbra Streisand. It wasn’t a success, commonly being referred to as A Bore Is Starred, but it elevated Kristofferson into the movie stratosphere.
“I am eternally grateful to Barbra,” he says. “I don’t know why she put up with me, but it worked. More people have spoken to me about that film that any other.”
The real climax of his movie career, however, came in 1980, with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. One of Hollywood’s biggest turkeys, it went down with all hands, including Kristofferson. He still appears in a quite bewildering number of films, but Heaven’s Gate ended his era of superstardom. “It made me,” he admits, “unmarketable for a while.”
It had, though, started a new phase in his life. The film was about the Johnson County War, a dreadful episode that happened in the 1890s in Wyoming, when small farmers battled wealthy ranchers. It made Kristofferson focus on the “dark side of the American dream”. The point was that, up to 1980, his music had primarily celebrated the romance of America. On the road that ran for ever through the vast, empty spaces, you got wrecked, your heart got broken, but you could always move on with your memories. Life is hard, but, as he sang in Bobby McGee: “Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues.”
He still appears in a quite bewildering number of films, but Heaven’s Gate ended his era of superstardom. “It made me,” he admits, “unmarketable for a while.”
After Heaven’s Gate, this gave way, in the Reagan years, to a disgust with American foreign policy. Kristofferson became involved with the cause of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and sang in their favour. The vast body of the country-music audience being right-wing and intensely patriotic, he found himself ostracised by Nashville as well as Hollywood. He remembers one of his songs – They Killed Him, lamenting the fates of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus and the Kennedys – being rejected by a redneck disc jockey.
“He said the only thing wrong with what happened to King was that there weren’t enough bullets in the gun – you know Jesse Jackson was standing next to him when he was shot. I had people protesting at my shows. And Country Music magazine devoted a whole issue to criticisms of what I was doing. Johnny Cash wrote them a letter sticking up for me. There couldn’t have been a stronger endorsement. John had such respect, he saved my ass there for a while.”
Kristofferson’s politics are still out there – In the News, on his last album, This Old Road, is about Iraq – but he doesn’t feel quite so lonely. The country, he thinks, is moving in his direction. He supports Barack Obama as a continuation of what the Kennedys started: “It makes you think about what a different world it would have been if Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been killed. I don’t think we’d ever have had the Reagan years.”
In 1985 came the country supergroup the Highwaymen. Krisofferson, typically, thinks he was outclassed, other than as a songwriter, by Cash, Jennings and Nelson. “I can’t put myself in the same class as those guys, particularly in terms of singing,” he says. “Willie can play the guitar like Django Reinhardt, and his voice is absolutely unique. Waylon’s is another voice I could remember from the first time I heard it. It blew me away. Cash was a hero, larger than life and an inspiration. When I was working at the studio, I pitched him every song I ever did. But I could sing with honesty, and I think that’s what works today. God knows, there’s people I’d rather hear sing my songs than me.”
He has a point. The covers of his best songs have been spectacular. Most notably there was Janis Joplin’s spine-shivering country-rock-soul-blues version of Me and Bobby McGee, recorded a few days before her death in 1970. But Ol’ Karisma Kris has something more than mere talent.
His private life was, until 1983, more or less what you’d expect of a big star. As well as Streisand and Janis, there was a first, high-school-sweetheart marriage that produced two children. In 1973, he married the singer Rita Coolidge. They divorced in 1979 and, in 1983, it all ended in peace with his marriage to Lisa Meyers, a lawyer. They live in Hawaii. Lisa goes on tour with him, and so do any of his eight children who happen to be available. On this tour, he had Lisa, 13-year-old Blake, his youngest, and 17-year-old Kelly, another “K”.
“My relationship with my family is the best part of my life,” Kristofferson says. “The fact that all my kids love each other is a great joy to me, and the fact that we could still be a family and still be on the road . . . It’s very different from the days of the old romances, but every now and then they jump up and bite me.” His wife wants him to write his autobiography, so the children will know. He’s reluctant.
He has said he would like the first lines of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire for his epitaph – “Like a bird on a wire, / Like a drunken midnight choir, / I have tried in my way to be free”. In his own song, Pilgrim’s Progress, he wonders if he has it in him to “perfect myself in my own peculiar way”. It’s all about authenticity, but, in the end, you settle for what you can get – “I want justice, but I’ll settle for some mercy,” he sings. And the whole point of Help Me Make It Through the Night is the modesty of the request – “All I’m takin’ is your time. / Help me make it through the night.”
Not love – that would be asking too much – just company. The road is compromise, making do. Then you get old, then they throw dirt on you. But not yet. He’s pulling in bigger crowds than ever. Authenticity is back.
“I hope that I’ve got the energy and the memory to keep going, because there’s something going on now,” Kristofferson says. “Maybe it’s just because they have respect for you when you get older, but it’s really encouraging to see people very receptive to everything – not just Bobby McGee, but The Circle and In the News. It’s encouraging to me, so, anyway, it feels like there’s a good reason to keep going.”
On the way home from Tesco, I sing Bobby McGee and stretch out my legs in an attempt to be rangy. I still want to be Kris Kristofferson, to have that elemental power to “pick up that guitar and go break a heart”. But I guess it’s too late.