I suppose I started writing this story about 40 years ago, so please bear with me, as at times, it may seem even more meandering than a Billy Connolly joke.
Somewhere in the early to mid-70’s I got my hands on (we never paid for anything back then as we had no money) a Nice Price cassette. These cassettes were a bait, sold cheaply, sampling just one song from about 30 different artists. The hope was that one would go on to buy complete albums after the tasting session. I remember, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, Manfred Mann’s The Mighty Quinn, Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light, Cohen’s Bird on the Wire (great song) etc. appeared on it. However, it was Kris Kristofferson’s Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) that nailed me, both mind and soul.
A few poignantly discerning lines particularly got me.
“Talking of tomorrow, and the money, love and time we had to spend.” How many readers would collocate the verb ‘spend’ with the noun ‘love’? Have you ever said, ‘the love I spent was…’? It caused me to realize, at a young age, that language was more flexible an entity than perhaps what I was being taught at school.
The line, “She ain’t ashamed to be a woman nor afraid to be a friend” put a woman’s right to sleep with whomever she desired right in front of an American public that wasn’t ready to hear it at the time. Part of the world today, and some of my friends, still seem not ready for it.
Many of Kristofferson’s lyrics were way before their time, and pushed the boundaries of society to where it seemingly wasn’t ready to go. “Come on lay down by my side, ‘til the early morning light. All I’m taking is your time” (Help Me Make it Through the Night); “Lay your warm and tender body next to mine” (For the Good Times) and particularly “Wishing Lord that I were stoned” (Sunday Morning Coming Down) were all pretty much too much for early-70’s American society. In comparison with some of what’s written today, these lines seem rather tame now.
The latter song, covered by Johnny Cash, won the Country Music Association’s song of the year in 1970, and uniquely as it is the only time it’s ever been done, CMA’s arch-rival the Academy of Country Music awarded For the Good Times, covered by Ray Price, as its 1970-song of the year. Interestingly, in accepting the award the prudish CMA pleaded with Cash to replace the word ‘stoned’ with ‘home’ or ‘drunk’ or something like that. No-one knew what Cash was going to deliver, but when the moment came, he bellowed ‘stoned’ down the mic, and as Kris says himself, “I never had to work another day in my life after that.”
Cash and Kristofferson were true blood-brothers, with every sinew in their bodies reading ‘outlaw’. All the heavies in Nashville at the time realized the gift that was in Kristofferson’s pen. Over 500 different professional recording artists have covered his material. Willie Nelson was prompted to say “Kris Kristofferson single-handedly dragged country music out of the dark ages”. Cash, ‘til his dying day was on record as judging Here Comes that Rainbow Again as his all-time favourite song. Can you just imagine the tens of thousands of songs that legend encountered in his powerful career? Yet, he chooses one of Kristofferson’s as his best.
And that song does display Kristofferson’s ingenuity, because he didn’t really write the song per se. Rather, he adapted it from a poignant scene in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, using the actual lines spoken by the characters in the book, just adding a chorus and minimal commentary. This three-minute ditty, like so many of his other lines, packs a punch more powerful than many writers achieve in 10,000 word novels.
The 1980’s had Kristofferson firmly established as a deeply insightful songwriter, and also as a prominent actor. He has starred in over 100 movies, winning a Grammy for his role opposite Barbara Streisand in When a Star is Born. Although, the younger crowd probably know him best for his roles in the Blade series. However, if I were to dwell upon his acting career, or cite from the more than 300 songs of his that I know (per verbatim), you would end up with a bible, Paddy.
The 1980’s also had him committing what Cash and other close friends (Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jackson Brown) described as “career suicide”, in that he took on the Reagan regime with all guns blazing, especially its brutal record down in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He couldn’t move a record for years. He was censored to the hilt in the US. As his song tells, he was “Shipwrecked in the ’80s.”
Nonetheless, this era, which I personally believe delivered Kristoffersons’s greatest work, as he had moved away from the personal freedom themed songs of the 1970’s to political freedom songs, produced gems like Anthem ’84, The Eagle and the Bear, The Ballad of Jesse Jackson, Mal Sacate, and probably to this day, my favorite song of his, Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.
Anthem ’84’s introduction includes “This is a love song, from an old soldier to an old girlfriend.” The song never tells us directly, but it is quite clear that the ‘old girlfriend’ is America. It hits hard at the way America has changed from everybody’s friend and helper (Bretton Woods, The Marshall Plan, etc.) to a war-mongering super-power, captured eloquently in the lines;
“But the vision slowly faded like the wonder from your eyes,
When you traded your compassion for your pride.”
I found it deeply satisfying and justifying when in 2011, Kristofferson played a gig and held a workshop to a presidential audience at the White House. The bastards never got him down. Nor will they ever get me down. Kristofferson’s active stand for human rights issues was influential in my decision to pursue a Masters degree in Human Rights Law.
However, it is not just his lyrics that inspire me. His road to become what he became, is as remarkable as it is sad. This Oxford University Rhodes scholar, Blues boxer, tenacious college footballer, and ex-army helicopter pilot seemed to have it all made when offered a teaching position at the prestigious West Point Academy, the leading army cadet school in the USA. He “threw it all away for a song.” Instead of going to West Point to be a teacher, he went to Nashville to be a janitor, ending-up emptying the ashtrays of the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Harlen Howard. He “choose to starve, and tried to carve a future of his own.” His father was a three-star general in the US Army. Both his grandfathers were army men. Even his paternal great grandfather back in Sweden was an army general. Ditching his military career did not sit well with his family, especially his ultra-right wing religious mother, who in one of her letters of lamentation describes Johnny Cash as ‘that black snake.’
The lines (Jesse Younger), “Everyday the neighbors say that it’s a dirty shame, the way he spat upon his family, and scandalized their name”, offer an insight into what it was like.
Basically, he was disowned and “his name was turned to ashes on their tongues.” It is said that his mother never forgave him, and that they never reconciled their differences. “Don’t tell me what to do”, penned in the mid-60’s, but never released, presumably out of respect for his mother, until a couple of years ago on the main track on the movie Bloodworth, cuts at these issues also.
It wasn’t only his family that proved difficult. So did Nashville! Having pitched song after to song to Cash and many others, without any success, Kristofferson, innovatively, landed a helicopter one Sunday morning beside Johnny Cash’s swimming pool (in Henderson, Texas) and firing him a demo of Sunday Morning Coming Down, he roars at Cash, “Cut that”.
A couple of weeks later, it was no. 1 all over America, and the rest as they say is history. If you know this history to the story, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” takes on an even greater dimension.
However, it isn’t only his songwriting, or the tough road that he had to trod that inspires me. It is the man himself, and sometimes I have a hard time trying to separate the man from his music. It’s said that you should never meet your heroes, as they’ll invariably let you down. In Kristofferson’s case, when I met him, I suppose you could say, he let me up.
Life isn’t always a bundle of fun, and sometimes “we’re driven toward the darkness by the devil in our veins”, “when no-one stands behind you but your shadow on the floor.” The early 90’s had me in such a frame of mind; “the taste of my martini didn’t please my bitter tongue.” On a barstool, on crutches one night in the Gleneagles Hotel in Killarney, while firing whiskey into me to beat the band, with seemingly the weight of the world on my shoulders, guess who pulled up beside me; the one and only.
I was at a difficult place in my life. Two or three hours of deep, meaningful conversation with the word-smith, my hero, was better than anything any confessional box could ever have done for me. Plus, the face was familiar, not one cloaked by darkness or a hidden veil, and there was no penance. I did feel absolution alright though.
Then a few years later, in Lillie’s Bordello, again on a barstool, while drinking a pint of plain, a passing Kristofferson remarks, “I see you fixed your leg.” Holy hell! In all the fans and people he’d met over those intervening three or four years, he remembered me. We didn’t talk that night. We didn’t need to.
And neither did we talk when I shook his hand in 2010 after a concert in Cuileann Hill in Kilkenny. However, my brother Martin was sharp enough to observe, “Jaysus, he put down his guitar and pointed straight down at you, as he shook your hand. It seemed as if he knew you.” Only then did I inform him and the other great man (Mike Daly) there that night, of my two previous encounters with, Kris.
Kristofferson said to me that night in Killarney that there are four truths:
- Try and tell the truth
- Work with laughter
- Play with passion
- Love with heart
I don’t know whether I fulfill number 1 very well, but I try. However, I do think that I focus on the other three rather well, which is why I enjoy my work, my football and my girls. He has taught me that I can ‘be’ whoever I want to be, anywhere in the world, and that I can have fun and enjoyment along the way.
In conclusion, and I try not to be biased but it is difficult not to be, having met and gotten to know the man, I would have to say that out of the three canons mentioned herein, it is still Kristofferson’s lyrics that get to me and inspire me the most, even more than meeting the man in person, or understanding what he went through to achieve his success. When you hear a song and ponder, ‘My God he wrote that for me. That’s my life.’, he’s got you.
So, I’ll leave you with a few that totally got me:
- “Winding like a river through a thirsty world of strangers” (Silver (The Hunger), suits a man who’s been to over 80 different countries)
- “There is nothing like a woman with the spell of make belief, to make a new believer of a man” (Duvalier’s Dream, and it is so true.)
- “Take a long hard look at a heaven, gone to hell under the gun.” (Under the Gun, one of his many anti-war songs)
- “We’ve seen the ones who’ve killed the ones with vision.” (They Killed Him, referencing the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, John Lennon.)
- “Billy Dee was 17 when he turned 21” (Billy Dee, it so eloquently describes the anguish of young men who want to be adults but don’t quite understand the difference between age and maturity.)
- “Are you haunted by the dreams of something gone but not forgotten? Will it fill the empty silence when you’re old?” (Magdalene, and it becomes a more pertinent question, the older we get.)
- “I have tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars. I have traded in tomorrow for today.” (The Pilgrim, and all a bit too real, actually.)
- “From the rocking of the cradle, to the rolling of the hearse, the going up is worth the coming down” (The Pilgrim, and a very nice way to summize life.)
- “Seeing his reflection in the lives of all the lonely men, who reach for anything they can to keep from going home” (Casey’s Last Ride… A powerful song)
- “And the pale light of the moon, through the windows of the room, split the shadows where two bodies lay entangled” (Darby’s Castle, a man finds out, poetically, that his wife is cheating on him.)
- “For all those people who have been disappeared down in Argentina” (The Circle. Yes, it may sound grammatically incorrect, but those victims of the brutal dictatorship didn’t disappear voluntarily.)
- Yes, he did really “cut a little deeper…closer to the bone” (Closer to the Bone).
Paddy, I thank you for delaying this publication until June 22nd, Kris Kristofferson’s 80th birthday. Happy birthday, my inspiration!