Like all of us, this man is a product of his time and place. He was the quintessential middle class over achiever who had his mid-life crisis early:
- an athelete scholar who loved Blake and wrote a failed novel in his youth;
- studied in England as a Rhodes scholar;
- ordered to West Point to teach English literature as an Army captain – but resigned his commission instead;
- flew helicopters to make money for his child support payments;
- disowned by his mother when he left respectability and went to Nashville
In essence he was a dreamer in disguise, a failed novelist who turned to song-stories as a way to get to the heart of it all. Mark Knopfler, that genius guitatrist, said so succinctly and sardonically about singers: money for nothing and the chicks are free.
Except they aren’t free, not really – which is the point of Knopfler’s song if you listen closely. Kristofferson, the ‘straight arrow’ of youth, probably surprised himself as much as anyone when he totted up the price of fame. But I’ll bet he’d pay it all over again, including the costs borne by those ‘hostages to fortune’(whom he probably petitioned for pardon on a regular basis) – his children.
This first part of Kristofferson’s biography, below, covers his childhood and on up to a delayed-fuse-Big-Rebellion, where he ends up as a janitor looking for the chance. It’s easy for us to see that his flight to fame ought to have begun earlier, when he was younger and unemcumbered by children. But he must have been fighting his Scandinavian DNA where you do what is expected of you…and then, American-style, throw it all away for the chance to be heard. Americans are a people of second or even third chances, of re-inventions of self while we struggle to find the center. Doing it over until you get it right.
Makes you wonder what his epitaph will be; there are so many good lines in his oeuvre from which to choose. The Baron – when going out on a limb in his unexpected reincarnation as a member of the Counterjihad – frequentlly quotes the tagline from KK’s “Bobby McGee” – “nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free”. That’s probably the one they’ll use, but I hope they choose an alternative, equally humorous but edgier, line for Mr Kristofferson’s headstone: I never beat the Devil, but sometimes I drank his beer for nothing…
This started out to be a zydeco video by a group called L’Angelus from Louisiana…Fayetteville? Lafayette? I forget. But deep in Catholic Cajun country, and mostly for their zydeco, but also for the wonderful energy of one of the young women – she never stops moving. I even tried to get their performance in Norway for “The Tall Ships” but nothing seemed recorded well.
So then someone suggested “On the Road Again” – that old Willie Nelson favorite. It was good for a detour through Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, even Janis Joplin. She wasn’t here long; a crying shame. But there she was on You Tube singing a Kris Kristofferson perennial – though it was hardly a ‘perennial’ when she sang it.
It was then I remembered reading recently that Kristofferson said he’s got “memory problems” – as in, his short term memory is pretty much gone and dementia is waiting in the wings. He does remember all his songs though so he still performs. Recalling the interview, I wanted to find a version of his own recording of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. The man has always been able to write visual, story-telling lyrics, and with this one he cuts to the heart of loneliness at the center of a young songwriter’s struggle.
It seemed best to go with an early recorded version, when his voice was still strong and sure. Finding out about his approaching dementia, I knew immediately this was the song. The loss of love is only alluded to, this is really about the self in the daylight when all the bars are closed and there is no escape from your mistakes. Even though he’s old now and looking at – as he calls mortality – “that empty blue horizon”, this young man’s rail is still apropos.
The fan who uploaded this version said of the scenes he used to highlight the track he’d put up:
This is all Kris. The scenes are from his movies “Cisco Pike” (1971) “Trouble in mind” (1985) “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) “Semi-tough” (1977) “A star is born” (1976) a tiny scene is from the bio -docu about Kris and a tiny effect is from “Millenium”
I had no idea Kristofferson had been in all those movies. I never saw “Semi-Tough” but I read the book., which appears to be in print still:
Hilarious, especially the stages of drunkeness. Oh wait, that list might be in “Baja Oklahoma”, another Texas tale:
The author of both books, Dan Jenkins, is a chicken-fried steak genius of Texan humor. His description of those professionally cute young women as “steel-bellied air heads” is perfect. And the implausible tale one character tells in order to avoid his wife’s wrath and disbelief, ending with the fellow’s adamant, “that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it”? It’s become one of those sayings our family uses…but I digress – and even more so with the Baron away right now.
Here’s Kristofferson’s young voice (1970’s I think):
[NOTE:For non-Americans who might not be familiar with what used to be part of American urban life, look at the brief scene ~3.50. Those hands you see lifting him up are probably not policemen. Based on their uniforms, they appear to be Salvation Army workers. That couldn’t happen now. Yes, the Salvation Army is still here, but their hands are already more than full.]
In this same fan’s notes I found the following background:
Kris said in an interview, “This song probably was the most directly autobiographical thing I had written. In those days I was living in a slum tenement that was torn down afterwards, but it was 25 dollars a month in a condemned building, and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was more or less looking around me and writing about what I was doing.
One time, some people broke into that place, and I had to call the police station to answer some questions about it, and the guy said, “Yeah, they really trashed the place when they went in there.” But I hadn’t noticed that it was any different. There were holes in the wall bigger than I was.
It was quite a place, so “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is kind of more or less what I was living at that time. I guess it was depressing, I don’t know, but the chorus was kind of uplifting. … What I was really trying to do was to keep the feeling of loss and of sadness. For me at that time, it was the loss of my family and looking at a little kid swinging on a swing and his daddy pushing him. That was the feeling I wanted to get for the whole song. I think Sunday was the choice because the bars were closed in the morning and nobody was at work, so if you were alone, it was the most alone time…”
Somehow, the listener could always tell the place in his soul this sad song originated. Many other singers have sung his songs, and some have done them better. But this one? No, this one is most particularly his.
And yeah, Mr Kristofferson is no doubt one of the Hollywood left clueless ones. But in his prime, he wrote some mighty conservative lyrics.
Maybe next time I can find a L’Angelus video with good visuals to post. They are a world away from Kristofferson but they drink from the same cup, though for entirely different reasons. And their story is also worth telling, though they have a whole lifetime of music yet to make and a whole history of Acadian memories to give us…