KRISTOFFERSON’S LATEST OBSESSION: POLITICS
Consider the paradox: Kris Kristofferson, that one-time silver-tongued devil, is on stage at a honky-tonk in conservative Santa Ana singing to a crowd that is mostly female. They’re eager for love songs about making it through the night.
But Kristofferson spends much of two hours singing hard-edged political ballads about U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, the merciful love of Jesus and the nonviolent message of Martin Luther King Jr.
Not everyone is pleased.
Some of the fans look confused and one elderly couple walks out (it turns out they weren’t upset with the politics; they just thought the volume was too high.)
Mostly, though, the crowd seems satisfied, but for reasons that have nothing to do with politics.
“He could be standing in a pail of garbage and he’d still look beautiful,” said a lab attendant from Newport Beach as she sat with three other women at a rear table at the Crazy Horse Steak House.
“I’ll tell you,” agreed a co-worker. “I don’t care what he sings about. . . . I just came to look at him.”
Kristofferson’s beard is almost all gray now and the lines in his face suggest the hard times of his struggling Nashville days: a period chronicled in songs like “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33.”
Sample lyric from the former: “Well, I woke up Sunday mornin’ / With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt / And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad / So I had one more for dessert.”
But Kristofferson keeps in terrific physical shape, giving himself the appearance of a man younger than his 50 years. And he speaks with the enthusiasm of someone whose career is still ahead of him. He’s eager to talk about his new songs, and he smiles at the mention of the sex appeal.
“I know a lot of that goes on, but I do think a lot of people do listen to the music,” he said between shows, sitting on his custom touring bus with his third wife, Lisa, and their two children, Jesse, 3, and Jody, 2.
And what about the politics?
“The only place there was any yelling out was Las Vegas one night . . . and I think that was because this one reviewer had written that I shouldn’t mix politics and music,” he responded. “Most people are at least willing to hear what I have to say about our policies in Central and South America.
“I’ve always been interested in that area because I grew up by the border . . . in Brownsville, Texas. And I’ve tried to study as much as I could about it. We’ve got a real sorry record in terms of exploitation of Latin America . . . treating them like our backyard.
“You can still hear that every day from Washington. . . . Every time some politicians open their mouths, they talk about how ‘We’re not allowing a Soviet beachhead in Central America,’ as if it were Corpus Christi or someplace.”
Freedom. That’s been a favorite theme of Kristofferson the songwriter. In “Me and Bobby McGee,” the 1969 tune that helped launch his career, he wrote, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose / And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free.”
At the time, Kristofferson had thrown away a guaranteed future “full of money, love and dreams” (to quote a line from another of his early songs) to pursue his obsession with songwriting.
Here was the quintessential All-American boy: the son of an Air Force general, a Golden Gloves boxer, Rhodes Scholar, the winner of a prestigious fiction-writing contest. He was even offered a teaching position at West Point. But he turned his back on all that and went to Nashville in the mid-'60s with his wife and child to become a songwriter.
Things went from bad to worse: His wife left him and he eventually took a job as a janitor. But the struggle paid off.
Four songs from his 1970 debut album ended up in the Top 10: the melancholy “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” (recorded by Johnny Cash), the tender “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Sammi Smith), the wistful “For the Good Times” (Ray Price) and the anthemic “Me and Bobby McGee” (a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin).
And soon he was in the movies, where he has since starred in more than a dozen films, including the blockbuster “A Star Is Born” (opposite Barbra Streisand) and the box-office disaster “Heaven’s Gate.”
Gradually, Kristofferson’s fame as an actor overshadowed his reputation as a songwriter. Rather than abandon music, however, Kristofferson continued to tour and make albums between films. After going through a painful divorce from singer Rita Coolidge in the mid-'70s, however, his writing and performances seemed to take on a bitter edge.
It wasn’t until he made the film “Songwriter” in 1982 with Willie Nelson that he began to feel confident again as a writer. His new “Repossessed” is his first LP in six years.
Freedom again is a theme in “Repossessed,” but the emphasis this time is on social and political freedom, with a particular focus on Latin America. That’s not a promising theme, commercially speaking, for conservative country audiences, who have been his biggest supporters over the years. But this music--and these themes--are his new obsession. It’s why he still travels around the country with his band, playing small clubs, rather than resting at home in Malibu.
About his increased political awareness, he reflected, “I saw a clip of Muhammad Ali the other day, this clip of him speaking out about Vietnam and refusing to go over there. I wasn’t really paying attention to all that at the time and I thought he was wrong to do that . . . just like most people in the country did.
“But I can see it clearer now. I admire him so much. He became a symbol for a lot of people back then and at great expense. I think people have a responsibility to speak out on things that they feel are wrong. But it’s easier for me than for Muhammad. I don’t have the same risk. They can’t take my title away because I don’t have one and they aren’t catching me in my prime either.
“I haven’t been on the charts for quite a while anyway, so it’s not like I am jeopardizing my commercial position. I feel that I have the luxury of being able to do what I am doing . . . to be able to address issues that I think are important.”
Lots of people who have experienced Kristofferson’s level of stardom would be embarrassed playing small clubs the way he does now, but the 5-foot-11, 150-pound songwriter seems to thrive on the challenge of working his way up again--the way he did two decades ago in Nashville.
“I was just talking a few days ago to Casey (his 13-year-old daughter) about how the important thing is your personal happiness, not achievements. And she said, ‘Well, that’s easy for you to say because you’ve got all these accomplishments.’
“She’s talking about everything back to the Rhodes Scholarship stuff and she’s trying to figure out what she’s going to do with her life. And I tried to tell her those things don’t do me any good now. In fact, accomplishments can be a burden.
“Just as people used to say, ‘What’s a Rhodes Scholar doing emptying ashtrays?’ people come up--like the guy in a Bakersfield club the other night--and say, ‘What are you doing in this honky-tonk?’ I just told him it’s better than being a janitor.
“The point is you do what you have to do. Music has always been the most important thing to me and I’m proud of the things I’m writing now. When you start feeling everything is behind you, you stop living.”
The time after the breakup of his marriage to Coolidge in the late-'70s was a low point emotionally for Kristofferson.
“I was pretty heavily into chemicals around that period and the farther I get away from it I can see there was also a lot of misdirected rage.
“For a while, I felt like the stranger in the ‘Star Wars’ bar. . . . I felt everybody was looking at me. That was a holdover from the ‘Star Is Born’ experience, where you walk out one day and see 50-foot posters of yourself kissing Barbra Streisand all over the place.
“The thing that eventually helped pull me through all of that was Casey,” he said. “When Rita left, all of a sudden I was taking care of this little girl all by myself. She was the most important thing in my life and I had to straighten myself out . . . get off all the chemicals . . . so that I could be a father to her.
“I just don’t deal with life the same way. I have found that the clearer I get, the better my life around me has gotten. I never imagined I’d ever get married again, much less have more kids. But we’ve got another on the way in May. My family keeps me stable . . . the most important thing in the world to me.”
Kristofferson joined his band--most of whom have been with him for 15 years or more--when it was time for the second show at the Crazy Horse. He has used the money from the movies to keep the band going in times when touring was a losing proposition. After all these years, there’s a strong bond among them.
Billy Swan, a songwriter himself, thinks Kristofferson is writing some of the best material of his career. “It really is good to see him happy about his music again,” said Swan, whose own hits include the rockabilly charmer “I Can Help.”
Inside the club, the late crowd was again largely female, and even more boisterous. At the bar, five women--all blonde and appearing to be in their early 30s--squealed with such frenzy at the first sight of Kristofferson that you’d have thought they were cheering some male strippers at Chippendale’s.
They shrieked when he went into “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” one of his most seductive songs.
And they all but charged the stage when he got to the line that goes, “Let the devil take tomorrow, Lord, tonight I need a friend.”
But they merely sat politely as he went through socially minded tunes like “They Killed Him"--a song about leaders (including King, Gandhi and the Kennedys) who have been assassinated.
About his new direction, Kristofferson later explained, “The funny thing is I don’t feel political or that the show is political. I’ve never really been comfortable with politics. I feel our best shows are like a spiritual communication, where we lift each other’s spirits. That’s what I see in Willie’s shows, too.”