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Kris Kristofferson’s Talking Blues

From Oxford to Nashville to Hollywood

Kris Kristofferson, horseKris Kristofferson, horse

Kris Kristofferson on horse. Circa September, 1974.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In Peru, one kept a daily journal; now Kristofferson bends grinning over its pages, on which, in the winter of ’70, Andes mud spilled and dried like blood spots. “Hell,” he offers rurally, “wouldn’t surprise me none you said it was blood.”

One had gone there to write about the making, or rather, wresting from the soil, of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie; Kris, totally unknown then, was doing the film’s score. Rain hung over the Andes like an apathetic fate; we were unanimously weakened and distracted by the paranoia and diarrhea induced by Hopper’s inferior coke and an oppressive intuition we shared, about a movie whose title would turn out inadvertently ironical. Yet now Kris happily basks in the journal’s glum notes as though they were yearbook inscriptions, or baby pictures:

Hopper attracts, or surrounds himself with, two types: troubled, abrasive specters and gentle heroes holding to concepts of pleasantness and goodness. The latter includes a composer named Kris, with a K . . . though he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, his speech is Brownsville bowling alley. Amid the cabin-fever hostility here, he takes elaborate pains to placate, to not challenge; he appears to sleepwalk hung over through some good dream, yet yesterday, when the horses rented for the movie panicked on the set, K. stepped instantly from us cowering bystanders to a wild-eyed black mare . . . before he calmed her, she’d stepped on his hand.

“Man, I didn’t even think when I grabbed that bridle,” and he laughs down at the page. “I didn’t know shit about horses; if I’d thought I’d never ‘a done it.” He’s lit another brown Bull Durham cigarette; he more or less chain-smokes.

Here is Rita Coolidge’s house, a dim, warm, overstuffed cottage on the wrong side of the Hollywood freeway. Until now, we haven’t really talked since the Peruvian debacle, when the idea of him as music celebrity or movie star was as remote as canonization. “But you gotta understand, Tom, the whole trip down there, it was my first time near anything that bizarre. Hell, I was straight outa Nashville with shit on my boots.” His voice is as it was then, scratching warmly from a rusty-iron larynx, his smile is the same, and yet not — darker, or it occurs less easily, less often, except when he thinks about Peru:

. . . dawn, Monday. With a lady photographer and a foxy actress named, incredibly, Poupee Bocar, K. & I sneak aboard the People’s Train for a day at Machu Picchu. (Dennis hates even short-term defections and probably has the railroad station watched.) K.’s hand still bandaged from horse incident; he insists, though, in carrying along his guitar. Ten miles into the mountains, the train, which smells of llamas, malfunctions; instantly Kris herds us off and over the muddy ties in antic procession to the luxurious tourist train, paused ahead for its Retired Shriners, or whatever, to snap Polaroids. Funky, unshaven, we are not welcome among the barbered burghers, but K. of course charms us on . . .

The whole trip home, very stoned, Kris plays and sings songs he’s written: “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “Help Me Make It through the Night,” and one about Dennis called “The Pilgrim” . . . “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker.” All lonely songs but humorous…. He’s had almost no success peddling them; why does it seem, sadly, that he won’t? Because there’s about him the good, gentle loser? . . . Good lines in a song about Bobby McGee (Bobby a girl? Ask K.) “Feelin’ near as faded as my jeans,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” etc. . . .

About there, his laugh becomes a cough and he shakes his head as if it hurt. After a moment, one mentions Joplin; after another, he says, “Jesus, I don’t like talkin’ about her. It’s like grave-robbin’. Yeh, I lived with Janis awhile. Met her because — remember how we partied, in Peru, the night I got the telegram from Johnny Cash, askin’ me to come on his show ‘soon as I was finished? My first break, an’ all. Johnny really hyped my songs after that, I got my first gig at the Bitter End in New York, an’ one night there I fell in with Mickey Newbury an’ Bobby Neuwirth, he used t’be Dylan’s road manager, and Michael J. Pollard, and all these freaks. And after this one all-night jam session, Bobby says, ‘Hey, let’s fly out to the coast and visit Janis.’ I used my last cash for the plane. She was in this house in Mill Valley then, and my first impression was, ‘This chick is in very good shape!’ She’d kicked heroin, wasn’t even letting her old connections on the place. Oh, she bitched a lot ’cause this doctor wouldn’t prescribe her methadone, but she was working out with her band every day, really gettin’ it off; she was like Sugar Ray Robinson working out! But Janis …. she felt she had to be number one, she lived under this paranoid threat that somebody else’d step in and be the big girl, and she’d just become a plain chick nobody wanted. Sad: All this crap you read about her, it’s like ‘Who Killed Norma Jean?’ and it’s bullshit. I mean, nobody in this business is very stable, else we wouldn’t all be up on stages making asses ‘a ourselves.”

The grin’s the old one. “Oh, there was a lotta drinkin’ an’ high boogyin’ there at Janis’s. I never did intend t’stay, but Bobby Neuwirth took off and he had the car. I kept fixin’ to leave every day, but it was like Peru: I’d never known anybody like Janis before, it was all new to me. She’d say, ‘Shit, pretty soon you’re gonna be gypsyin’ down the road, to go be a star.’ Maybe if I hadn’t ‘a left . . . she used to get depressed and say, ‘If things don’t get better next year, I’m gonna off myself.’ I didn’t believe her, I’d say, ‘Aw, Janis, that’s just Capricorn trick number 37,’ trying to cheer her up. I always figured people could be talked outa offing themselves. And I finally did gypsy off, to Nashville, to cut my first album. From there, I had to go to England for the Isle of Wight concert; Jimi Hendrix was in it, too, an’ right after it, Jimi died. Soon as I came back I did the Monterey Folk Festival, and the day it was over, somebody called to say Janis was dead. Wow, it was very heavy for a long time after that. I thought, ‘Who gives a shit, you devote your life to entertaining people who, in the end, depress you so much you off yourself; that’s a killer outfit. . . .’ “

From Monterey he made a sort of pilgrimage, tracking her ghost, south to L.A. to John Cooke, Joplin’s manager. It eluded him (“I’ll never know if her dyin’ was just a freaky accident”), but during that visit he was cast in his first film, Cisco Pike, quite by accident, as he later explains. “I wasn’t hot to be in movies, but after Janis, I was very confused about the music trip. So much pain t’put yourself through! I was performing all the time by then, but everything I made I spent on the road, bein’ miserable. The movie looked like it’d be a day at the beach; it wasn’t. That Christmas, 1970, I did my first Carnegie Hall gig and went from it right up to Woodstock; it was New Year’s Eve, the town was covered with snow. At a party, somebody said, ‘Hey Kris, you gotta hear this,’ and he put on a tape of Janis singing ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’ Jesus! I had absolutely no idea she’d recorded it!

Exactly at “The town was covered with snow,” at that perfectly wrong moment, one’s new tape recorder begins humming protests. If you tape interviews with celebrities, you must conceal your machine’s crotchets at any cost, including fake epileptic seizure or even, in extreme crisis, interrupting your subject, lest he perceive that his thoughts, usually dredged from the somberest levels of Reich, Janov, Reuben, L. Ron Hubbard and How to Be Your Own Best Friend, be lost. Kristofferson studies the recorder as if its rudeness had restored his own good humor. “Rose Mary Woods is lurkin’ somewheres,” he announces. “Think we can fix it?” And he manipulates and strokes it, successfully. “Know what that really was? This used to be John Garfield’s house, and we’ve had tapes erased for no reason, whole bands of new records won’t play. But I swear, John’s mostly a friendly dude: The other night his movie Body And Soul was on TV and the feelin’ in this room was so good . . . .”

Except, he adds, pouring a Tia Maria, except he wonders if he could just say all that again, about Joplin, now the machine’s OK. “I do want that quoted right, Tom, because everybody’s exploitin’ the hell outa Janis.” Painstakingly, he repeats. “. . . So I sat there in Woodstock and listened to that tape all night, I-dunno-how-many times. The next mornin’, my sister in California called to say my dad died. It was a fairly traumatic New Year’s. I’d also had walking pneumonia for something like four months without knowing it. Took three weeks off, went back on the road, and been on the road ever since.” Grin. “And that’s the whole story.”

Not quite. In Peru, for instance, one night he had stretched out on the sagging bed of his hotel room, quietly smoking and talking almost until dawn about growing up with a father who was an Air Force major, a career military man who did not cotton to the idea of his eldest son as country musician. “Oh, yeh, well there was that conflict,” he offers now, not pleased with the subject, “but this Thanksgiving Rita and I went down home, to San Mateo, and everybody there now is truly bein’ extra nice, my dad’s gone, so why knock ’em?” Except. . . “Like I told you, when I was a kid, nobody else in the house ever listened to country music, and now my mother’s the biggest country-rock freak in the state; she and Karen, my sister, call all the stations and request my songs, they disguise their voices. So I don’t wanta nail ’em now. Sure, my father tried to program me for an Army career, but I don’t think he really thought he could, ’cause he saw that all that ever interested me, ‘sides football, was Hank Williams records. I still got boxes of those old 78s stored somewheres; in those days, the Fifties, kids listened to nothin’ but Johnnie Ray and Patti Page, I was a total weirdo. The first song I wrote was a Hank Williams rip-off called, I think, ‘I Hate Your Ugly Face,’ I was 11. I told my dad I wanted to be a writer, not a songwriter, I knew he pictured writers as wearing elbow patches and smoking pipes, not smoking funny stuff in Nashville. At home they always said, ‘Now, Craig,’ he’s my younger brother, ‘Craig will make money ’cause he cares, and Kris won’t make any ’cause he just doesn’t.’ Well, they were right. I never did care. Still don’t.”

Oh. He sees that reaction in your eyes. Hastily, “I mean it was never a matter of money: I never thought of selling songs, profit wasn’t the motive. They were just the only way I could express some kind of…suffering. Shit, no, separation. I always felt separate. In high school, I wanted to be a big football star, more than a songwriter, maybe for the same reason; tried to get football scholarships to both Yale and Dartmouth, no way, and for Stanford, you had to weigh, like, 250 just t’get into a uniform, so I went to Pomona. Played, yeh, but I busted my head and cartilage in my knee. I was the worst ROTC platoon commander in the history of the school, never could give a guy a demerit. But my grades were real good, got that Rhodes scholarship, even got my picture in Sports Illustrated for sports, and, man, I went off to Oxford a star. Hah! An’ quickly found out what a fucked-up little wimp I was, damn!”

Unexpectedly, he slaps his knee. “Those British, shit, peel off layers ‘a bullshit instantly! I’d organized a rugby team at Pomona, but at Oxford they wouldn’t even let me try out for the team. They maintained an American couldn’t know shit from rugby. Nothing much is gonna impress those British! I never did wanta pick up any British accent. They all called me Yank, so I just kept on talkin’ more like I always had. . . .”

Like Hank Williams. He laughs, tentatively. Well, after all he did grow up in the West, he points out, first in Texas, then San Mateo, California. But through his Grand Ole Opry inflection constantly surfaces, like ice floes, the precision of Academe. “Yeh, ok. So I’m an oral schizophrenic. That’s what I felt in England. I got on OK with them English athletes, it was the sherry-party guys that drove me bananas; they truly gave me t’understand I had shit on my boots. An’ I had gotten heavy inta literature over there. William Blake had just opened doors for me. I’d even started writin’ a novel. . . .”

But at one of the sherry parties, he respectfully told Nevill Coghill, the world’s foremost Chaucer translator and don of Cambridge dons, how Blake’s “The Mental Traveller” ought really to be read. “He was like this big expert, they’d given me another year on my dissertation, but after that I was officially taken off Blake.” He went home to California for Christmas, “and I never did go back. See, there was this girl at home, I’d gone with her in high school. Fran Beer, as in ‘beer.’ We thought we could solve each other’s problems, we, uh, got married, she got pregnant, my novel I’d finished got rejected, and I was suddenly stuck, totally, with the bread-winner role. Tom, I really figured right then, goodbye writing. Joined the Air Force, shit, I remember drivin’ onto the military base the first day, it was like driving into hell; like driving into San Francisco when I was a kid used to scare the devil outa me, all those boxy houses squeezed against one another. If you was really bad, you got stuck inta one ‘a those places.”

Oddly, for years he stuck to those places, through the burnt-orange carpet-and-drape inferno of furnished apartments in military towns, largely drunk and unproductive. “I touched a bottom, I hadn’t written a song in years, when I was smashed it seemed clear, I would never write one, nor a novel, nor much of anything, so I drank more. It was very rough, especially on my wife: When you’re not doing what y’think you should in life, you take it out on your old lady, or whoever. One weekend leave, I just got crazy; instead of going to Fran I got on a plane for Nashville, still in uniform. It was my first time there, everybody called me ‘Captain.’ “

He wrangled a meeting with Johnny Cash. “I was determined to meet him; there was no way in hell that I wouldn’t have. Johnny’s got an instinct ’bout pickin’ people who are going to make it.” After that leave he was to go to West Point to teach, “but in Nashville, the life had come back into me. Went home and quit the Air Force for good, which scared hell outa Fran: All she’d ever seen ‘a the music business was this funky band I had while I was stationed in Germany; we played the worst kinda dives, but she came with me back to Nashville anyways. I rented this $50-a-month cold-water flat, a tenement.” Smiling, as if nostalgic, he adds, “I still got that apartment. There’s an old lady lives next door, her husband died and she came over cryin’ and asked me not to move, ’cause she was afraid some hippie freak’d move in. So I just keep payin’ the rent; there’s a young guy livin’ there who’s trying to get into the music business. . . .”

Still talking, he goes to open a fresh Tia Maria bottle. Two black mongrel cats and the one luxurious white Angora have assembled at the front door, expectant; they bow courteously when Rita Coolidge comes in, her eight-month pregnancy obscured by shopping bags. “I went to see the house,” she tells Kris, with a smile like his. There’s a serene, womanly, humorous grace about her; she has the cheekbones and the onyx hair of a Cherokee, but there’s a stolid, Celtic richness in the pale, good skin, the lips. Kris stretches and half-bows, like the cats, who follow them to the kitchen.

“. . . And that house, it’s just ten times better than anything else I saw!” Kris has explained they want to move, and that Rita’s been house-hunting, in the hills and canyons above Malibu Beach. “It’s got three acres, a great orchard, a pool, three bedrooms and this huge fieldstone fireplace in the living room. It’s just so peaceful up there on that hill!” Her speech, like his, is rural. “A nice older couple live there now, they really love the place but they want to travel. They said today they think that we ought to have it.”

“Oh, really?” His reading is unexpectedly urbane. “You tell the accountant that.”

“Well, what they meant was,” and she’s smiling, “they thought we’d be happy livin’ there.”

When she goes in to cook supper, Kris offers, “Jesus, I never owned no house before! It’s like buyin’ a ball and chain, but you can’t bring up a baby in motel rooms. When he hears the price of this place, the accountant will shit. Yeh, I can afford it, it’s just very heavy, settlin’ down, becoming a father again. Baby’s due next month; last night I had t’go again with Rita to her natural-childbirth class. I felt like we were Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore — just like a TV show, there were these representative couples. One black, one Jewish, one Chicano, one straight, and us, the freaks. The Mexican guy said, ‘I got seven sisters, I didn’t know there was another way to have a baby.’ Rita, he adds, will have the child in a hospital, “but I’m not too cool in hospitals, had some bad times in ’em. My first wife — our daughter was born first, she was fine, but our son, he was born with his esophagus and trachea attached, a bad time. Ran up about a $10,000 hospital bill, I was making $200 a month working as a janitor at Columbia Records in Nashville. I tell ya, it’s weird now, headlining on the same bill with guys you used to empty ashtrays for, tryin’ to pitch ’em your songs on the side. It was the only job I could get.

“Then we had a little dispute ’bout wages and I went down the road to work at the Tally Ho Tavern, sweepin’ up. And all this time, I’m getting letters from my folks with these significant clippings from the hometown paper, saying so-and-so won a silver star and little Harry Greenfield just got elected president ‘a the United Nations. Shit, though, once you get right down there on the bottom, totally broke and an embarrassment to your loved ones, and it still hasn’t killed you, suddenly, it’s all easier: nothin’ left t’lose, y’know? Luckily, I was not a good enough performer to work as the singer in the Holiday Inn, or like that, so I didn’t get molded into bein’ that kinda entertainer — though believe me, I’d ‘a jumped at it, ’cause nobody wanted my songs! I just kept tellin’ myself that in country music, nobody makes it fast, but that once you do, it’s a lot more stable: Guys like Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb are still makin’ records 20 years after their first hit. . . .”

But didn’t his songs actually satirize Pierce, Tubb and the whole country-and-western tradition? Besides, he was trying to sell them in the mid-Sixties, when longhaired renegades were still pariahs in straight, patriotic Nashville, still phantoms of the Grand Ole Opry. “Well, yeh, that’s sorta true.” Silence. One has noted before that he doesn’t like putting down Nashville, conversationally, nor is he anxious to analyze his work at any length. “The songs are…well, I dunno what they are. I think they’re pretty easy to understand.” This last has sounded defensive; then, apologetically, “They can start out a little obscure, before I polish ’em, like this one here I’m gonna record tomorrow night, it’s brand new and not finished.” He takes a guitar from the corner of the fireplace, and sings, hoarsely smoke-cured, a song from the album he’s just recording:

Shandy was somebody’s daughter
Driving to something insane
They busted her crossin’ the border
Swift as a sniff ‘a cocaine
All she could pay was attention
So all they could take was her time
Proving an ounce of possession
Ain’t worth a piece of your mind

The next verse is something about Martin locked in a gold-handled bathroom, wiping the mask of the man in the mirror who really is Billy the Kid. “Damn, it needs work! What I do is, just keep tightening the images, making them specific when they ain’t, until, hopefully, I understand what it’s about.” He strums and sings until Rita puts a chicken sandwich in front of him.

Then he has to go work with his band. The next afternoon, one talks with his record producer, David Anderle, who says, “The new album is called Spooky Lady’s Sideshow and in it Kris has stretched himself in a totally new direction. I mean, the last album, Jesus Was a Capricorn, was a gold record and the single from it, “Why Me, Lord?,” was a runaway hit and Kris could have just turned out more of the same, but the range in Spooky Lady is fantastic: from pure country to a totally new sound. . . .” Then, driving back to their house, the radio, in a 15-minute space, plays two of his songs. In the traffic lines, one idly strings together lines of his lyrics; clearly, what all the songs so far have been about is that, for us all, things have already been as good as they will ever get. A chronic nostalgia. A story about him told to me by Peter Rachtman, manager of John Stewart and Flash Cadillac, surfaces: “I was in a restaurant in Vegas with Karen Black — this was just after they’d finished Cisco Pike — we were talking about Kris, and a guy from the next table came over and said, ‘You talking about Kristofferson?’ Turned out the guy was in his class at Pomona, he asked whatever happened to him. I told him, a movie about to come out and so on, he didn’t seem to understand that Kris was just about to make it. He shook his head sadly, and said, ‘We always thought he’d do something big. He was president of his freshman class, sophomore class, every class; of the debating team, the writing club, the football team, baseball. Kris was the most respected, best-liked boy that school ever saw. Kris Kristofferson could have been president of the country right then, if he’d run. But there always was something … else about him, nice as he was. A . . . sadness. In a funny way, I wasn’t surprised we didn’t hear of him again.”

One has intended to coerce him into a discussion of the songs right away, this afternoon, but he is occupied, at the top of the steep little drive, patiently smiling at a sullen, pudgy girl in an Avis blazer who’s come to replace his faulty rented Plymouth. “. . . No, ma’am, I dunno what’s wrong with it, except it keeps stoppin’. My mechanical knowledge is nil.” Dutifully, he looks under the hood, as she writes on a pad. “Now, it might be the starter,” he offers, gesturing vaguely at the dark metallic tangle, “wherever that is. Hmm? No, it’s with a k, and two fs . . . no, both of them is os . . . no, see the first also starts with a k.” A mechanic arrives to take the sedan away and replace it with an identical one; the girl leaves with a brief, suspicious smile, as if she doubted the transaction. When we’re inside before the fireplace, I ask if he thinks she recognized him. This startles him visibly. “Jesus, I dunno. I have no idea. I . . . don’t think about that shit, honestly, it don’t occur to me.”

Oh. I tell him my thinking about the songs. “Hey, yeh, nobody ever said it like that before, quite. I’m sorry, but once I finish writing, Tom, the umbilical cord’s cut. I… know my limits as a performer, but not yet as a songwriter. Bein’ on the road rips my throat up, but I couldn’t write without it, I really get it off workin’ with my band; they are so good it stretches me musically, so that when I get home, I can write ’cause I been with them. A good song, I think, has gotta be bought on the most immediate, the simplest level ‘a the words, just what they mean. Funny, they get changed by artists when you first get ’em recorded. Everybody fuckin’ changes your lyrics ’cause they assume you don’t know what you’re doin’ yet. Like in ‘Bobby McGee,’ Janis, on that tape, she changed an important line, it was supposed t’be, ‘Them windshield wipers slappin’ time/ and Bobby clappin’ hands we finally sang up every song that driver knew.’ See, I had a sorta inner rhyme worked out there, but she changed it, I dunno why. Now, ‘Feelin’ near as faded as my jeans,’ I’m proud ‘a that one, because you think you heard it before, but it was not used before in country music; it was maybe the first time that New Orleans was rhymed with somethin’ other than ‘Cajun queens.’ Most listeners never analyze that shit, I get letters that just say, ‘Hey, you’re singin’ what I’m thinkin’.’ I can dig that. Then you open Rolling Stone an’ some critic’ll say, ‘What’d he really mean by “Help Me Make It Through the Night”? and shit, I thought the message of that number was pretty up front! Or they accuse me of being on a Jesus trip, they refuse t’see that I’m just being humorous. That really hurts, you can sell a zillion records and one bad review still riles you. I got totally ripped apart by Rolling Stone for the Border Lord album; the reviewer hated everything about me. If I’d had a dog he’d ‘a hated the dog. I don’t do songs from that album any more; the first album I made, it got great notices except for one which said my work was all self-pitying. Shit, sad about mankind, maybe, that’s just inevitable.”

And nothing alleviates it? “No, not too often; you should know that. Take just an ordinary dude, though, noncreative, he’s lost his old lady, and that’s all he is, a loser. A writer, though, he uses that loss, like a whore uses, but he can write it an’ get a good feeling from that. Maybe not as good as the feeling he got with his old lady, but he’s still better off than the guy who can’t write at all. Even though he’ll always hurt more.”

All yesterday, all this afternoon, the yellow telephone on the floor has rung every 20 minutes or so; he points a finger at it now, as it rings again. “I’d just let the service get it, but I think that’s one ‘a the band, and I gotta talk to him. ‘Cuse me.” Rita says from the kitchen door, “We’re gonna be eatin’ supper pretty soon.” It’s her way of extending an invitation. Kris says into the phone, “Hey, Donnie,” and walks, talking, to the bedroom. Rita comes in and sits, her hands folded placidly on the swollen stomach under her apron. “It’s just great,” she says of her pregnancy, when asked, “I get some heartburn, but otherwise no morning sickness, nothin’. I can hardly wait! Doctor says it sounds like a boy; there’s a test you can take to tell, but I don’t want to: Why not be surprised? I don’t want any drugs while I’m in labor, the baby can come out drugged if you do. How can mothers go through all the shit of being pregnant and then be doped through the end of the trip?” Rita comes from Tennessee, it turns out, her father was a Baptist preacher. “I started singin’ in church when I was two, I’ve been doin’ it ever since, but I never planned on makin’ it a career. I sang on weekends to pay my way through college, just so’s I could get through art school and teach. But after I graduated, I couldn’t find a job, so I started singing to pay for a Master’s degree. Thought I’d work a year; at the end of it, I was hooked.”

She started the year singing radio spots for Pepper-Tanner, “It’s Memphis’s biggest jingle factory.” Her sight-reading got her studio work. “Then Pepper-Tanner signed me to a contract to cut a single, they’d started their own new label. I cut the song, then decided to come to L.A. — by the time I got here, the song, ‘Turn Around and Love Me,’ had become this surprise hit, they played it all through that summer. I never went back to Memphis.” She toured with Joe Cocker, cut an album, played the minor clubs, but of course it was her alliance with Kris that established her name.

“Sure, we’ve had our falling-outs,” she says easily, gesturing toward the bedroom, “we’ve split up. It’s very hard, in this business, to stay peaceful — the competition, for one thing. In a way, we’re all competin’ with each other professionally; we’re all accustomed to fightin’, bein’ stubborn, ’cause you gotta do both to make it in music. And there’s the strain of bein’ on the road. But we got it together now; I think Kris is a lot more settled. He’s got a place t’go every night, some roots, and that’s given him a lot more confidence in his music: He’s really writin’ an’ playin’ well. He used t’let people make all these demands on him, and he’s learned to say no. He can blame it on me now; he can say, ‘I can’t, I gotta take the old lady home.’ He used t’be out every night; now we go out maybe once every six months, t’one ‘a these Hollywood-type parties, and every time we do, all the way home we’re sayin’ how glad we were t’leave early. Over the holidays, there was one, up at Robert Altman’s house — he and his wife are really fine, but I was talking to a few ‘a these big movie people, an’ somebody bumped my elbow and I spilled a glass ‘a wine on the front of my dress. They froze. I turned around t’find something to wipe it with; and when I turned back, everybody had gone, everybody! That, to me, is a Hollywood party.”

Her laugh’s rich, a good clear arpeggio. I ask about the first time she met Kris, and she laughs again, quietly. “I remember … I couldn’t get over his face. The colors: that brown hair, the pitch-black beard with those gray hairs in it and those incredible deep-set blue eyes. I didn’t wanta keep staring at him, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t get over how different he looked. And how good-looking. Then you talk to him, and he’s sort of… fumbly-warm.” She goes to the kitchen, and, after he has come in and sat down again, she sets before us on the long coffee table a substantial meatloaf, light fresh corn and salad. Eating, we speak of the smoking of funny stuff, a proper dinner-table subject as it is of common interest. Kris offers, “I think ladies roll smokes better than guys do.”

“Yeh, for the same reason they cook better,” Rita says, her black eyes ironically wide, “’cause they’re the ones who’ve gotta do it.” Kris laughs extensively; when she takes the empty plates away, he watches with canine affection, catches himself being watched. “She’s really far out. Did she say how we met? I’d just broke up with this girl, felt really funky; I was in an airport — we’re all always in airports — on the way to Nashville to do my first interview with Life magazine, and her manager recognized me. I was in no mood t’deal with anybody, but hell, when people recognize you, you gotta deal, it’s one ‘a the prices you pay. He introduced Rita, she looked . . . well, like she looks: somethin’ else. On the plane, they saved a seat for me. There was this thing about her: She listens. She was gettin’ off in Memphis to work with her band, fixin’ t’go on the road, an’ I just got off with her, never did do the Life interview. My next booking was up in Edmonton, so was hers, ‘cept somehow hers got canceled, I said, why not go on with me? That’s two years ago, we been bookin’ out together ever since.”

He didn’t exactly divorce his first wife, he adds, until just last summer. “Fran and I are friends, I see the kids whenever I can. She was really fine about the settlement, she coulda asked for half ‘a everything I got, which is I-don’t-know-how-much. Yeh, a lot,” and he grimaces, “but you gotta remember, for years there I didn’t make shit and didn’t even know it! Down there in Peru, Dennis paid me expenses and a little salary and I thought, Wow, this is as good as it gets! I told that to my piano player, Donnie Frits — he was in Durango with me, he did a bit part in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — an’ he said, ‘Kris, it just keeps on gettin’ better! A year ago, I didn’t know who Sam Peckinpah was and this New Year’s I’m goin’ to his house!”

Until now, he’s barely referred to his movies, and one hasn’t pressed, sensing that this new crown rests heavily. Now one offers that on screen, especially in Blume In Love, he projects a strong, old-fashioned blend of sexuality and niceness, rather as Gable did; that Gable was so revered because his sexuality was good-humored, it didn’t challenge other males; that those of either sex who wished to ball him trusted him as well; that the Kristofferson presence is similar. He listens, understandably alarmed, and grins, Gable-like. “Hell, thank you. But I just fell into the acting. Down in Peru I thought I’d like to learn to direct a movie, but acting? It didn’t interest me then, and I sure as hell ain’t no Laurence Olivier now, nor will I be. Jesus, these guys who really study for it, they must figure, who the fuck is this, some shit-kicker they hauled off the Troubadour stage. . . .”

It was about that simple: After his big Troubadour debut, myriad agents and managers called and he was, abruptly, on lots of guest lists. At a party at Jack Nicholson’s, Fred Roos, the young casting director of Five Easy Pieces, asked if he’d like to audition for Two Lane Blacktop. “I was stoned that night, I said, ‘Sure,” and the next day all I could remember was, I had this appointment at Columbia, only I thought it was Columbia Records. Got to the office, I was wasted, it was right outa a Kafka novel. The guy said did I know anything about cars — Two Lane Blacktop was about cars, only nobody told me that — I said, ‘Can’t even change a tire,’ and got up and left.” He didn’t get the part, but they offered him Cisco Pike anyway. “I’d never even been in no school play, but I read the script and I could identify with this cat, this dope dealer. People said, ‘Don’t do it, take acting lessons first!” But it seemed t’me that acting must be just understanding a character, and then being just as honest as you can possibly be. I shoulda been scared, but then I shoulda been scared the first time on that Troubadour stage and I wasn’t. Cisco Pike wasn’t all that good, but it led me to Billy the Kid. . .”

Peckinpah’s machismo, his romance with the rugged and rough-hewn had always attracted Kris, and he’d jumped at the chance to play Billy, but now the subject of the movie visibly unsettles him. It was, as he puts it, no day at the beach; apparently, Peckinpah’s Durango was almost as schizophrenic as Hopper’s Peru. Not only that, but it was Kris who talked Dylan into his acting debut. “I called him; he said, ‘But if I do it, then they got me, on film.’ I said, ‘Hell, Bobby, they already got you on records, come on, we’ll have a ball.’ We didn’t, but I think Bobby, at least, came off pretty good in the picture. I don’t want t’give you the impression I’m one of Bobby’s best friends, that I know him all that well. Hell, nobody knows Bobby that well. He’s … a dozen different people. A genius, I guess. I sure know he digs pickin’ …”

Unexpectedly, he’s restless, as if suddenly too aware of being interviewed, and gets up to wander around the room, cracking his knuckles. Quick, Kris, before we lose you: Did the role in Blume In Love look as good on paper as it turned out to be? Frown. “I can’t read a script that way, just for my part, I’ve got to dig the whole story. Jesus, I see these actors come in with just their lines learned, like it was a union dig, they don’t care shit for the rest of it, that’s gotta be wrong. Blume In Love seemed t’me like it had lotsa levels, lotsa colors; Paul Mazursky, the director, he told me to just be natural, be myself, which I think is a good way ‘a directing me — he even had me wear my own clothes, y’know? Except in this new one I’m gonna make in Tucson. Name of it’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. This young dude who’s directing it, Martin Scorsese, wants me to do some real acting, if I gotta play a sort of tough, self-made, complex man. Oh, I had t’do some acting in Blume In Love, as it turned out: Rita and I had split, I was up all night wonderin’ about her, and I was supposed to be this cool dude who don’t give a damn! I used to be like that, but no more. I mean, now I got . . . responsibilities.”

The rubbery, urban word is awkward in his mouth. When troubled, he tends to hunch forward and growl sotto voce as if through smoked ham. “Aw, shit, I guess I got no complaints. It’s just, you get to this point, you become so fucking vulnerable.” Earlier he’s remarked that even if we’d been sitting here all afternoon blowing dope, he’d no longer want that kind of thing printed about himself, so one assumes he means that sort of vulnerability — most celebrities believe that narcotics officers doggedly scan everything from Atlantic Monthly to Crawdaddy, for clues — but no. “No, I mean, I’ve now seen all these famous actors and big rock people bein’ so paranoid ‘a the slightest competition, an’ heard ’em bitch endlessly about payin’ big taxes and havin’ to sign autographs. Well, I think you got a responsibility to not be that way. I’ll tell y’when I felt put-upon: when I was a janitor. Hell, I can rent a car now, I can go wherever I want on this earth, I send all my kids to college on just a few songs. Two years ago a Vegas hotel said, maybe they’d hire me if I’d get into some schmucky rock-star costume; now they want me anytime on my terms; and you can not tell me I’m in worse shape ’cause I got big taxes and responsibilities.” Grin, and he shakes his head comically. “I do feel like a shithead signin’ autographs, they always ask when you’re hurryin’ to a plane carryin’ three bags and a guitar, but if you don’t sign, you feel like more of a shithead. . . .”

Rita’s come in to listen; he’s late for his recording session now, but clearly he wants to keep on. As he studies his hands, it occurs to you that they’re good, but not young. Uncannily, as he does, he completes your unspoken sentence. “Shit, I already feel old: Time presses. Well, I’m 37. Old friends call you and you don’t have time for ’em no more ’cause you got this plane to catch and that accountant to meet, and you end up seein’ alotta people you don’t give shit for. I just got this long letter from Johnny Cash, which he wrote ’cause we ain’t talked in two years. People who wouldn’t walk across the street to shake your hand before, they run up and nail you; you gotta become selfish. They come backstage everywhere, with songs, could I listen for five minutes? Jesus, I just been performing, I’m wasted, I ask ’em for a tape to take home. ‘But it’s only two songs!’ An’ it’s the only two the guy’s ever written, and they’re awful, and you shouldn’t give him false hope. But if you don’t listen … you can miss some good shit, I first heard John Prine that way. I said nicely t’this one guy, ‘Well, there’s all these songwriters in Nashville, you could go hang out with ’em and learn.’ He grabbed me and shouted, ‘Learn! Just how many song hits you had?!”

Huge laugh. “You gotta laugh, or it’d get you. It’s just that all of it’s started to take me too far away from what I really am: a writer. For instance, this acting, I dunno. I told Peckinpah, I think the first thing you need to be a good actor is a prefrontal lobotomy. You can’t question your own importance. In no way am I gonna let acting take me away from the music business, and if I go on doing it, I want it to be for directors like Peckinpah or Paul Mazursky — except nobody can go on bein’ that lucky. I got alotta scripts, yeh, after Blume, but I’m always on the road, and I don’t think I hear about the good movies till it’s too late. Maybe you gotta hang out with the people who make ’em.”

One thought he’d started doing that, having noted his presence at the Reynolds Wrap Byzantium known as the Cannes Film Festival, and in Hollywood on outings with Streisand. He’s not amused. “Well, you oughta know, that’s the bullshit printed in papers.” He did take Rita to Cannes — purposely, he pronounces the s — because the Blume In Love people invited him and paid the way, and they’d never seen the Riviera. “We even went to a couple ‘a those movie-star parties there. It was comical.”

“Comical,” Rita adds, and they laugh, looking at each other.

“And Barbra — that was embarrassin’, in print, I really looked like Kristofferson, star-fucker, and all that happened was her manager brought her backstage at the Troubadour to meet me, and we talked, got along good, so we got together a few times after that. One night we went on a double date with this big agent. It was just to a movie, but when we got to the theater, the agent charged outa the car and up to the manager, shoutin’ ‘Streisand’s here! I don’t want any fuss, just give us tickets!’ A regular drill sergeant. But Barbra struck me as too intelligent to surround herself with people she doesn’t at least trust — because it’s gotta cross her mind that everybody’s out t’screw her. I’ll tell ya, it crosses mine.”

This thought, crossing, gets him smartly to his feet, and we’re off with guitar down the hill to record. His driving is workmanlike, without relish. “That girl, from Avis . . . see, now you got me wonderin’, did she know me, or didn’t she, damn!” He doesn’t turn on the radio. When I ask, gingerly, who he thinks “You’re So Vain” is about, he is seen, by the dash-lights, to grin. “I heard it was about Warren Beatty.” Apparently he was ready for the question. “I sure don’t think it’s me, I never had a Lear jet or went to Nova Scotia. I like Carly, and James. Man, he was everybody’s darling until he got on the cover of Time, then they all wrote he was an Establishment tool, corrupted by the industry. . . . Jesus, I don’t see all this corruption, rock stars getting free dope, I never even got a joint from anybody free. Maybe you gotta ask. When I do a concert, there’s some Cokes and beers and maybe a bottle backstage; shit, I’m glad to have that, I remember when I had t’bring my own.” At Santa Monica Boulevard, he points: “See that corner, that’s where I got busted. During my first Troubadour gig, I was making a turn late at night and a cop stopped me ’cause he thought he’d busted me before. I had this little bottle of Binaca. He said, ‘What’s that’; I said, ‘Oh, I shoot up Binaca.’ Bang, hands behind me, handcuffs, and I spent the night in jail. Next day the cop apologized — turned out he’d recognized me from TV.”

While he parks, I repeat something told to me that morning by a Warner’s publicist: That in Cannes Kris had taken the time, though late for his plane, to return the car provided for him to the publicist’s hotel, and to leave a thank-you note on the front seat. “A movie star did that!,” the publicist had whispered, as if describing Kohoutek. Kris considers this as he kills the engine. “Hmm. Well, it can’t be that big a deal. You mean in movies, nobody ever say thanks for anythin’?”

Soft pastel spots are the only lights in the little recording studio. Through the glass of the control booth, it seems an opulent rosy tank in which fluid magnifies sound, an aquarium of musicians for an underwater ballet; Kris’s backup band, four tranquil, clear-eyed country or mountain boys with faces like old pictures of rebel soldiers, cease tuning up, cheerfully deferring to his arrival. “Hey, man!” etcetera. While they practice and retune, Kris sends out for a Tia Maria fifth and wanders smiling around the control room, a Bull Durham now permanently attached to his lower lip. Through the bullet-colored velvet of smoke, he consults his sound engineer.”. . . Yeh, I could see puttin’ a rhythm or a 12 on it, then goin’ out there with the vocals, that’d be nice.” Clearly, here, in this ambience, he is less somnambulistic, more vital and concentrated, than he could ever be on a Hollywood lot, on a stage or in a living room. “Well, hell, let’s cut this turkey,” he finally announces, exiting into the tiny soloist’s booth, the pink tank-within-the-tank. Enclosed behind glass, he begins a new lyric, quite believable, about a lonely musician. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Kris Kristofferson


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