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The Kristoffersons Make It

Kris and Rita get hot at the same time

Rita Coolidge, Kris KristoffersonRita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson

Rita Coolidge And Kris Kristofferson perform on stage, New York in 1978.

Michael Putland/Getty

HE CAME WOBBLING straight toward me, aiming himself somewhere in the direction of the stage. I was fifteen, had obtained my first backstage pass as a representative from the local underground paper …… and I knew this was my shot.

I introduced myself to an amiably blitzed Kris Kristofferson and, for the length of my interview pitch, the singer/songwriter/actor sincerely tried to focus on exactly who was talking to him. Nodding vaguely — perhaps consenting, perhaps searching — he lurched onstage at the San Diego Civic Theatre, working through a full bottle of tequila during his two-hour set with Rita Coolidge. A man having that much trouble remembering his own lyrics wouldn’t soon be remembering an interview for the San Diego Door.

Kristofferson, in fact, didn’t even nod later as he walked past me outside the dressing-room door. He simply hooked my arm and pulled me along with him. Heading for a cantina on the other side of town, Kristofferson was to meet the family and friends of his new wife. We would somehow do the promised interview there.

We arrived at the bar/restaurant and Kris strolled inside. They stopped me — I looked my age. Kristofferson put up a polite argument for a moment, then grumbled to himself and disappeared inside the bar. I headed for the door.

“Where you goin’, hoss?” Kristofferson had emerged with a drink. “Come back here.” He settled into a gauche red leatherette chair next to the cash register and, as I fumbled with my tape recorder, began relating anecdotes from the set of the movie he’d just shot with Bob Dylan and Sam Peckinpah—Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Those tales from the secrecy-laden set in Durango, Mexico, were enough to entice a certain youth-culture tabloid into publishing me for the first time.

FIVE YEARS LATER I am sitting in the Albuquerque Hilton, headquarters for Convoy, another Peckinpah film, based on the C.W. McCall single and starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw. I have since become a contributing editor of that same tabloid. I call set publicists who are “pleased to hear from me.” Film executives take my calls. Yet no one has approached Kristofferson about doing an interview…the set has, in fact, been closed to journalists. “It’s a little tense—you didn’t know?” a film spokesman asked.

I write a note to the actor, whom I haven’t spoken with in years, stuff it in his already crammed message box and proceed to spend an evening doing what Albuquerqueans seem to do on Thursday nights: Dick Van Dyke is always great to see. Lou Grant is interesting. A local anchor man has the manic look of a mass murderer…. … Still no phone call from Kris. I wander down to the newsstand, past hundreds of shoe salesmen conventioneers, and pick up a stack of fan magazines which bugle Kristofferson’s name on their covers. They all tell the same story: Rhodes scholar turns country singer turns bankable movie star … …fabulous.

As Mike Wallace sits down to tell Johnny Carson about his low regard for “overwritten” personalities, I can’t help but wonder what kind of walls Kristofferson might have built since his openness at the San Diego cantina. These very thoughts are interrupted by the phone.

“Jesus fuck,” barks Kris Kristofferson. “Hope I didn’t wake you up. This is it, you know. This one’s just about done me in, this fucking one. This fucking thing is… … crazy. I’m just a basket case … …all my circuits ..….” He pauses. “How ya been? What’re you doing here?”

I tell him. “Okay,” says Kristofferson. “I’m leaving on the first plane out in the morning, going to New York for some concerts. Let’s fly together. I’ll call you in the morning.”

The next morning in the lobby, Kristofferson comes flashing around the corner, moving swiftly and looking gaunt and bedraggled in a black shirt, frayed brown cords and boots. His pale blue eyes, fixed on the floor in front of him, are visible from across the room. Several women do a double take, but he is already gone, having first hooked me by the arm again. We talk on the way to the airport.

“I’ve done five days’ work in two days, and more than that in one, “he says. “Now it’s their turn to finish the movie. Everybody’s going crazy, right down to the still photographer. I gotta get out of here.”

Once on the plane, all he wants is some sleep, and the shades do not help. The seat left empty next to him is promptly filled by a chatty head stewardess. Kristofferson is met at La Guardia by manager Bert Block, a graying music-business veteran with a black cap and a caseful of offers. But Kris just wants to get straight to the New York Hilton to rejoin his wife, Rita Coolidge Kristofferson.

By the time the limo door has opened, Kristofferson had already tipped the driver handsomely, signed a scrap of paper for the man’s wife and grabbed the luggage. “See you tomorrow,” he tells me, friendly but tense. “I’ll call you.” He disappears into a mass of tour groups. The reason for the swiftness is soon obvious — a clutch of three female admirers lying in wait almost catch him.

I cannot resist walking up and asking — why is this man so desirable?

“It’s his shoulders,” says one. “The way they taper.”

“He’s so gentle looking,” says another. “I loved him in Sailor Who Fell from Grace….” She giggles. “He seems like he’d just take forever.”

“Great ass,” chirps the third.

They all agree on this point.

ANOTHER MAN MIGHT return the affections of at least a small fraction of the many ladies who quite literally fling themselves upon Kris Kristofferson in a given day. But at forty-one, Kristofferson is by all indications a faithful husband. When my phone rings the next day, it’s an infinitely more relaxed and urbane man who says he’ll meet me downstairs for rehearsal.

His hair is combed neatly, his cheeks rosy and a chipper smile is plastered across Kristofferson’s face. His one-day switch from Convoy to Radio City Music Hall will be spent practicing — something he doesn’t mind at all. He arrives expectantly at the storefront rehearsal room on the outskirts of Manhattan, striding into the room full of musicians (all longtime friends whom Kris has tried to keep with him in all his TV and movie appearances). He yelps like a kid just back from summer camp. “This is such an upper after that movie shit,” Kristofferson beams appreciatively.

Kristofferson throws on a guitar and, shirt open, begins slashing through the set. The band — Donnie Fritts on piano, Steve Bruton, Jerry McGee and Billy Swan on guitars, Mike Utley on organ, Terry Paul on bass and Sammy Creason on drums — falls into place. More than to rehearse, they need to play.

It is all too easy to forget, with Kristofferson’s face in movie ads everywhere, the impact of his songwriting catalog…songs like “Lovin’ Her Was Easier,” “Help Me Make It through the Night,” “For the Good Times,” “Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “The Pilgrim.” But Kristofferson doesn’t mind that he will never be wrapped in the same mystique as his favorite artist, Bob Dylan.

After three tough hours of rehearsal with the band, Kristofferson falls into a chair and proudly watches Rita take over.

“We are not,” he points out, “the Steve and Eydie of our generation.”

The Radio City shows are typical of Kristofferson’s professional, music-oriented new stage demeanor. Not prone to stage patter, he is also no longer haplessly drunk. After Billy Swan opens impressively with a few solo numbers, Kris strides onstage to an explosion of flashcubes and presents an hour-long set of his best-known songs. Rita is next, torching her way through a selection of material from her own albums. The last half-hour of the show is reserved for their swooning duets. The band shifts tempos effortlessly and it is a crowd-pleasing, full evening.

Afterward, Kris and Rita are swiftly transported back to their unspectacular hotel room. They apologize to their guest for having to stay in the room (they are still bashful about security precautions). Kris appreciates, he says, being able to wind down from a show by talking. He sits earnestly on the edge of his bed, turns on the tape recorder himself, and begins the conversation as if it’s his job to be entertaining. Rita disappears into an adjoining room.

Kristofferson rakes his hand through his hair and offers me the topic of Network, which he’d just seen on the in-hotel movie service. Not particularly impressed with its consistency, the actor prefers instead another Sidney Lumet work, Dog Day Afternoon. Kristofferson is instantly off reeling perfect word-for-word Pacino dialogue.

Then Kris’ three-year-old girl, Casey, who seems quite at home on the road, hurls herself at Kristofferson.

“Know what I did?” the child asks seductively.

“What did you do?” Kristofferson asks.

“I left the water on in the bathroom.”

“Don’t tell anybody from New York,” Father advises.

“Did it flood anything?”

“No,” the child answers conspiratorially.

“Then it’s okay.” They shake hands and Casey tears joyously into the next room, leaving Kris a grinnin’ fool. They can’t possibly be staging this — things simply have never been better for the Kristofferson family. Not long ago, Kris and Rita were still in the midst of a moody career lull—album sales were slipping, interest was low. Then Kristofferson landed the role of John Norman Howard, the fallen rock star, opposite Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman in A Star Is Born. The much-publicized part, Kristofferson says, had previously belonged to Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger.

“I wasn’t real hot to do the movie,” recalls Kristofferson. (The fact that he once dated Streisand did not help matters with her producer/boyfriend Jon Peters.) “God knows I’m glad I did, though.” Many tales of on-set anguish later, the film has proved a huge international film and soundtrack success.

Then, a bigger surprise — Rita Coolidge, all but taken for granted after five solo albums, scored three hit singles (“Higher and Higher,” “We’re All Alone” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do”) from her now platinum Anytime …… Anywhere album. She is suddenly one of the biggest female singers this side of Linda Ronstadt. And Kristofferson, seen currently in Semi-Tough and soon in Convoy, is one of the screen’s leading matinee idols.

Kristofferson bolts upward—full of nervous energy—throws ice cubes into a pot of cold coffee, and begins to talk without my prompting. “As far as the …… charisma and all that goes… …” He sighs heavily. “You got to realize it’s bullshit. Take it for what it’s fucking worth—yesterday’s papers. People say, ‘Now that you’re a sex symbol, do you feel that people are taking your lyrics less seriously.’ They weren’t listening to them at all before. You know.”

“What’s so fucking wrong with being a sex symbol?” Kristofferson asks. “They have this annual list called the Boy Watchers, the top ten most watchables … …I won it. Number one. It’s never come out anywhere because I don’t got no press agent—you read about OJ, but I was number one, man. If I, at San Mateo High School, had been told that the Boy Watchers were gonna rate me, because of my eyes and my body, above …… everybody else.” He wags his head. “I’d a said, ‘Hoss, you been sniffing that glue.'”

Kris has built his acting reputation on more than his rumpled good looks. Working under a variety of directors (Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Paul Mazursky, Frank Pierson, Dennis Hopper) and among accomplished actors (Harvey Keitel, Karen Black, Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds), he has honed his own style diligently. I ask him if he has learned to accept the compliments.

Kristofferson lights up, takes a long pull of some “laughing tobacco,” which he has generously substituted for alcohol, and chuckles. “In the state of mind I’m in, yes … I feel confident from Star Is Born. I felt confident before, but I was also fearful of the unpredictability of it all. I take it more seriously than I used to. Like there were times when I would blank out. Once with Mazursky I had to do a scene nine times. Once with Scorsese, I had to do it thirty-five times. That was a horror show. ‘Specially when you’ve got actors working opposite you who are coming to tears every time. It was the last scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, when I had this big Forties-movie type of public fight with Ellen Burstyn. Very difficult for me. We shot a master scene that was dynamite. Then we started moving in for the close-up and Marty asked me, “Give it a little more.” This is a thing, since my first movie, that has had a Pavlovian effect on me. When you say, ‘Give me a little more,’ I immediately can’t do it. It’s gonna get phony because it always does. I used to have such definite attitudes about what I thought was right. I learned to be more open, damnit, working with Sam on this last film.”

Kristofferson had actually finished Convoy once, only to return for ten days of additional shooting before we’d left Albuquerque two days ago. “Sam,” Kris says, “got jazzed with the possibilities — and God bless him, he got going in a surreal direction. He would have reshot the entire movie if he had the time — it could have been a cross between Vigilante Force and El Topo. Nobody knew what was happening… … I ended up staying in the trailer a lot.”

Rita enters the room now, dressed casually, with her ebony hair pulled back. Her voice has a Southern smokiness to it. “Connie and Willie Nelson saw the Donny and Marie show,” she tells Kris, “and they said the duet was absolutely great.” (Kris and Marie had sung “You’ll Never Find Another Love like Me.”)

“I had my doubts,” says Kristofferson. He looks enormously relieved now. “That’s neat. If the Nelsons liked it, that means I’ll like it.

Viewing this portrait of domestic bliss, I wonder if Kristofferson misses the romantic discontent that may have once led him to write his greatest songs. Kristofferson lets me finish completely, then summons a debater’s zeal in arguing. “You’ve got to say, first, ‘What is happiness?’ You know? I would say that the statement that I’ve written my best stuff out of pain is patently false, as far as I’m concerned. I have often written songs under the actual feeling of pain. Seldom have they been a success. Usually …… it’s passion recalled during a period of tranquility. To me, the greatest upper is writing … …and when I’m feeling good is when I do it the best.

It’s interesting that Kristofferson’s entire wardrobe consists of clothes he’s kept from the films he’s worked on: a vest from Blume in Love, boots from A Star Is Born, the jacket from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, all pieces of his life he still keeps close at hand. Just as Kristofferson has gone through many incarnations in life — as an aspiring boxer, a college footballer, a novelist, an army officer, an Oxford scholarship student—he also carries physical souvenirs: a bad knee, an unsold novel, a boxer’s droop over his left eye, an Oxford vocabulary and an officer’s bark.

He was on the verge of accepting a job teaching English at West Point when Kristofferson took off for Nashville in 1965. “It was the last of the roarin’ times,” he says, “and I’m proud to say I was there.” It wasn’t quite so easy. Kris was married to his high-school sweetheart, Fran Beer, when he moved into his first Nashville tenement. He started in the town’s “mail room,” the all-night janitor job at CBS Studios — emptying ashtrays for everybody from Loretta Lynn to Bob Dylan, pitching songs on the side. After seven years of marriage, Kristofferson separated from his wife in ’67 and flung himself full tilt into the Nashville community, writing songs like “Sunday Mornin'” and “Bobby McGee.”

In 1970, with the support of his idol Johnny Cash, Kris released his now classic first album, a collection of mostly demos called Kristofferson. The Los Angeles Times‘ Robert Hilburn immediately championed him; many other critics followed suit. (“You get all into reading those reviews and everything. It runs your head around,” Kristofferson says.) He assembled a ragtag collection of musicians like Billy Swan on guitar, Norman Blake on drums and former Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky. They drunkenly toured, Kris says, most of the dives this country has to offer. “I still kept getting good reviews. I felt the whole world was on my side.”

Kristofferson proceeded westward to his notorious Los Angeles debut at the Troubadour. This was, he recalls, the Big Week. “On Sunday night the heavies came to see us. We’d been up at Dennis Hopper’s agent’s place getting drunk and I had dropped the rest of the band off someplace to the east. I went into the Hughes Supermarket to buy some Bull Durhams and then fell asleep in the parking lot. When I woke up, they had called the morgue. Missed my whole first show.”

But Kristofferson was a hit in L.A. anyway — more glowing reviews, script offers and parties. Columnists calling him the “country Warren Beatty” linked him with nearly every female in town. The critical honeymoon lasted all the way through a successful second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I.

Kristofferson’s third album, Border Lord, released in ’72, was soundly panned, perhaps most flamboyantly in Rolling Stone. “I really felt it turn, man. And it pissed me off so bad. I guess I must have tied that in with the poor sales of the album. God knows, that wasn’t the reason.” He snickers. “But when you’re on the road you don’t have much time to think up a whole lot of reasons. Besides, unfair reviews in Rolling Stone are like Ring Magazine knocking boxing.” Kristofferson stops himself. “God, I sound just like Richard Nixon.”

Things changed drastically over the next year. No longer the darling of the critics, Kristofferson nearly tracked down a writer in Seattle for reviewing Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson albums together. “Just ’cause she was Leon’s old lady before mine. He made her sound like a fucking groupie and I didn’t even know Leon at the time. Christ knows he doesn’t need to be saddled with my country shit. I never came closer to actually going after a guy. I was really crazy.”

Kris and Rita meanwhile had taken to touring and recording together, and later both accepted an invitation to act in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Rita had a small nonspeaking role; Kristofferson played the Kid. He called Dylan, a friend, and coaxed him into joining the filming in Durango, a coup of no mean proportions.

“There was times,” Kristofferson apologizes, “when I figured out the best way to behave around that sucker, until I found that the only way I could was to just abandon all that shit. At times I couldn’t make no communication with him, you know. Looking back on it, I think it’s my fault… … I really admire the sucker, but I could not understand him.

“But he had a hell of a hard time down there, man. I admire him for sticking it out… … I saw that dippy TV version of the movie and realized it could have been dynamite. His score was brilliant—and I never knew it. “What’s Dylan’s stuff like these days?” Kris asks. “I haven’t listened as much as I should ..….”

Well, it wasn’t new, but later I played Kristofferson a tape of Blood on the Tracks. He sat listening silently, transported somewhere, and afterward chuckled. “I can see for Sara, it must have been difficult at times being the ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’ Can you imagine being married to the little fucker? He says, ‘Where’s my hat?’ She says, ‘Hat? There’s 150 hats over there. Whaddya mean, hat?'”

Kristofferson, after Pat Garrett, accepted more movie roles — Blume in Love, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He recorded solo albums throughout, like Spooky Lady’s Sideshow and Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame, that sold only marginally. “I still like them damn albums,” he says. The touring continued, and as Kristofferson’s drinking intensified, he began to develop a strange feeling of inferiority. “I would stalk around the dressing room downing Jack Daniel’s just like I was gonna walk out on the stage and get hit with a big wave. It was hard for me to remember they paid to get in there.”

I ask Kristofferson if he ever acted while drunk.

“Who knows? I drank all the time. I covered pretty well because I had a long time to learn how. I thought my acting, at the time, was right. Maybe I was good; I don’t know.”

His face, usually sunny, crumbles into a leer. “I was really pissed off at something I had read which had been put out by the movie company. It said I wouldn’t do any publicity for the movie [Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea] because I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t get paid for. Well, I did something for them that I didn’t get paid for.” He spits the words. “That fucking Playboy thing.”

Kristofferson had finally plied himself one night with enough alcohol to pose with Sarah Miles for the Playboy spread that has kept fan sheets buzzing since.

Not long afterward, when his doctor warned him his liver was in peril, Kristofferson quit a twenty-year drinking habit. “On a basic level, there’s so much less pain now. You know? We know we can do it. I thought we would. Now I know we can. So why get panicky? Now I just have to loosen myself up onstage where I can be creative. I haven’t got my feet under me enough yet.

But Kristofferson is learning everybody loves a winner. His crackerjack band is suited to all styles of music — rockabilly, country, pop, jazz — and they run the gamut every performance. He has never sung better…and Rita has reacted to fame with such poise and style that it’s amazing widespread success took her this long. When husband and wife join for the last half-hour of the show, however, it is their set’s most natural moment. The audience is always most enthusiastic, too, when it’s down to Kris and Rita sharing one mike and staring into each other’s eyes.

“The traditional idea is you’ve got to make love to the audience, you know,” Kristofferson says. He’s just the slightest bit shy about discussing the notion. “We’re usually written up as ‘an almost pornographic stage show’ with a wink and nudge. We’re just standing up there singing. God knows, if you want us to get into writhing seductively, fondling, we can give it a shot.” He leans forward. “I meant to reach out and pat her on her back tonight and I hit her right on her tit! Right in front of everybody. She says to me, ‘You asshole, you just patted me right on the tit.'”

No I didn’t,” comes the voice of authority from the next room, and Kris is rattled. “I said, ‘On my tit!'” Rita says. “That’s pretty good because it’s not that easy to pat.”

Kris shrugs and spills iced coffee on himself. “Now I feel like a real dodo,” says the man his band members call “The Return of the Pink Poet.”

They laugh warmly and Rita calmly sits beside her husband to give him a kiss on the cheek. “We were just talking,” Kris says, “about the fact that you gotta be attractive to your audience. Playin’ to somebody else is something new.”

“It’s all fantasy anyway,” Rita figures. “The chicks are out there looking at Kris and going ‘Gaaaaaaaaaaaa…I’d like to be up front there with him.’ Guys, I would hope, are doing the same on my end. And then they come together and all of a sudden the fantasies become realities … …and people just love it.” Rita continues talking along these lines, but Kris is back at the last statement.

“Now that you put your mouth on it… … we’ll probably never be natural again.”

They laugh again, more warmly this time, and Rita swings her legs across Kris’ lap. He is, indeed, the warm and almost clumsy romantic that his female fans sense from the screen. Casey is asleep, the phone has stopped ringing, and it’s four o’clock in the morning. They begin necking.

I take my cue.

“Meet you here after the show tomorrow,” Kris instructs as I’m slipping out. “Let’s talk some more.”

The Saturday evening performance is even finer than the previous night. Wearing a gorgeous, gasp-inducing turquoise gown, Rita continually proves herself just as popular with the women in the audience as with the men. Her understated strength, the whispered “thank yous”s and her spectacular vocals amount to a coolly powerful mystique’ easily rivaling that of her good friend Cher Allman.

In the words of a faceless Kristofferson fanatic behind me, “Whatever she’s got, she’s sure not worried about losing it.”

They met on a plane in 1971. Kristofferson, on his way to Nashville to be interviewed for a cover article in Look magazine, sat next to her for the flight. Rita was getting off in Memphis to rehearse with a new band, the Dixie Flyers. Kris got off in Memphis, too. Look folded anyway. They were married two years later.

Coolidge, now thirty-two, is at career peak, but still is full-time mother and wife. “Before I met Kris,” she says, “my career was the most important thing in my life because it was the only thing I had to hold on to. I really wanted my life to be together — it is now. My child is more important to me than my career, but she would never make demands to stop my music. Casey’s always ready to go on the road.”

Still legendary as one of L.A.’s premier background vocalists, Coolidge made her first mark as a soloist in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Signed to A&M Records, she recorded five albums before Anytime …… Anywhere broke through. (Still in the can is an entire album of jazz singing done with pianist Barbara Carroll.) None of these albums was enough to break her out of a dedicated cult audience.

“I think I peaked on frustration with the last album [It’s Only Love],” Rita admits. “It came out and was the biggest secret of my life. I just thought it deserved more.” She vowed to work even harder on the next album, and she did. Anytime … Anywhere was assembled from seventeen recorded tracks, all arranged and executed without the help of Kristofferson. “It was great to bring home,” remembers Rita. “It was like, ‘Look what I did!'”

A&M Records President Jerry Moss added several monumental singles suggestions in addition to those already cut. He also played her Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone” for the first time. Rita reentered the studio to cut five more tunes, one of them “Higher and Higher,” using an arrangement from brother-in-law Booker T. Jones. The single proved one of last year’s biggest worldwide hits. And its followup, “We’re All Alone,” might yet surpass it.

Rita Coolidge views all this success with a kind of wry relief. “Boy, I wanted a single,” she says. “Just for the security to keep recording. All I want to do is make records. And it would kill me if I couldn’t. It’s my very life.”

Rita operates mostly out of her home in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific. “The last six years have filled my brain with backstages and crowds,” she says good-naturedly. “I haven’t found a real good reason to go out on my own yet. Especially now. In the past I think Kris’ fans and mine have objected to the pairing. That’s changed now. It’s all very positive energy … I think I’m a good mirror image of him… and he looks as beautiful as I ever could.”

She enjoys discussing Kris, particularly in his sobriety. “It is just the self-confidence and a pride in his work he’s never had before. He used to embarrass himself a lot and to cover up the embarrassment, he’d have a couple more drinks. He has so much more confidence now.

“I think having Casey made him aware of how his other children were looking at him too. He felt embarrassed a few times last summer when we were on the road and Tracy [fifteen] was with him. Tracy was proud of him; she’s stuck up for him since she was two years old. Kris [nine] was the same — he could never see anything wrong with his dad.”

But Rita is a changed person too. No longer given to black and turquoise, she has acquired a flair for color and boisterousness. How does she look back on the Rita Coolidge of seven years ago? “The person that did that first album is so far away …… it’s not easy for me to be objective. She was a combination of Bonnie Bramlett and a searching Rita Coolidge.”

And now?

“I’m going for a little more class,” she laughs. “You know, like Natalie Cole. It really comes across if you don’t care. If I ever did any image building, it was this week.”

“Fortunately we both got hot at the same time,” says Kris Kristofferson. He chuckles to himself. Moments before, photographer Ron Galella had blitz-clicked both Kris and Rita in the elevator. Now, with the soundless glow of Saturday Night Live across the room, we assume the same positions as the previous night. “I happen to feel a lot more secure than I thought I would feel about her having a hit. I’m not gonna get slapped with the accusation, ten years from now, that I held her career back. Usually success allows people to be better. You can’t think of many people that it really fucks up.”

What about all the A Star Is Born rumors? Weren’t those all successful people? Why couldn’t they get along? Kristofferson grins weakly — the obligatory question. Yes, he had skimmed the Playboy interview with Streisand where she took credit for “pushing him.”

“She didn’t push me to act any way,” Kris asserts. “Maybe she says that… … maybe that’s what she was doing when we did have arguments. I didn’t need that. But what she did demand was ..….” He scratches impatiently at his closely cropped beard. “She would try five different ways to do everything. That’s a degree of professionalism that I’m not used to working with. But to be honest, Barbra had a greater instinct on when something was right. She knew it was right even when Frank Pierson didn’t even see it sometimes. I hate to get into all that.

“I have read that she cut me out of the picture. Well, I just don’t believe that. The scene I’m proudest of is sitting there writing a song that I ain’t really writing. I don’t buy most of that shit I read.

“What people forget is …… fucking guy John Norman Howard was a loser. In every version he’s been a loser. Well, I think this one bent over backward to make him acceptable. God knows I was fighting for that.”

Though he wants to move past the experience, he is anxious to have something positive to remember. “She can piss you off,” he offers. “Just like anybody can. Because she wants her way. I don’t blame her for wanting it. If you can get it, goddamn … …get it. If I thought she was fucking with me I’d certainly tell her in a minute. Just as Jon Peters would, you know … …I did, you know. That was part of the problem.”

I have to ask him about the line attributed to him during a near fistfight with Peters: “If I want any shit out of you, I’ll squeeze your head.”

“Got to be one of the best,” beams Kristofferson. “A stroke. I was so surprised he didn’t just punch my lights out, you know. It’s the kind of thing you usually think of when you’re driving home. But unfortunately, it was over a bunch of open mikes. But fuck it. As far as I’m concerned, they’re friends of ours. In so many ways, the thing has helped me. So many people who hated her had to say something nice about the movie because people were going to it all over the place. So they’re gonna say something nice about me. She was the fall guy. Next time I will be. I don’t worry about it. Without a real good promotion, I think it could have died. But kids and word of mouth made it a great film.”

Does Kristofferson think he’s a great artist? “Right now,” he says immediately, “the most valuable thing to me seems to be time, and with time, I can be great. I have been…and I will be. I could write a fucking science-fiction novel if I had time. If I hadn’t been crazy with that movie, I’da been closer with the band this time. Lissen to me, I’m just as bad as Bobby DeNiro in The Taxi Driver.

“There’s a lot left to do… … the important thing is working with people you admire. I crave to work with Bergman. People say that David Lean might reshoot Mutiny on the Bounty. I would like to play Fletcher Christian. But it probably won’t happen. Nick Nolte or [Sylvester] Stallone would get it.

“I want to start doing more creative stuff with my band ……” Kris reaches over to turn up Jackson Browne singing “The Pretender” on Saturday Night Live. He watches and falls silent again, seeming almost wistful….

“As far as fame,” he says, “the everlasting fame thing. I used to think that was important for a writer…the desire to make your mark. Your immortality. Fuck. Look at Shakespeare. That’s only five hundred years, hoss. Five hundred compared to 4 million. And if you want to aim at Shakespeare, you gotta beat Bob Dylan first. And Joni Mitchell and a few others. So what you gotta do is your best and not worry about the other shit.

“If ‘Bobby McGee’ lasts, if Star Is Born lasts, if ‘Help Me Make It through the Night’ lasts, if all of ’em last, man …… who cares? I just need a good rest right now.” But in the two weeks following Kris Kristofferson’s departure from New York, he would write a slew of material, finish a new solo album in Los Angeles called Easter Island, a duet album with Rita. And would agree to a new film, Hanover Street, to be shot in England — Kris will play a World War II pilot, beardless, opposite Genevieve Bujold.

Neither of us know this as Kristofferson yells down the hallway of the New York Hilton after me. “Got a last question?”

“Can you — Kris Kristofferson — do it all?” I shout back.

I have a clear image of Kristofferson yelling back his answer through a mouthful of ice: “Look at me! I can go from Donny and Marie to Sam Peckinpah to Radio City Music Hall in one week. I’m just a ramblin’ guy …… with rangy hips ..….



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