At some point quite early in your long life it dawned on you that you had already written the words the world is going to want to see on your tombstone. That’s not a particularly easy thing to live with. You wrote them in the song “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” about a rogues gallery of men you ran with or admired in the 1960s—Chris Gantry, Dennis Hopper, Jerry Jeff Walker, Johnny Cash—men who at the time were busy crucifying themselves on drugs and alcohol and bad behavior. Some of them, like you, found a way down off the cross. But the words stuck, and they still hang about you:
“He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned.
He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”
Now, in retrospect, it seems like old tales about pills and the bottle are the least interesting thing about you. But when you’re Kris Kristofferson, even your least interesting feature is pretty damned interesting to the rest of us.
Let us count the ways: Rhodes scholar, boxer, degree in Literature from Oxford, trained as an Army helicopter pilot, Airborne Ranger, assigned to teach English at West Point. He then walked away from it all to move to Nashville to write country songs. For years he worked as a janitor in a recording studio, taking occasional stints flying choppers to oil platforms. He was on a long slow drive down the road to nowhere, but always refining his craft. He wrote some of the most recorded songs in country music history sitting on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico with barely a penny in his pocket, and his feet coming out the bottom of his shoes.
Kristofferson’s breakthrough came in 1970, after he landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn and gave him a copy of the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” The stunt worked. Cash recorded it, and it topped the country charts, winning CMA Song of the Year. From there, the trajectory headed straight up. In 1972, three of the five Grammy nominees for Best Country Song were his. He won for the exquisitely crafted erotic ballad “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
Rolling Stone called “Sunday Morning” “the greatest song ever written about a hangover.” It’s easy to see why. The first lines alone are quintessential country: “Well I woke up Sunday morning 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.” The song shambles along for a couple of evocative, desolate verses. Then it does that gospel lift-off, with the music reaching for the rafters just as the words nosedive to the emotional bottom:
“And there’s nothing short of dyin’
Half as lonesome as the sound
Of a sleeping city sidewalk
Sunday morning comin’ down.”
With everything else he’s been—movie star, singer, Golden Globe winner (for A Star is Born), sex symbol, activist, hellion—it’s easy to forget that Kristofferson is among the best songwriters Nashville has ever produced. He’s penned at least a dozen that are now an indelible part of the country songbook: “For the Good Times,” “From the Bottle to the Bottom,” “To Beat the Devil,” “Loving Her Was Easier,” “Why Me.” “Me and Bobby McGee” belongs in the pantheon with a handful of the greatest American songs—right up there with “Over the Rainbow” and “Like a Rolling Stone”—each of them a meditation on freedom and longing.
His leftie activism has alienated a few people over the years. He once told Esquire magazine: “I’d be more marketable as a right-wing redneck. But I got into this to tell the truth as I saw it.” Still, Nashville has never stopped recording his songs, and his country audience is finding its way back. Fans and critics are raving about the stripped-down concert act and the finely-honed writing and studio work of his latest albums. Once his songs were about freedom, loneliness and desolation. Now he writes minimalist, gem-like lyrics about transcendence and grace—laced right down among the sorrows of life.