Kris Kristofferson: The Rye and Rueful Man’s Man
You’d have to be damn near blind not to see what Kris Kristofferson looked like, even from a distance in the concert hall at the Music Center at Strathmore.
He’s got bluejeans, boots, somewhat unruly white hair, a shirt, a guitar, a harmonica strapped to him. Each gray and white strand of his beard is full of all the days of good and hard living, the cheers and the times when they might have stopped. It’s a past-70 beard, honestly earned, carefully combed by this singer-songwriter-movie star. It’s a beard, along with the voice that goes with it—raspy as a barking junkyard dog—perfect for the songs he sings.
Look him up on Wikepedia sometimes, and you have to wonder how a guy who’s done everything short of skiing down the Himalayas after seeing the wise man can write such rye and rueful songs. In his songs, which are mostly about him and the folks he’s met, loved and lost along the way, there is a certain amount of regret going on. But there’s also a lot of honest feeling, manly gut checks, and a certain sense of having let go of way too many worthy women.
Here is a guy who started out as an army brat, went to Oxford, was a captain in the U.S. Army, traveled around, was offered a job as a professor of English literature at West Point, did dishes and swept hallways as a janitor in Nashville, and wrote songs that everybody else sang and made hits out of. You know: “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McKee,” ”Loving Her Was Easier,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Why Me.”
And in the process he became a movie star, a handsome lad, catnip of the rugged sort that don’t go down easy. He played Billy the Kid with Sam Peckinpah directing, starred opposite Barbra Streisand and dated her, and survived all three experiences. He was Joplin’s swain for a while. He married a number of times, the result of which has been eight children and grandparent status. “This song,” he says of Daddy’s Song, “is for my children and their mommas.” He reminds me of E.E. Cummings’ Buffalo Bill poem now.
His voice doesn’t reach all the notes he’s composed, and it probably never did. But the emotions catch them just right, even now. “You know, he’s not much of a singer,” I hear a man tell the woman he’s with.
“Who the hell gives a damn?” she says, with just a little bite.
You suspect he’s got a lot of memories kicking around in there. He’s got a following still, a house full of Grammys and Country Music Awards, and legend status. He’s right up there now with Willie, Johnny, Merle, Waylon and the rest in the country music folk tales, even though his music spreads out over the land like a genre-less blanket.
He’s got a certain kind of audience. Guys around his age, perhaps a little younger, who look even less than he looks like his old self: his shirt off, waiting for James Coburn’s Pat Garrett to kill him, palling around with a knife-throwing kid named “The Kid.” The Kid, oddly, was Bob Dylan, who wrote the haunting “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for that flick.
He loves the acoustics here at Strathmore—so much so that instead of playing a one-set concert, he opted for two, though ruefully, as always. “Man, this place is great,” he said. “I can hear every mistake I’m making.”
In his songs, he’s waking up with a hangover, he can’t find a restaurant that’s open, or scrounge up the quarter for a cup of coffee and “It’s Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Or he’s waking up in a strange bed and the woman he’s been with just shut the door on her way out, and Bobby McGee has slipped away in Memphis “looking for a home, and I hope she finds it.”
The guys in the audience cheer him on, not too loudly. He’s singing their stories too, I’m willing to bet. And maybe he’s singing parts of mine. A couple of guys are sitting next to me. They get the walk he walks and the songs he sings. The songs make up a kind of Superbowl of manly broken hearts and missed chances. In front of me is a young guy with a pretty young, long-and-dark haired girl, kind of generic. He’s in uniform from some other small-town time, the tight blue jeans hung a little low, a clean white shirt, a near-duck tailed haircut and a look-around-challenging kind of look. He hasn’t accumulated a single regret, except maybe dropping a pass in the open field once or twice. Might have been Kristofferson, growing up in Texas.