Much has been made about the somber content of Kris Kristofferon’s latest album – out today on his own KK Records label. The thing IS called “Feeling Mortal”, after all. Right out of the gate he indicates, a cappella for the first line of the album, that death is on his mind. He’s “wide awake and feelin’ mortal”. Yes, Kristofferson will turn 77 in June. Yes, he knows he will, as he sings in that album-opening title track, “soon descend like the sun into the sea”.
But as he transitions into the album’s second song, “Mama Stewart”, the album starts to become a guidebook full of lessons on living. “Mama Stewart” is another song obviously about death – I’ve read it’s about the passing of Kristofferson’s ex-wife, Rita Collidge’s, grandmother. But the song is ultimately a plea to God to have the insight and wisdom to see the things that Mama Stewart sees; the wonder of life, the beauty of a world that can be harsh, the good in all things and people, and the blessing of being part of it all.
From there, Kristofferson shifts to the lesson of not wasting your life by fulfilling a dream that isn’t yours:
“I built my own chains in the Land of the Free
A slave to a job that meant nothing to me
With three shiny new cars and a split level home
To furnish the tomb I was dying to own
Then one day I wakened with fear in my eye
Aware of a world that was passing me by
And I knew that my savings of silver and gold
Would mean not a thing when my body was cold”
-Bread for the Body
It’s a well known tale by this point, but one that bears repeating because of the shining example it sets.
A young Kristofferson was featured in Sports Illustrated as an outstanding young athlete in rugby, football, and track & field. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University where he was recognized as a top-level boxer. He joined the Army, graduated from Ranger School, became a helicopter pilot, and eventually achieved the rank of Captain. When his last tour of duty ended, he was appointed to a post teaching English Literature at West Point. With a credentialed past and a promising future, he passed on West Point and moved to Nashville, where he became a janitor at the Columbia Records studios. The rest, obviously, is history and the gamble ultimately paid off – for us all.
I use the word prophet a lot in describing certain of my heroes. In the non-religious sense, the term prophet indicates an individual who is “regarded as an inspired teacher or leader”. Some of my friends claim I’m too liberal with whom I choose to give the handle of “prophet” to, but I disagree. I won’t defend each case here, but I will stand by my naming of Kris Kristofferson as one of our greatest prophets.
This life we live is too short, precious, and beautiful to waste it living the way someone else wants us to. Deep inside each of us I believe we know what we want to do and who we want to be. For most of us, I believe those desires and truths become what Kristofferson calls in “Mama Stewart” the “things I’d grown too blind to see and feelings that I’d hidden deep inside.”
With “Bread for the Body” and the following song, “You Don’t Tell Me What To Do”, Prophet Kris reminds each of us that those truths and desires are still in there and sets the example for how to live on behalf of them, encouraging us to do the same.
What a better world we could live in if we were all that true to ourselves and each other.
Kristofferson speaks further about that truth to self in “Stairway to the Bottom”. What seems at the start to be a stereotypical honky-tonk weeper about adultery with the wife of a friend quickly shifts to a lesson of living with oneself. Kristofferson doesn’t play the morality card, or even take the avenue of warning that if you don’t treat your lover right they may stray. Rather, he points out that each step down the path the protagonist is heading results in a “new nail in the coffin of your soul”. He points out that “No one’s watching, but that mirror on the wall.”
Perhaps that’s the counter balance to living the life you want. At the end of the day, you only have yourself to answer to. That’s a freeing fact in many ways, but it’s also, ultimately, the heaviest burden of all to bear.
When I write about my favorite artists, there’s a line I like to use to describe some of them: “_______ isn’t like you or me.” When I write about the artistry of giants like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, I think it’s a significant fact that they simply aren’t like most of us. They operate on a different level. They share their creations with us and it’s up to us to marvel at their beauty and dig into their meaning.
The beautiful thing about Kris Kristofferson is that he IS like you and me. Sure, we may not have that craggy sex appeal when we near age 77 and we may not know our way around a tune like he does. But he seems like such a normal – albeit very special and gifted – guy. He’s not that great of a singer – which he’ll be the first to admit – and that gives his profound songs extra gravity. And he’s humble. While artists like Cohen, Dylan, and even Tom Waits, keep the curtain in place to add to the mystery and myth, Kristofferson frequently – and very believably – points out that he feels like the luckiest person alive that all of his heroes (Cash, Waylon, Willie, etc.) became his friends. He often acknowledges that he’s been blessed with a unique career that has expanded beyond his wildest dreams – yet he doesn’t take it too seriously and doesn’t make more out of it than he should (“Acting is still fun. Talking about acting still isn’t.”) How many celebrities can you say that about?
Not every song on “Feeling Mortal” is an impactful life lesson, but they are all gems.
Yes, “Feeling Mortal” is partly about a man in his late 70s looking ahead. But don’t get too hung up on the somberness of the topic of death. There’s a lot more than just that here in this wonderful album from a gifted songwriter, delivering his creations in that unique voice that suits them perfectly.
A prophet that walks this broken earth with us – pointing out the lessons that he can, that we should all heed.
Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk.
Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) at www.wgrn.net.
Mifflin blogs about music, life, and the weekly Dirty Roots Radio playlist at: www.OtisRyanProductions.blogspot.com