Kris Kristofferson – Partly truth and partly fiction
[Editor’s note: Writer and musician Roxy Gordon published a monthly newspaper called Picking Up The Tempo in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the 1970s that covered outlaw-country music. Nowadays he lives in the small West Texas town of Talpa and writes a weekly column for the Coleman County newspaper. His most recent musical release was the 1997 CD Smaller Circles on the English label Road Goes On Forever Records.]
1969, Judy and I were living in a one-room log cabin on the Fort Belknap Reservation in far northern Montana. Our community, Lodgepole, was ten miles from the highway. A single, ill-supplied little grocery store over the hill furnished some needs of the 70 or so Assiniboine who lived scattered along the creek. Community ponies roamed. Endless west wind waved sweetgrass. We got our mail in Hays, other side of the Little Rocky Mountains, went to collect it maybe three times a week. Sometimes came a letter from Texas and Rolling Stone magazine, The Village Voice and The New Yorker. I can understand Rolling Stone; I’d found one of the first in Denver. I’d read the Voice back in Texas, in college at UT. After all these years, I still can’t explain The New Yorker.
The Village Voice told me about coming summer’s doings at a college in San Diego, a writers conference featuring counterculture hero writers: Richard Brautigan, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley and others. The paper didn’t mention Jim Morrison, but he came, bringing friends and his awful movie, A Feast Of Friends.
Judy and I drifted down the west side of America, camped the first night on the Missouri not far from the rez. We slept in the car at Yellowstone, our pup tied outside to be driven to yelping fits by a visiting bear cub. We camped in the mountains above Salt Lake. Then it was Zion National Park and then driving down a terribly congested Vegas strip, scorching heat in a car with no air conditioning. The desert and a night with friends in L.A. — first time we had been there. We set up camp at the Chula Vista KOA campground the following afternoon.
I quickly fell in with Richard Brautigan at the college. He liked a short story I’d written. Besides, I had a car and he didn’t. He had no driver’s license, said he wouldn’t want to share roadways with anyone who drive as badly as he did. Hanging out late one night with writer heroes and Jim Morrison, I watched a drunken Morrison try to pick a fight with Creeley.
As the conference concluded, Richard asked where we were going. We had no idea. He said come to San Francisco. We went on back to L.A. where we awoke one morning to the news of the Sharon Tate murders. We watched one Buck Owens TV show. My friend Jack Steele played harmonica sitting in his bath. I junked my mother’s old high school typewriter in the alley and Judy and I decided to drive north for San Francisco. We ended up in a Berkeley motel, rented a house in Oakland and ran into Richard at a North Beach restaurant. I took to driving him for errands and reading gigs.
Judy and I took him to do a reading at some college in Marin County. Avant garde teachers and students fed us in an apartment. Someone passed around a semiautomatic pistol. Richard said he preferred Berettas. One of the teachers was a young woman named Diane. She wore opaque green hose and heavy, colored eye makeup. After the reading, we went to her fancy, one-room redwood house. In a bed not far from the head of ours, they made noise doing what one might guess given the people and place and time. Then she and Richard wandered around the house naked.
When morning came, I put on a record album I’d just bought, The Band’s second, the album that included “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Richard, who sometimes affected a Confederate uniform and had written a book called A Confederate General From Big Sur, hated it, said it was about people cheering when the South fell. I explained it was about a train. He listened again and decided it was his favorite song.
Diane came to our house a few days later to take us to the Berkeley Folk Festival. We parked beside a eucalyptus grove where people wearing animal skins danced amongst the trees. We ran into a girl we’d known in Colorado and there came upon the stage some guy announced as Kris Kristofferson. He did something like “Blame It On The Stones” about blaming the Rolling Stones for all perceived excess of the ’60s. Of course it was satire and I knew it. But for some reason, I think I thought it too topical. Or maybe he did “The Law Is For Protection Of The People” which proves it ain’t. Either song, I wasn’t so sure. He must have done “Me And Bobby McGee” because when Roger Miller hit America with that song, I realized it was a song by that Kristofferson guy. I liked it a lot, liked it more the more I heard it. Most of America felt the same way.
I went back to Texas in 1970, and Kris Kristofferson spent 1970 getting famous. Or he, at least, laid the groundwork for it. I found his album, Kristofferson, in an Austin record store. I lived at the time in the hills west of Austin, in a rock ranch hand house. Kristofferson was one of the records I damn near wore out that year. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was on it. And the song was all over the radio, Johnny Cash doing it. In another ranch hand house — this one a little, mostly unpainted white house south of a west Texas town, Benoit, that no longer existed, the house where Judy grew up — the ranch hand, Judy’s father, sat at a plastic kitchen table and told us “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was real religion.
I guess Nashville powers thought it pretty good because they gave Kristofferson their Song Of The Year award. We watched the CMA ceremony on a little black-and-white TV in the rock house kitchen. When they called his name, he stood up looking a bit confused and wearing a coat he seemed to wear everywhere in photographs that year. His Berkeley shortish hair had made it to his shoulders. Presenter Roy Clark was gracious but Tennessee Ernie Ford made some comment that he liked country music because you could tell the boys from the girls. He should have seen country music haircuts already coming down the road.
Then Sammi Smith was all over country and pop radio with “Help Me Make It Through The Night”. I was driving myself down to Austin one afternoon when I picked up a kid hitchhiking. He was cowboyed up and smelled to high heaven of some cologne, said he was going to meet his girlfriend. Sammi Smith came on the radio and the kid sang along. Miracles occur in the strangest of places. Here is a goat roper, cedar chopper pilgrim cowboy kid hitchhiking in the midst of what was soon to be Willie Nelson country and he was singing Kris Kristofferson.
Come ’71, I read Kris was in a Dennis Hopper film, The Last Movie. That summer Judy and I went back north to the reservation. I found the Kristofferson songbook in a Havre record store. I thought it was the best book I’d read in awhile. Judy and I camped in the Little Rocky Mountains and fooled around with guitars trying to play the stuff.
I met Kris Kristofferson like ten years ago at a show at the Austin Opry House, a benefit for the Wounded Knee school on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation. I did my militant Indian poetry with music attack. I don’t remember who put that show together. Somebody must have dropped a lot of money on it, kids from the school bussed all the way to Austin. John Trudell performed and Bill Miller. Rumors flew that Saint Willie would show and maybe Waylon Jennings, whom Sammi Smith said on the back of an album is Comanche. Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan might appear. Willie, Waylon and Kris were said to be making a movie out in Willie Nelson country. I wouldn’t guess what Bob Dylan might have been doing that night, nor even Willie and Waylon. I know what they didn’t do.