Kris Kristofferson – Partly truth and partly fiction
But Kris did. He showed in a van with his wife. After he did his set, he disappeared to the backstage of backstage with Bobby Bridger. I was backstage talking with Bill Miller when Kris escaped from backstage backstage and came directly to me to talk. I don’t know why.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Kristofferson by phone from New York; he professed he didn’t remember any of the whole scene. The phone call was short and continuously interrupted by some Atlantic Records PR person saying Kris had to get off the phone to talk with another failed musician turned critic who wanted to interview him.
This piece I’m writing seems to have been precipitated by the Atlantic release of The Austin Sessions, new versions — and maybe better — of most of Kristofferson’s best-known songs. Kris said he recorded it in three days. He said Stephen Bruton played guitar and the vocalists were people he had been in jail with, apparently a reference to Jackson Browne, who sings harmony on “Me And Bobby McGee”. Steve Earle sings on “Sunday Morning Coming Down”; Vince Gill sings on “Help Me Make It Through The Night”; Gill and Alison Krauss harmonize on “Why Me?”; Mark Knopfler sings and plays lead guitar on “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends”.
The Silver Tongued Devil And I, which came out in 1971, is still my favorite Kris Kristofferson record. “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33”, which is on that album, is not only my favorite Kristofferson song, but likely the story of my life and the story of most people I know. How about 68-year-old poet and songwriter Kell Robertson living in New Mexico in a house built of bales of hay between Cerrillos and Santa Fe?
When I was playing in an unnamed kitchen band in Albuquerque, I knocked out wives and other hangers-on with “The Pilgrim”. I changed the words. Instead of the Pilgrim being partly fact and partly fiction, I said partly fact and mostly fiction. Kris does the same change on The Austin Sessions. It’s too bad he doesn’t list the Pilgrims like he did on The Silver Tongued Devil And I. But hell, that record is over a generation old. I expect Kris has met many a pilgrim since then; it would take a whole box set of records just to name them.
Judy hit the internet and found some more articles about Kristofferson. Some strange stuff. One piece purported to be Johnny Cash talking about how Kris plied him tapes via June. Johnny said he threw the tapes into his lake, wouldn’t listen, but then dragged the lake to find the tapes. Cash may have written the thing as some kind of joke, but Kris told me Marijohn Wilkin introduced him backstage at the Opry early on. Another web page told us Kris had a beard when he accepted the CMA award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. He didn’t have a beard. Partly fact and mostly fiction.
I talked with C.J. Berkman on the phone awhile ago. He told me the magazine Texas Monthly had Kris teaching English at Harvard. Turning into gold may not be hazardous, but it sure can wreck the part that is partly truth.
Kris told me he lived in Brownsville, Texas, until he was eleven years old. His father, a pilot for Pan Am and the military, was sent to Brownsville. Then his family went to California. His father, he said, flew in the Korean War. Kris went to Pomona College in Southern California. One of those articles on the internet, written by John Morthland, says Kris did his first record in 1958 in a garage in Los Angeles: “Blue Melody” on one side, “Ramblin’ Man” on the other. Morthland says they sent copies to DJs. Kris may have been doing more than a little right. In ’59 he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Morthland says Kris cut four records there. They were not released.
Kris told me he was in ROTC at Pomona when he graduated; the Feds let him off active duty because he was gone to be a Rhodes Scholar. He had already won Atlantic Monthly contests for short stories: “Gone Are The Days’ won third, and “A Rock” won first.
He found William Blake at Oxford, maybe found Shakespeare. I ain’t no admirer of Shakespeare but Blake dictated my life in the early ’80s. Shakespeare wrote historical romance soap operas. Blake wrote messages from the angels, and painted the messages. Kris said he found a book road map to Blake. After several years at Oxford, he went to active duty in Germany, started a band, wrote satirical songs about the army.
Some guy in his outfit was kin to Marijohn Wilkin. Marijohn was of Texas roots and a Nashville songwriter and mover. Kris sent songs to Marijohn. He said they were pretty bad, but Marijohn told him if he were ever in Nashville, come visit. Kris said he had a couple of weeks leave before the Army was to send him to West Point. He took to Nashville and Marijohn. She introduced him around. He met Cowboy Jack Clement, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash. Mel Tillis. Kris decided he did not want to teach English at West Point. I told him William Faulkner once was a writer-in-residence at West Point. That line was met with silence.
I asked him about the Mel Tillis wreck. My mama went to Branson, Missouri, on a tour bus organized by her bank. She brought back a book by Mel Tillis. The book talked about the wreck. Kris said he thought Mel Tillis reminded him of Hank Williams. He said he and Mel were roaring that day, roaring a term he had to explain to me. He didn’t. Various musicians used to stay up all night at my house in New Mexico. They drank a whole lot and did substances that are illegal. Junior Brown, then J.B. Brown, roared one night and we took the hippy kid home to Cerrillos the next morning.
Kris said that day in Nashville his old army outfit was headed for Nam. Their plane had a layover in Tennessee. He and Mel Tillis, who Kris said couldn’t talk, decided to go see them. Mel went home to tell his wife where they were going. He dropped a bottle of whiskey on the front porch, busted it. His wife said no deal Lucille and made Mel go into the house.
Kris said he knew he was too drunk to drive, but he went anyway. He made it to the army base and rolled the car something like three times. MPs got him out and uprighted the car. They were just moving the stairs away from the plane when he got there. Kris told them they would be sorry if they didn’t let him on. He found the soldiers had saved him a seat. After awhile, the officer in charge came on board and told him he’d best get off or end up in Viet Nam. He slept it off in an MP guard shack.
And yeah, he did have the fist fight with Faron Young, said it was at Marijohn’s house.