Kris Kristofferson – To beat the devil: intimations of immortality
Call the world if you please “The vale of soul-making…” I say “Soul making,” soul as distinguished from intelligence. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions, but they are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.
— John Keats, “The Vale Of Soul-Making”
Am I young enough to believe in revolution?
Am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray?
Am I high enough on this chain of evolution to respect myself and my brother and my sister,
To perfect myself in my own peculiar way?
— Kris Kristofferson, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight.
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.
— Wendell Berry, “To Know The Dark”
The life and songs of Kris Kristofferson have often inhabited the shadowy vale to which Keats and Berry refer — a liminal zone between darkness and light where souls are born and where, in the best of cases, they thrive. Sometimes the pursuit of these twilight reaches comes to a tragic end, as in “Casey’s Last Ride” and “Billy Dee”, songs in which Kristofferson’s characters seek in vain “to satisfy a thirst [they] couldn’t name.” Other times the chase for this indistinct horizon can be bracing, as in the heady yet weighty rush of freedom in “Me And Bobby McGee”. Maybe nowhere has Kristofferson given clearer voice to this liminal pursuit, though, than in “To Beat The Devil”, a talking blues inspired by an early encounter with a wraithlike, self-medicating Johnny Cash.
The narrator of “To Beat The Devil” is an archetypal Kristoffersonian troubadour trying to find himself. Staving off a hunger that runs much deeper than his craving for whiskey or beans, he seeks refuge in a tavern on “Music City Row.” There he not only confronts the shadows that await him (his own and those of the devil he meets), he embraces this veil as if it were his friend. Relishing the possibilities for transformation at hand, Kristofferson’s scuffling protagonist matches wits with the devil and — just as Jacob did after wrestling all night with the phantom at the river’s edge — emerges, if not with a blessing, then at least with a song to feed the hunger in his soul.
Kristofferson has long sought the shadows in the service of soul-making. As a singer, songwriter, actor, and activist — as a man — he’s greeted the perils and promises inherent in those murky precincts as “provings of the heart,” to borrow Keats’ evocative phrase — as portals to self-discovery.
“Those shadows definitely challenge and test you, whether you’re up to it or not,” Kristofferson said by phone from his home in Hawaii in December. “And you definitely learn from the tough ones. It’s funny. Bucky Wilkin, who used to be in Ronny & the Daytonas and was with my first publishers, told me one time that if you took shadows and the devil out of my songs there wouldn’t be anything left. I think maybe freedom, too.”
Kristofferson added this coda about freedom with a chuckle, but he couldn’t have been more serious. Early on he feverishly extinguished light after light, throwing away one bright prospect after another — breaking every tie, as he puts it in “Border Lord”, before any of them could bind him.
He cast aside careers as a Golden Gloves boxer and as a Special Forces Captain and helicopter pilot in the Army. He turned down a cushy gig teaching English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He squandered the respect and support of his parents, as well as the love and devotion of his wife and two young daughters. He chucked it all — comfort, security, prestige — for a move to Nashville, a ramshackle apartment, and drudge jobs as a bartender and janitor on Music Row.
And, of course, for a song, and with it, a shot at writing some for the ages. Which he did, forever changing what country music could say and how it could mean. Kristofferson, however, didn’t just create a neo-Romantic prototype for Nashville tunesmiths; making his way sightless but with abundant imagination, he wrote the restlessly self-surpassing song of himself. Pursuing a persistently penumbral path to perfection, he took every “wrong” direction, as he sings in “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33”, in the process of finding himself on his sometimes lean, often lonely, ultimately transformative way back home.
AIN’T YOU COME A LONG WAY
Over the course of his prodigious career, but especially during bleaker times, Kristofferson has taken comfort in a maxim of William Blake’s: “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” This Blakean sense of completion or arrival, of a wayward pilgrim come full circle, is evident throughout Kristofferson’s new album, This Old Road. The record’s spiritual generosity, disarming sincerity, and unvarnished arrangements are reminiscent in places of both June Carter Cash’s Press On and Neil Young’s Prairie Wind. Equal parts autobiography, gratitude inventory, and rule for living, Kristofferson’s short, sweet album is, in terms of emotional, social, and historical reach, his most realized to date.
Singing in the gnarled Sprechgesang that only in recent decades has begun to sound commensurate with his years, Kristofferson looks back on his wild-eyed early days in Nashville, “roaring” with the likes of Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Mickey Newbury, and Harlan Howard. He thanks Lisa, his wife of 24 years now, for teaching him the meaning of love. He ponders the sanctity of life and how, inexplicably, people habituate themselves to death. The entire album is infused with an abiding sense of wisdom gained through struggle, the sense of someone “approaching perfection,” as Kristofferson sings in the record’s closing tune, “Final Attraction”.
And yet this is not perfection smugly or arrogantly conceived, but rather born of grace, humility, and a fierce awareness of finitude. This Old Road is Kristofferson bearing witness to how, in his peculiar crucible of shadow and folly, he has forged a soul.
“I got lucky, I got everything I wanted/I got happy, there was nothing else to do,” he sings, to a bounding melody recalling that of “I Walk The Line”, in “Pilgrim’s Progress”. This bit about having nothing to do but get happy is anything but glib. Hard-won and then some, it testifies to the singleness of purpose needed to make any life work, and also to the overwhelming sense of gratitude Kristofferson feels for having had a shot at such happiness — for “the freedom and the chances,” as he says elsewhere on the album, “and all the truth and beauty [he’s] been shown.”