Stayin’ alive with Kris Kristofferson

“It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”

I’ve never forgotten Muhammad Ali’s words, softly spoken in utter exhaustion following his epic 1975 Thrilla in Manilla fight with Joe Frazier. They resonated again at City Winery Sunday, April 30 after Kris Kristofferson’s third of three nights.

I don’t mean them about Kris, at least not healthwise. Yes, he’s lost much of his memory, as has been widely reported over the last few years. I can’t say for sure he even remembers me and I’ve been blessed to be friends with him a long time, counting my liner notes to his 2004 two-disc The Essential Kris Kristofferson compilation among my proudest career achievements.

But I can say that he puts on a pretty good front, letting you know right off that his memory is shot—like Ali, “too many blows to the head,” he says, having boxed and played football and rugby in his younger years. And I can also say he’s never sounded better, at least from the show I saw—and I hadn’t seen him sing a whole show probably in five years at least, though I did see him have a blast singing a Beatles song three years ago at a Beatles tribute event the night before the Grammy Awards in L.A.

I say he’s never sounded better, though I should put that in context: He’s a great singer in my estimation, and I love his voice—but I wouldn’t say he has a great voice, not in the manner of traditional pop singers like Sinatra, say, or that he sings like, say, his fellow country outlaw Johnny Paycheck.

I once saw Paycheck do a show, maybe 15 years ago at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville, with Merle Haggard and George Jones. Jones, of course, is considered by many to be the greatest country singer ever, with Haggard perhaps a close second. Well let me tell you, no one put more heart into his voice than Johnny Paycheck—and no one has more heart, period, than Kris Kristofferson.

It’s like Dylan. From the start of his career, understandably, he was labeled, wrongly, as someone who “couldn’t sing,” who didn’t have “a good voice.” I think both might apply to Dylan today, but back at his height, I’d say he had a unique voice and a highly original vocal style that was certainly “singing” of the highest order. And there are those, too, who discount Elvis Costello, who is in fact a great pop singer, for his vocal timbre, really, which is a solely a matter of taste.

As for Kris, I wouldn’t say he was a “soul singer” because of its R&B connotations, i.e., Otis Redding he ain’t. But I can say that no one sings with more soul–in addition to heart—as Kris Kristofferson. And no, he doesn’t stay on a note long, but he always hits it.

All this was apparently lost by a Chicago reviewer who savaged his recent show there, as I learned backstage. This made my blood boil, both by itself and for conjuring up the memory of another scathing review many years ago in The New York Post of a show that I was at, written by a reviewer who got Kristofferson when he apparently expected Caruso. And it being the Post, the guy was clearly a flaming right-winger put off by Kris’s saintly humanitarianism.

Not to keep harping on it, but no, Kris isn’t a mellifluous singer, then again, neither is Rod Stewart, to mention another great singer with a raspy voice. But in fairness to the Chicago critic, who complained about his “ravaged…weather-beaten” sound—the highest compliment, as far as I’m concerned–maybe he did in fact catch a bad show, though I can’t imagine it.

I mentioned Johnny Paycheck. Kris actually evoked for me, Johnny Paycheck’s greatest performance—his last substantial hit, “Old Violin,” which reached No. 21, country, in 1986. The song is essentially a reflection on a life given to music and a realization that the end is near, indeed, in Paycheck’s deliverance, the closest thing on record to dyin’ that I know of.

And yes, Kris is now 80, 81 next month. Paycheck, Haggard and Jones are gone, same with Kris’s friends and contemporaries Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash. All that’s left from that generation now is pretty much him and Willie Nelson.

But like I said, Chicago notwithstanding, Kris has never sounded better—again, within context. Still movie star handsome if more grizzled than last I saw him, he opened with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties,” a song thematically similar to “Old Violin” in that it now dawns on the singer that he’s “lost and alone in deep water,” not knowing “how much longer there is to go on.”

True, compared to its initial release on his 1986 album Repossessed, his voice has aged to go with the lyrics—making them all that much more affecting. And he played fine on guitar and harmonica, such that when he finished, the sold-out City Winery crowd, enrapt in dead silence, erupted into applause.

“That’s a lot to live up to!” he said, then proceeded to do so in a set (with brief intermission) that pretty much ran the gamut of his truly legendary career, each song its own high point.

I want to say here that Kris is one of my four favorite lyricists, the others being Hal David, Nick Ashford, David Johansen. And he’s so much, much more than one of the most famous lines in music: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” from “Me and Bobby McGee,” which he sang, of course. “And there’s nothing short of dyin’/That’s half as lonesome as the sound/Of the sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down” comes to mind every Sunday morning, as does “cleanest dirty shirt” (both from “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which he also sang). Or “ain’t it just like a human,” followed by the title line “Here comes that rainbow again”—and the title of the most beautiful “Loving Her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).”

I’m partial too, to “Jesus was a Capricorn”‘s “Everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on/Who they can feel better than at any time they please/Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on/If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.” He sang that, but not the most powerful title in his songbook, “They Killed Him,” also about Jesus, and Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and “the brothers Kennedy.” The chorus: “My God, they killed him!” Dylan covered it on his 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded.

I don’t know about Chicago, but man, there’s just so much in a Kris Kristofferson show.

“You paid a lot to watch some old fart play,” Kris said to the audience, almost apologetically. They would have none of it.

Lisa, Kris’s most wonderful wife, let me sit on a stool on the stage against a side wall, well out of view of most of the audience. Rosanne Cash had sat there the first night. An old girlfriend, sitting at the other end of the stage, was able to get a great picture. She said it looked like Rose was crying. I know there were times two nights later when I was.


(Photo: Cathryn Levan)

It reminded me a bit of watching Paycheck at the Grand Ole Opry. I was lucky to see him there a number of times. I always used to hang out backstage in various dressing rooms–Porter Wagoner’s, Roy Acuff’s, Bill Anderson’s, Jimmy C. Newman’s, Grandpa Jones’s, Riders in the Sky’s. The amazing thing, though, was whenever Paycheck played, everyone backstage—artists, friends, family, Opry hands—they all came out to watch. Paycheck was that powerful. That deep. People were dumbstruck watching him, now a physical shell of what he was–he suffered from emphysema and looked tiny–and singing from the pit and then rushing off to his bus to get hooked up to an oxygen tank.

But like I said, Kris looks great. Ellen Burstyn, who won the Best Actress Oscar opposite Kris in the 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was there. She’d actually never seen Kris play and warmly embraced him after. She looked great, too, and I was suitably starstruck. After she left I brought up Ali, since Port Authority had an exhibition of Ali photos a couple months back, one of them with Ali and Kris. Lisa said how Ali and his wife had visited them in Hawaii, that Ali “was a man among men.” We all lamented his passing, and that of his best friend and our dear friend, Howard Bingham, the great photographer.

And of course we mourned John Trudell. I’d put John up there with Kris as a lyricst, though his songs were more spoken-word poetry set to music. I was lucky to know him a little, whereas Kris wrote “Johnny Lobo” about him and extolls him in “Wild American” ahead of Steve Earle, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He also appears in the 2005 Trudell documenary.

Apropos of all this, Lisa said something else, that stuck with me: “We’re all dying.”

She said it with the brightest, warmest smile, the same one that accompanies just about everything she says. It was like, “Big deal. So what?”

I suppose we’re all shipwrecked in the eighties, those of us who are our age. For sure I know I am (see “Cancer Funnies”). I guess at this point, it all comes down to the way we go out.

Luckily for all of us, Kris is alive and well—well enough to have a new record out (last year’s Grammy-nominated double-disc The Cedar Creek Sessions, not to mention last year’s The Complete Monument & Columbia Album Collection box set) and even a new movie in the forthcoming western Hickok, about Wild Bill (he plays George Knox, the mayor who hires Wild Bill as town marshall).

Lisa said that they were now living the “senior dream,” traveling the country in a tour bus to concert stops, for Kris loves to play. We all walked out, but Kris graciously stopped to sign autographs for everyone still waiting outside. It was chilly and approaching midnight.

I walked to the subway, carrying a bottle of the Kris Kristofferson commemorative wine that City Winery made up for the special occasion. Running through my mind was one last lyric, from “Best of All Possible Worlds,” that Kris sang an hour or so earlier.

“And I don’t need this town of yours more than I’ve never needed nothing else/Cause there’s still a lotta drinks that I ain’t drunk.”

49 thoughts on “Stayin’ alive with Kris Kristofferson

  • May 14, 2017 at 1:47 pm
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    Heartfelt and beautifully written Jim… how blessed you are to know such a wonderful artist. Thanks for sharing your stories, your heart and for standing up for the man and his grizzly voice… made me tear up too. I’ve always been a fan of Kris… my Mother used to play him non stop when we were kids and hearing your review took me back to those days.

  • May 14, 2017 at 7:41 pm
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    Jimmy – another musically brilliant and humanistically insightful piece.

  • May 15, 2017 at 1:06 am
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    Troy Charmell!

  • May 15, 2017 at 1:27 pm
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    Who doesn’t love Jim Bessman? He has such a brilliant brain and massive heart. Bravo Jim, you are the man! We are proud to be your friends! Love on, Kris & Lisa

  • May 15, 2017 at 5:31 pm
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    A brilliant piece. Thank you. This old fart has been a Kriss fan since the 70s and have been lucky to see him a time or two and even meet him a couple of times. A genuine guy, beautiful soul and genius wordsmith.
    Your article summed him up beautifully.

  • May 15, 2017 at 5:53 pm
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    Thank you so much for this heart felt and beautiful review! This man is my all time favorite songwriter and performer and I love his voice, no matter what critics may say. Enjoyed your description and comparisons. Hope to see him at least one more time if we can just entice him back to eastern Canada.

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:03 pm
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    Awesome & well-written article! I first started listening to Kris (on the advice of my late uncle) at /about age 13. I was awestruck….learned to sing & play guitar to all of the songs he released up to that point word for word….often at the family campfires while on vacation in the summer. I’m now 57 and still as awestruck with Kristofferson’s life & songs as I was st 13…..and still listen to them on a daily basis. Keep on keepin’ on Kris, you’re my hero!

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:06 pm
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    I read an article interview with him a year or so ago. He talked about how he has recently been treated for Lyme disease, which was the cause of his memory loss. He is well on the mend now that he knows the it was the Lyme. I love that you loved his concert – would love to see him, too.

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:48 pm
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    And I’m the lucky one….

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:50 pm
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    Kris Kristofferson literally wrote my life! Just one serendipitous nugget….my daughter is named for “Casey’s Last Ride” and her name led me to find the gorgeous spot where I now live near Casey Key, FL. When I say I owe you, man….I mean it!

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:53 pm
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    Thank you so much!

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:54 pm
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    Entice! Entice! And thanks so much!

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:54 pm
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    I’m with you all the way! Thanks!

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:55 pm
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    I hope you get the chance. Truly life-changing! Thanks so much for reading…

  • May 15, 2017 at 6:56 pm
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    Love it! So glad you commented!

  • May 15, 2017 at 7:13 pm
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    Love the article and the man and his music. Have been a BIG fan since he started in the 70’s. Have seen him many times and stood outside one night when it was in the teen’s to get his autograph! He’s the best songwriter in my opinion. Come back to Texas soon, Kris

  • May 15, 2017 at 7:17 pm
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    Loved your article about this man and his music. I have seen him many times at concerts and watch a movie he made in Dallas. I’ve been a BIG fan since he started back in the 70’s. He is the best songwriter and I love his lyrics…they are so real. I stood outside on night when it was in the teens to get his autograph! He’s the best! Come back to Texas soon for a concert, Kris.

  • May 15, 2017 at 7:36 pm
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    So happy to read your review. I totally agree — Kris is awesome, amazing and sexy as hell! I would love to meet him and thank him, and am so blessed that I’ve gotten to see him in person. Truly a man for all ages and seasons.

  • May 15, 2017 at 8:08 pm
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    Just returned from a concert by Kris in Portland,Maine! Have loved Kris`s music for years, in fact my younger son gave me this gift on my 81st birthday, he actually drove us down, I`m from a small Island in the Bay of Fundy. My son said I had brainwashed him from when he was small with Kristoferrson music and he is as much a fan as I am so we both had a wonderful evening. Knowing how 81 feels, I was amazed at his voice and stamina! There was a stool and a mic on stage… and the stool was never used!! I do so admire Kris… for his music and for the person that he is and did feel just a touch sad… that is the first time I have had the chance to see and hear him in person and it is the last but I still feel Blessed! Kudos to you, Kris Kristofferson!!

  • May 15, 2017 at 8:11 pm
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    I have been a Kristofferson fan since the 70’s. His concert this year in San Antonio, Texas was fabulous. It was just Kris, his guitar and harmonica and the crowd loved it. His voice might not be what it was in his younger days, but there was still the deep feeling and lyrics that we all love.

  • May 15, 2017 at 8:11 pm
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    Just returned from a concert by Kris in Portland,Maine! Have loved Kris`s music for years, in fact my younger son gave me this gift on my 81st birthday, he actually drove us down, I`m from a small Island in the Bay of Fundy. My son said I had brainwashed him from when he was small with Kristoferrson music and he is as much a fan as I am so we both had a wonderful evening. Knowing how 81 feels, I was amazed at his voice and stamina! There was a stool and a mic on stage… and the stool was never used!! I do so admire Kris… for his music and for the person that he is and did feel just a touch sad… that is the first time I have had the chance to see and hear him in person and it is the last but I still feel Blessed! Kudos to you, Kris Kristofferson!!

  • May 15, 2017 at 10:11 pm
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    Kris is not only a great singer, (in my opinion) but his lyrics hit home so often. Lisa keeps him going, bless her, and he keeps on going, and going. He doesn’t remember me – a first cousin – but I’ll never forget him!

  • May 16, 2017 at 12:11 am
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    Great Kristofferson update! Fantastic Paycheck summary! GENIUS.

  • May 16, 2017 at 1:02 am
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    First started enjoying Kris in the late 60’s early 70’s, loved listening to him ever since!

  • May 16, 2017 at 1:20 am
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    I saw him about a month ago. Beautiful show. I made him a Sterling Silver peace sign. He wore it during his second set. Left an autograph for me”To Mike, peace, Kris Kristopherson.” Made my night.

  • May 16, 2017 at 3:54 am
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    Thank you. “ravaged…weather-beaten” sound may have been meant as criticism. To me, Kris’s ravaged weather -beaten voice sounds like Life!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:13 pm
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    It was! But I converted it into praise! Thanks!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:14 pm
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    How beautiful! Thanks for sharing!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:15 pm
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    You and me both! And millions of others!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:16 pm
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    Ha! So glad you appreciated it! Was afraid everyone would think it was hopelessly irrelevant!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:16 pm
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    YES on all counts! Thanks!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:17 pm
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    What a wonderful story–and wonderful son! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:18 pm
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    Exactly! Thanks so much!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:19 pm
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    Thanks again!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:20 pm
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    I hope you get that chance. Luckily it’s possible indeed! Thanks!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:20 pm
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    So glad you liked it!

  • May 16, 2017 at 6:21 pm
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    Thanks again!

  • May 17, 2017 at 6:24 am
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    Thank you for writing a great article on Kris. I have been listening to his music since the 1970’s. I love his music and lyrics! I am going to Cleveland, Ohio for my 33rd Kris concert and then to Royal Oak, Michigan for my 34th concert. We are so lucky to have Kris in our lives!

  • May 17, 2017 at 7:28 am
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    Lucky indeed! Thanks so much!

  • May 17, 2017 at 11:26 am
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    Thank you for sharing your love of Kris in this brilliant review! There is no one like Kris, never will be!

  • May 17, 2017 at 12:29 pm
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    Wonderful beautiful story. Thank you so much. The man has been a joy and inspiration his whole career.

  • May 17, 2017 at 5:25 pm
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    I very much appreciate that you liked it!

  • May 17, 2017 at 5:25 pm
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    To you and me and millions!

  • May 18, 2017 at 5:28 pm
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    Jim, this review is spot on, a brilliant analysis! You may be a friend to Kris and Lisa, but even if you were not, it’s clear that you *get it*–as all us Kris fans do. I’ve followed him since my first show in ’77 and have seen him probably a hundred times since-at least. And every show is as special as the first, every song made new again by the changes in Kris’ voice and in the emotional way he communicates them to us. And still he does God’s work through his own work, thankfully for us. “Thank You For a Life” Kris!

  • May 18, 2017 at 6:55 pm
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    There is no one who will or could ever compare to Kris Kristofferson. This man has a heart of Gold! He believes in justice, peace and love of our fellow human beings and that says a lot. He’s kind, funny, charming, and still very good looking. That raspy voice of his just makes him more sexy. But most of all he is very intelligent.

  • May 18, 2017 at 8:00 pm
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    Beautiful, Emily. Thanks!

  • May 18, 2017 at 8:00 pm
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    Well said! Thanks!

  • June 11, 2017 at 8:01 am
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    An excellent read. Kris is my number 1, too. (In my opinion, the only one that could rival him as a country song lyricist is Tom T Hall.) Living in Sweden, I didn’t really expect to be able to see Kris live (except at a lone Highwayman concert in ’92). However, when he first started performing solo about 15 years ago he did a few concerts in the Nordic countries. Perhaps he was surprise to find a loyal audience here. In any case, I’ve been able to see Kris every other year since then. And I love it. Next time will be in Uppsala, Sweden in just two days. I know I will love this concert too.

  • June 12, 2017 at 4:36 pm
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    Jealous! Thanks for commenting!

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