If I couldn’t see Jesus on Good Friday, Kris Kristofferson had to be the next best thing. And at the Concert Hall at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, no less!
The man even looks Christ-like—and certainly is the epitome of giving. He even came out at the end of Roddy Hart’s opening solo acoustic guitar set to join him on Hart’s closing “Home.”
Hart’s a young Scottish singer-songwriter, who’s opened some 20 shows for Kris in the U.K. and who was in town for the annual Scotland Week celebration. Likened to everyone from Dylan, Sprinsteen and Costello to Ryan Adams and Willie Nelson, he was still unknown to this audience–but Kris had him play a few songs while the room filled, and when he took over the stage’s sole microphone made a point of crediting Hart for gamely performing with the house lights on while people walked in and talked amongst themselves.
Kris’s kindness continued throughout the show. When he sang “Johnny Lobo” he gave props to the great Native American singer-songwriter/poet/activist John Trudell, the inspiring subject of the song. He gave a shout-out to singer-songwriter John Flynn at the end of the parable “To Beat the Devil” (“It belongs to you now,” he told Flynn, who wrote Kris’s longtime bandmate Billy Swan’s country hit “Rainbows and Butterflies,” after the show).
And he did all the hits, of course including my favorites “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” But this being Good Friday, the more sociopolitical songs were the most noteworthy, starting with his first song, “In the News.”
From his great 2006 album “This Old Road,” “In the News” compiles several bad-news headlines into an anti-war masterpiece. “Mortal thunder from the skies/Killing everything they say they’re fighting for,” he rails at “the billion-dollar bombing of a nation on its knees,” climaxing with “Don’t blame God/I swear to God he’s crying too.” The date’s significance was more directly commemorated with “They Killed Him,” his exclamatory tribute to fallen men of peace: “Sing about Mahatma Ghandi/Sing of Martin Luther King/Sing Of Jesus Christ Almighty/And the brothers Kennedy,” he commanded, tacking on the names of “Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, etc., etc.” who followed the others into martyrdom.
“Jesus Was a Capricorn” goes without saying. Kris’s classic 1972 album titletrack boldly depicted Jesus as a hippie, and rightly suggested the consequences of His return anytime soon (“Reckon they’d just nail him up if He come down again”) while also nailing the universal roots of prejudice and offering himself up as a current target: “‘Cos everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on/Who they can feel better than at anytime they please/Someone doin’ somethin dirty, decent folks can frown on/If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.”
But the night’s—and the artist’s–biggest message came in the simple spiritualism of “Love is the Way.” The first verse:
Deep in the heart of the infinite darkness
A tiny blue marble is spinning through space
Born in the splendor of God’s holy vision
And sliding away like a tear down his face.
The lyrics go on to describe “the whole wide holy wonder” of nature’s beauty, and the human–the “strangest creation of many…a creature of laughter and freedom and dreams,” but one misguided by preachers of hate. The final couplet urges us to turn away from killing each other, “Because life is the question and life is the answer/And God is the reason and love is the way.”
It was the best I’d ever seen him—but I say that every time. And as the legendary Frances Preston, retired head of the music performing rights society BMI, said to me years ago at the Bottom Line, after Kris performed with his band, “You really have to see him every time. He sings the truth.”
That he does indeed. And he was still speaking truth and giving of himself after the show. Flynn mentioned that he was leaving to perform before wounded warriors at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, and Kris said he’d have joined him had his schedule permitted.
He also wanted to make sure I realized how talented Flynn is, making further note of Flynn’s social activism and especially his work in prisons. And then he stood out in the cold April rain for at least 10 minutes without a coat (his tour bus had broken down in Canada a few days earlier and he had to take a thousand-dollar cab ride to the next gig—and had left most of his clothes on the bus), siging autographs, posing for pictures, and graciously allowing multiple hugs from a pair of female fans who had been in love with him, they declared, for 35 years. They looked it. He didn’t.
“Write something good about John,” he told me before he left.
(Administrator’s note: I wrote the liner notes to the two-disc “The Essential Kris Kristofferson” that Columbia/Legacy put out in 2004. It remains among my proudest achievements.)