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.”