The Man Who Showed Me How to Beat the Devil
Maybe you are a woman who listens to music all of the time. You can easily rhyme off your top two dozen musicians and would have trouble choosing a favourite. That’s not me. When it comes to music, I am a one-man woman. I have revered the art of Kris Kristofferson for forty-four years. On this, his 81st birthday, I want to talk about what his life’s work means to me. I’ll do that through his songs. If you know of Kris only through his acting career and perhaps one or two of his classic songs, I hope you will be inspired to venture beyond this post and listen to him performing his work.
Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)
When I was fourteen, my cousin Tom and my dad were speaking admiringly of Kris Kristofferson’s music. I didn’t know anything about Kristofferson, but I scoffed because that is what fourteen-year-olds do. So Tom and my dad, in unison, recited this verse from “Loving Her Was Easier”:
I have seen the morning
burning golden on the mountain
in the skies;
Aching with the feeling
of the freedom of an eagle
when she flies;
Turning on the world
the way she smiled upon my soul
as I lay dying;
Healing as the colours
in the sunshine and the shadows
of her eyes.
I still scoffed –somehow I saw that as a requirement at fourteen–but I paid attention. How could I not? After listening to David Cassidy prattle “I think I love you, I think I love you,” here was a poet writing an achingly beautiful description of love. I started to listen to Kristofferson’s music, first on eight-track tapes (remember them?) and then on cassette.
To Beat the Devil
Fast forward three years. I’m seventeen and it is the summer between high school and university. I want to make a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs says, but I don’t know how. Kristofferson’s song “To Beat the Devil” captures my longing to live a life of integrity and purpose. I play it so many times that the cassette tape stretches and I need to repurchase the album, not once but twice.
Kris is both an acutely sensitive guy and the most intelligent human I’ve ever met. That kind of enhanced consciousness can be a psychic burden to the poor soul who’s got to live with it 24 hours a day, but it sure makes for some great music.Don Was
“To Beat the Devil” is a story song. Kris walks into a Nashville tavern, cold, hungry, thirsty and broke. An old man buys him a beer, then tells him that he’s wasting his time talking to people who don’t listen and don’t care. Here’s the song:
The Pilgrim: Chapter 33
University is over. I’m in my mid-twenties, working as Ontario’s Public Education Coordinator for the Canadian Cancer Society. My friend and colleague, Marilee, shares my enthusiasm for Kris Kristofferson. We celebrate his birthday with a picnic lunch in a beautiful cemetery next door to the Cancer Society offices.
There, over champagne and cheesecake, we talk about Kristofferson’s history as a Golden Gloves boxer, Rhodes scholar, and helicopter pilot. We agree that Kris Kristofferson “is one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”
We admire the imagery in his songs, and the emotional intensity of his delivery, asserting that even though more than five hundred singers have performed his music, Kris’s versions are the best because he has lived what he sings about. On this point we are not always in good company. Willie Nelson, for example, agrees that Kristofferson is a great songwriter, then adds, “and if he could sing, he’d be a threat.” Others call Kristofferson’s voice “an acquired taste.” Even Kris claims that he sounds like a croaking frog.
But Marilee and I will not hear a word against our guy. We end our lunch chorusing along with Kris to what many agree may be the perfect single verse summation of the man:
He’s a poet, he’s a picker
He’s a prophet, he’s a dreamer
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher
And a problem when he’s stoned.
He’s a walking contradiction,
Partly truth and partly fiction,
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction
On his lonely way back home.
Shandy (The Perfect Disguise)
Kristofferson refers to himself as a “word junkie” and talks about the hours it takes to find exactly the right words to say what he means.
Kris could tell a story in one line that most of us can in five.Tom T. Hall
Shandy was somebody’s daughter driving to something insane
They busted her crossing the border, swift as a sniff of cocaine.
All she could pay was attention, so all they could take was her time
Proving an ounce of possession ain’t worth a piece of your mind.
From Here to Forever
Kris Kristofferson has been married three times. His first marriage to his high school sweetheart, Fran Beer, results in two children that Kris rarely sees when they are very young–the single biggest regret of his life. A second marriage, to singer Rita Coolidge, is short-lived, what Kris refers to as a “long divorce.” Kris credits love for his daughter Casey, from that marriage, with saving his life during and after the divorce. For the past thirty-seven years, Kris Kristofferson has been married to Lisa Meyers, a lawyer twenty years his junior (in photo). They have five children and are also guardians of three children from El Salvador.
In “From Here to Forever” Kristofferson talks about watching his children sleep
Cool shadows fall through the moonlight
Soft as the breeze through your hair
And the smile on your face while you’re sleeping
Is the answer to anyone’s prayer
In the song’s chorus, Kris, who has had triple bypass surgery and is an old man, promises his children that he will always be with them:
And darling if we’re not together
There’s one thing I want you to know
I’ll love you from here to forever
And be there wherever you go.
This song gives me great comfort when my father is in the final stages of dementia. I drive home from the airport late at night, pass his long-term care home knowing it is too late to visit him, and I play “From Here to Forever” and cry. Music can be cathartic for both songwriter and listener.
Me and Bobby McGee
Each of the dozen Kristofferson concerts I’ve attended is a thrill. There is the amazing one in Stratford where dozens of white-haired ladies know every one of his songs before he starts to sing. And the intimate one at a club in Toronto where, afterwards, we stumble into the night, drunk not from liquor but from Kris’s ability to immerse us in his world of raw emotion and keen insight.
Kris is a gorgeous, sexy man so it is inevitable, I suppose, that there is one concert where not every attendee is there for his music. That concert is at Ontario Place, an outdoor venue with waterside restaurants and bumper boats. Twice while Kris is performing, young women in skintight jeans, stilettos and too much makeup dart across the grass to kiss him. The first succeeds, the second is stopped by security just as she reaches the stage.
Then a third young woman makes the attempt. She has a baby in her arms. As she dodges and weaves, trying to avoid the security guards coming at her from all directions, Kris calls out, “Watch the baby, man. Watch the baby.” But the train wreck we are witnessing is unavoidable, and the woman falls on her child. Neither are injured.
Kristofferson sets down his guitar, leans into the microphone, and growls, “This may be an amusement park, but we’re not another ride here, and definitely not a white-knuckler. That baby had nothing to say about this.”
The song that audiences wait for and sing along with at every show, takes on additional layers of meaning.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothing ain’t worth nothin’
But it’s free.
Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down
One of the things that I most admire about Kris Kristofferson is his integrity, his willingness to forge his artistic path regardless of cost. It’s that “fiercely independent spark of consciousness that is Kris” that marks Kristofferson as one of country music’s “outlaws.” It is also the quality that, as Johnny Cash said, makes other songwriters work at their art rather than being content with rhyming words and clichéd descriptions.
Every album I’ve made is about what I’m experiencing at the time.Kris Kristofferson
I cling to the example of Kris’s determination when I am vice-principal at a high-needs school where we daily swing from one crisis into another. After consoling a ten-year-old boy whose mother locks him out of the apartment so she can attempt suicide, and intervening between two parents who bring their neighbourhood squabble into the schoolyard, I drive home blasting “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.”
I’ve got to wonder what my daddy would’ve done
If he’d seen the way they turned his dream around
I’ve got to go by what he told me
Try to tell the truth and stand your ground
Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Under the Gun
I win a trivia contest at a resort because I know that the capital of Nicaragua is Managua. I know that only because Kris Kristofferson sees human rights violations and speaks up, in his music (much to the despair of his record label) and in his life.
[Kris’s lyrics] are words to live by and that’s about as much praise as you can say about any writer.Willie Nelson
Hold the truth like a candle
Let it shine like the sun
On the love that’s left to believe in
In a world under the gun
Far more important than the silly trivia contest, Kris is teaching me what it looks like “to beat the devil” in middle-age and beyond. It is about moving past personal concerns and into universal ones. In another song, titled “Jesse Jackson,” Kris explains how each of us can help:
We must bring it all together
We must start right at the bottom
Back to helping one another when we can
‘Cause if he’s hungry and he’s human
And he’s fighting for his freedom
Then he shouldn’t be too hard to understand
This Old Road
Doctors have been treating Kris Kristofferson for dementia. It turns out that, rather than dementia, he has Lyme disease, likely as a result of crawling around in Vermont woods while acting in one of his more than one hundred movies.
Unfortunately, the Lyme disease has been misdiagnosed as dementia for more than four years so there is probably some neurological damage that can’t be undone. The world may never have Kris’s much anticipated and long awaited memoirs. It remains to be seen what will happen to his trunk full of notebooks–the unpublished songs, short stories, and novels.
Looking at a looking glass
Running out of time
On a face you used to know
Traces of a future lost
In between the lines
One more rainbow for the road
I am reminded that none of us have unlimited time to beat the devil. If there’s something we want to do or to say, we need to step up.
The Heart of Kris Kristofferson
I was initially going to write a heavily researched post that chronicled Kristofferson’s life through his music. Kris himself acknowledges that his music is autobiographical so it probably wouldn’t be difficult and it would be a form of musical memoir. Since Kris has more than 28 albums to his credit, it would also have been a book! But it is not my business to say who Kris Kristofferson is, even if I could. My job is to pay tribute to a man whose music has been the soundtrack of my life. (For more images, videos and articles about Kris, please see my Pinterest board.)
When I left my publishing company (Pearson), my friend Anne-Marie presented me with a framed piece of art. It is of the covers of my six books and, in the centre, there is a quote by Kris Kristofferson. It says,
Tell the truth.
Sing with passion.
Work with laughter.
Love with heart.
‘Cause that’s all that matters in the end.
Amen, Kris. Thank you for your art, and for your spirit. Happy birthday.
Comments, as always, are welcomed.