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.Kris Kristofferson

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
I will never be a poet but I start to study Kris’s word choice and his phrasing, hoping that some of it will seep into my own writing. Here’s one of my favourites, especially the third line:

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. Kris Kristofferson and wife Lisa at Planet of the Apes premiere 2001His 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.

22 comments

  1. Beautifully done Karen. I knew you admired Kris Kristofferson. Your article shows how deeply his poetry and music touched your life. I especially liked the scenario where you described driving home to “Don’t Let the Bastards Get you Down” after a day dealing with the crazy events that adults brought to your school. My other favourite is of your dad and Tom introducing you as a young teenager to Kris’ words of his song “Loving Her Was Easier”. The pictures you painted were crystal clear and were especially poignant since I have some experiences with both your former place of work and with your dad. Powerful writing Karen!

    1. Thanks, Fran. I’m not surprised that you could identify with the scenario connected to “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.” It feels like another lifetime, doesn’t it, my friend?
      As for my dad, yes, I have such a clear picture of him reciting those words. He loved Kris too. I’ve been playing Kris’s music all day today in honour of his birthday and there are certain songs where I can so clearly see my father singing along at the top of his lungs.
      Thanks for commenting about my writing, Fran. I really wanted to get this one right.

  2. Oh, Karen…what a fantastic post that was! Thank you for writing this. I have learned so much that I didn’t know about Kris Kristofferson and about you! I must admit that after reading this post I did check out you Pinterest board link – wow – you have some great pins on there. I wrote down a list of his songs that you mention in this post and right after I hit enter I will be hitting up YouTube to have a look for them.

    I love his singing and totally don’t get the whole “croaking frog” and “if he could sing he would be a threat” thing. I mean, my God, I would take Kris over Willie any day of the week! I thought he was an excellent actor too – A Star is Born and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea come to mind.

    I do remember eight-track tapes (I remember listening to Johnny Mathis and The Irish Rovers on 8 track they got played a lot in the trailer on our trip down east when I was growing up) and cassettes came along later. It still throws me for a loop sometimes thinking about how old I am getting when I look back on things like this and realize that the current generation has not one clue about what we are referring to.

    As for repurchasing Kris’s album on cassette twice because you wore it out by listening to it over and over and over. LOL, I did the same thing with a 45 r.p.m. record of “Knock 3 Times”. Hey, don’t judge me, it was the 70’s, I was young and although it did not have great meaning I just loved the beat. Not sure if this will show but here is a link to it on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yii1ufTyOWs
    It is only 2:52 long but oh the memories it brings back for me.

    Thanks again, Karen, for a little peek into your life and how Kris Kristofferson impacted you all along the way. He is a great man….Happy 81 st Birthday Kris! What a wonderful tribute you’ve made here – I am sure it would bring a huge smile to Kris’ face if he saw it and found out how he has impacted and inspired you.

    1. Thanks, Susan. There were just so many Kristofferson songs that I could have included in this tribute that it occurs to me, maybe my memoir needs to be built around Kristofferson songs!

      Just in case you haven’t stumbled across it on YouTube, please check out Kris’s song, “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.” Inspired by a scene from John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath, it’s a beautiful and very uplifting song about a simple moment of kindness.

      I totally agree with you about preferring Kris’s voice over Willie’s. Willie did have some great, sarcastic lines though. Apparently at one concert, Kris turned to Willie to say that he (Kris) thought he might be losing his voice. Willie’s response was “How can you tell?”

      Another great Willie line had nothing to do with Kris’s music but with his massive sex appeal, especially when he was younger. When Willie wanted to describe something that was ridiculously easy to do, he said that it “would be as difficult as getting Kris laid.” A bit crude, I know, but also the perfect comparison.

      I don’t judge you at all for “Knock 3 Times” – a great beat that has gotten into my brain since you mentioned it and I watched the YouTube clip. Thanks! (she says sarcastically because the part in my brain is just the two lines – you know the ones- over and over and over.)

      I’d love for Kris to see this post. If it’s meant to be, maybe it will get to him.

      1. I think writing your memoir around the theme of Kris Kristofferson is an excellent idea, Karen! I, for one, think you have a real talent for painting word pictures that immerse the reader and evoke emotions as if we were there ourselves.

        I did go to YouTube and watched ALL of the songs you mentioned in your post plus -Sunday Coming Down, Why Me Lord and I also found Here Comes That Rainbow Again (before you even mentioned it to me, 😉 lol). I liked that one too by the way. The one that really stuck with me was Why Me Lord that one is quintessential Kris Kristofferson, at least to me it is.

        It sounds like Willie Nelson has some jealousy issues when it comes to Kris – that would explain the crude jokes and comments at Kris’ expense. Haha with good reason too – Kris is twice the man Willie is.

        I can totally picture you with Kris Kristofferson playing in the background all day. That sounds like it was a great way to spend the day celebrating his birthday.

        Thanks for giving Knock 3 Times a listen and sorry for getting those two lines stuck in your head (she says sarcastically because now she has Why Me Lord stuck in her head and bookmarked so the video can be played again and again).

        Music can indeed be cathartic for not only the musician but the listener as well. I used to blast Alanis Morisette CDs in the car to and from my therapist’s office. I could sing right along with her because it felt good, felt like a release of sorts like someone really understood what I was going through.

        On a final note I had a look around the internet to see if there was some way to contact Kris and point him towards your post but alas contacting celebrities is no easy feat. I can understand, they must get a tremendous amount of mail. You are right though if it is meant to be he will see it.

        1. I can’t believe that I forgot to mention “Why Me” to you, Susan. It is indeed a beautiful song. The story behind it is that Kris went to a church service one night – I think it was with Johnny Cash – and just suddenly started to sob. “Why Me” has resonated with many people. It topped the charts for months.
          Thank you so much for your kind words about my writing, and for checking to see if you could get the post to Kris. That was very thoughtful of you.

  3. Karen, wonderful tribute to Kristofferson! I have an “Alexa” so after reading your post, I told her to play a few of the songs you highlighted; I think my favorite was “Loving Her Was Easier”. The man has a way with words and no doubt his music will live on long after we have all left this earth.

  4. Thanks, Anna. I was just mentioning to Susan in the previous comment that she might want to listen to the song, “Here Comes that Rainbow Again.” I think you’d enjoy it too, if you want to ask Alexa to play it for you.

    Kris says he has two legacies that will live on after his death: his music and his children. I’m sure you’re right that his music will be around for hundreds of years. At least, I hope so. It certainly deserves to be. It changed the face of country music.

  5. Karen, I always admire your writing but I especially like the style of this piece: straight from the heart but unsentimental. Few of us, I think, can talk so candidly, even passionately, about someone this important to us without losing the balance between our self and our subject. You let Kristofferson speak for himself and in doing so gave us a deeply personal look at who you are. A valuable lesson in “show, don’t tell”.
    Now, because I am who I am, I must protest your occasional failure to make noun and verb agree. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    1. Thank you, Dinah. I have always seen myself as incapable of “show, don’t tell.” I appreciate your assertion that I actually did achieve that lofty state.
      As for the occasional noun/verb agreement failure, I know, I know. I was aware when I was doing it but, for some inexplicable reason, I liked the sound when I read the piece aloud. Hopefully it’s a quirkiness limited to this one post, not a new character flaw!

  6. Hi Karen
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Kris! It brought back many memories of car rides where we would play his tapes over and over again. Good times!

  7. I loved reading about Kris Kristofferson through your eyes, Karen. I was one of those eleven-year olds who listened to David Cassidy non-stop! Misspent youth for sure….and I can still recite all of the words to “I Think I Love You” to prove it!

  8. What a great tribute to Kris, Karen. So much more intimate (weaving your own experiences and insights into it) than just writing about him as an artist. I hope he gets to read this blog post one day! And, thank you for introducing him and his artful words to me. I did not know who he was before reading your article.

    Such a shame about the misdiagnosis of Lyme disease! Incredible. I think this is one of the devastating (and hard to pinpoint) diseases of the future. When my husband had it during his cancer treatments, we were lucky to already be in the hands of renowned doctors and it was diagnosed correctly immediately! No side-effects of that disease at least. 🙂

  9. Hi Liesbet,
    I’m so glad that I got to introduce Kris Kristofferson to you. From what admittedly little I know of you from reading your blog and your participation in my blog, his poetry and some of his philosophies would seem to resonate for you.
    There are so many more cases of Lyme disease this year even than last year. I fear that you’re right that it’s going to be a big one in the future. I can’t figure out why I can give my dog a chewable tablet to protect him from ticks yet there’s nothing for us humans. I hope I can just add ‘yet’ to that sentence. I’m so glad your husband’s Lyme disease was caught immediately.

  10. Listening to music has been so important to me over the years. Every different stage of life is marked with certain soundtracks that are incredibly evocative. I love the way that you have written about it here. In my case, though, there are a wide range of musicians and types of music that have shaped my experiences. I think it is strange that music isn’t often acknowledged for its powerful link to experience and memory.

    Jude

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