Prophet/picker/poet/liar Kris Kristofferson turns 75 today. He's still trucking through a successful acting career, but his most memorable and heartbreaking songs are still the ones he penned back in the '60s and '70s. At the time, he was struggling to get Johnny Cash's attention in Nashville and flying a helicopter to work on Gulf Coast oil rigs (and yes, according to legend, he once landed the helicopter in Cash's backyard to drop off some tapes).
A young woman with a sense for such things once told me that I was
most "myself" when singing along to Kristofferson tunes. I'd wager that's the truth. The Essential Kris Kristofferson was a revelation record to me while I passed the frigid dark months of college in Chicago, wanting to escape in any direction. Here were songs about plain-old abject loneliness, that most taboo of human sentiments, drawn in raw strokes by Kristofferson's own hapless Music City wanderings... for example, "Just the Other Side of Nowhere:"
I've got a mind to see the headlights shinin'
On that old white line between my heart and home.
Sick of spendin' Sundays, wishin' they was Mondays
Sittin' in a park alone.
So give my best to anyone who's left who ever done me
Any lovin' way but wrong
Tell them that the pride of just the other side of nowhere's goin' home.
That same hell-with-y'all stoicism is on view in his first record, 1970's Kristofferson, with the brilliant "The Junkie and the Juicehead." This, like many of his tunes, would be popularized by Johnny Cash.
Aside from his remarkable résumé -- he's probably the only Rhodes scholar to have shagged Barbra Streisand -- Kristofferson is known best through other people's versions of his songs. After the helicopter stunt, Cash eventually took notice and made "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" a hit, enabling the young, overeducated veteran and rig worker to start a musical career.
Perhaps Kristofferson's most poignant song is a message to Cash, who he "came across in the hallway of a recording studio" while working as a janitor at Columbia records: "To Beat the Devil."
God damn. I'm OK; just give me a moment. All right. Where were we?
Kristofferson's most famous song, "Me and Bobby McGee," was most famously covered by Janis Joplin, who turned Bobby into a boy and shrieked a whole lot. Not really my thing, but Kristofferson still gives her a lot of credit for her version. Then again, he was sleeping with her. Just like Rita Coolidge, with whom he released a couple of duet records. Just like Barbra. In fact, collaborating with the Silver-Tongued Devil was a dangerous proposition for a lady singer back in the day. And he's still at it at 75: Just last year, this Irish television host was clearly pining for a little of the man who had bared his soul so well to anyone who would listen.