Kris Kristofferson is feeling mortal.
“And what I’m finding, to my pleasant surprise at this age, is that I’m more inclined to laughter than tears,”
says the 77-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer. “I hope I’ll feel this creative and grateful until they throw dirt over me.”
In his illustrious and versatile career, Kris Kristofferson has been a Golden Gloves boxer, a Rhodes scholar, a college football player, an acclaimed actor, an Army man, a chopper pilot, and a Grammy winner.
Penning classics like Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make It Through the Night, and Sunday Morning Coming Down, Kristofferson is touring the U.S. and Europe this summer on the heels of his 28th release, the Don Was-produced album Feeling Mortal.
“A major reason for Kris’ enduring popularity is that he’s always been very honest and open about revealing his inner life,” says Was, who has worked with Kristofferson for the past 17 years. “Sunday Morning Coming Down is a brutally frank, first-person narrative that just happens to hit a common nerve among millions of people, and that’s why Kris is such a great artist.”
Kristofferson is also featured in the new documentary, Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation, about the militant Greenwich Village music scene that so deeply and irreversibly changed the political, social and cultural landscape. Directed by Laura Archibald (read our past interview with Archibald here), the film was recently screened at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and at festivals and theatres across North America.
RCM tracked down Kris Kristofferson for an exclusive interview about mortality, boxing, and Greenwich Village.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What comes to mind when you think back to the Greenwich Village music scene?
Kris Kristofferson: Well, I’ll tell ya, it was so magical for me because that was the very beginning of my performing life, and it was a place where my heroes were. You know, Bob Dylan came to my show. It was incredible and it was a place where everybody’s intentions were artistic. You loved anybody that was good, and there was such a lack of ego.
To me, it was where Bob Dylan and the serious singer-songwriters were, and it was a Mecca. Dylan could be sitting there in the audience on any given night, right next to some of your friends at The Bitter End.
RCM: Can you describe that historic NYC venue?
KK: At The Bitter End, everything was close. The audience was so close to the stage. It was a little club, but there was nothing uncomfortable about it. All of the focus was on the stage, and everybody was there for the right reasons. And it was a great time in my life.
RCM: In the new documentary on Greenwich Village, so many of the artists featured in the film speak of the power of connectedness and chemistry between artists…
KK: And to me, it just symbolized why I committed my life and my family to this business. Everybody cared about the song, and there was so little selfishness or rivalry, or anything like that. There was no competitiveness. It was just like, if you heard a great song, you had to have other people hear it and respect it, regardless of whether it was Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or whoever.
RCM: Tell us about Leonard Cohen from that time in the Village.
KK: Leonard was such a down-to-earth human being. Oh, I’ll tell ya, when I first met Leonard Cohen I was listening to the sessions he was having there at Columbia (Records), and I was totally blown away particularly by the song Bird on a Wire. And I had a friend of mine, Vince Matthews, another songwriter tell me that Leonard stole that tune from that Lefty Frizzell song Mom and Dad’s Waltz. I thought, hell, Leonard has probably never heard of Lefty Frizzell.
But when I was telling this to Leonard the first time I met him, I said, “Yeah, Vince told me that you stole the tune for Bird on a Wire from Lefty Frizzell’s Mom and Dad’s Waltz. And Leonard Cohen said, “Hell, I love Lefty Frizzell. He’s one of my favorite writers-singers. I have all of his records, and I love Mom and Dad’s Waltz! Hell, maybe it is stolen?” (laughs) And he was really humble and cool about it. I said to myself, this guy is perfect! And he was. He was never disappointing. It’s amazing because Leonard Cohen and Dylan were light years ahead of the rest of us.
RCM: Joni Mitchell was another young Canadian artist that left an indelible mark on the Village…
Joni Mitchell blew me away from the very first time I ever saw her. She just destroyed me.
She was, oh so beautiful, and she was like an angel. The first time I met her is when she came to do the Johnny Cash Show, and god almighty, she just kept getting better. I don’t think she’s still performing, and she really had no desire to be out in front in public, or in the spotlight. But she’s a beautiful artist.
RCM: Were there certain artists you especially admired but didn’t cross paths with in the Village?
KK: I always thought Harry Chapin was a great, great songwriter and I loved the music, but I didn’t know Harry personally. I didn’t really cross paths with Dave Von Ronk either, because once I got out on the road, I wasn’t really going to other people’s shows much and I wasn’t listening to the radio at all. I just kind of got on a rollercoaster and was doing all I could to hang on.
RCM: What do you think your life would be like now had you chosen either the military or academic route?
KK: I wouldn’t have chosen either. If I had been a little less headstrong, I probably could have been forced into one of those (laughs). Because of the academic background and the military background, you know my father was a career man, he worked for Pan American. But I’m very grateful that I had the audacity to follow my heart and live life on my own terms.
RCM: Did you ever consider professional boxing, having been a Golden Gloves boxer and winner of a coveted “Blue” at Oxford?
KK: I didn’t have a good enough head, and that profession can do you a lot of damage. I was getting concussions and memory loss and stuff like that. We didn’t know about it at the time, how concussions in boxing and football will eventually catch up with you. We’re aware of that now. But I loved it. I’ve been a boxing fan since I was a little boy.
RCM: Did you have any boxing heroes?
KK: Before Hank Williams, Rocky Graziano was my first big hero, I think by the time I was eight on. After Graziano, I saw Muhammad Ali, but he was Cassius Clay back when he fought in the Olympics in Rome. And from then on, I was his fan. I feel really lucky to have met a lot of my heroes, and he became a close friend of mine.
We did a movie together that I think was really great, Freedom Road, but they pulled it from theatres because it was back then in the Republican administration. They yanked it off the screen when the attorney general made a trip to Hollywood and said there will be no more pictures made with a negative portrayal of American history. He was talking about slavery and whatever, but it was a really neat experience to work with Muhammad Ali, and being his friend is still one of my proudest things.
RCM: What was Muhammad Ali like when not in the spotlight?
KK: Well, he was absolutely the same person on stage that he was off. He was a beautiful human being and a really sweet man, and all his life he was doing beautiful things for people. And I admire him not just for his fighting, but for the way he’s handled his incapacity as he’s never felt sorry for himself. I remember when Waylon Jennings wanted to meet him, and Waylon wasn’t impressed by anybody. But Waylon was impressed with Ali, and they also became good friends.
RCM: Do you remember the first time you heard Waylon Jennings?
KK: I was a janitor at the Columbia recording studio in Nashville, and I heard a demo that Waylon was doing. I was blown away, as I never heard anything like him. Like Willie Nelson, he became one of my heroes before I ever got to meet them.
RCM: It must have been a surreal experience, then, for you to form the country supergroup The Highwaymen with Nelson, Jennings, and Johnny Cash back in the ’80s.
KK: Oh, it really was. I remember I’d be standing there on stage and thinking I should pinch myself, as I couldn’t believe I was up there sharing the same stage with them.
And Johnny Cash, he was always larger than life and I remember looking at his profile and thinking he came right off Mount Rushmore. He was an incredible human being, and I think we all really loved each other.
RCM: The 10-year anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash is this September. Did you have a chance to say goodbye?
KK: We had a warm embrace, as he was not in any condition to talk as he was dying at that time. But Johnny Cash was always larger than life to me.
And as close as I got to him, he was never less than that. He was always the Johnny Cash that everybody loved and respected. I don’t know, man, he always seemed larger than life. The first time I ever met him was backstage at the Opry. I shook his hand and I’m sure that electricity went through me.
That handshake changed my life, as that’s what convinced me to get out of the army and go to Nashville.
But John was unlike anyone else. He was loved and respected by Bob Dylan and The Beatles, and he deserved it.
RCM: You and Johnny Cash performed your song Sunday Morning Coming Down on The Johnny Cash Christmas Show in ’78, right?
KK: Ah yeah, that song opened a lot of doors for me, and I was so proud to perform it with him on his show. I’ll also never forget the first time I had a song that won…Sunday Morning Coming Down won song of the year, and it was up against Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins and a bunch of people that I really respected. I didn’t have any idea that I’d win.
I was sitting behind Merle Haggard in the audience and when they said I won, I kind of straightened up my head and hit the back of the pew that was there, because the seats in the Grand Ole Opry were like church pews. Anyways, Merle was in front of me and he turned around and said, “Well, get on up there!” (laughs) I was just blown away how Merle was just as happy for me as I was.
RCM: Tell us about your longtime friendship with Merle Haggard.
KK: Listen, Merle is his own man (as he showed in our IN. I remember back when I first met him, everybody expected us to be at odds because I was the only guy in the business back then that had a beard. That was before Willie and Waylon or anybody else did. And I was looked at as a long haired hippy or something. And Nashville, when we were at this big hangout — it was a hotel that Roger Miller had up on the top floor, there was a piano and people used to do shows up there — I met Merle and everybody expected me and Merle to be at odds or something.
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