KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: SAY IT LIKE A PRAYER
Kris Kristofferson is an American legend—singer, songwriter, actor, pilot, philosopher and probably one of the few people on the planet who’s met both Johnny Cash and Kermit the Frog. Cinefamily will be celebrating his unique place in film and music with a series of films this month, from his full-length acting debut in the 70s’ L.A. surface-streets noir Cisco Pike to his most recent The Motel Life, which like so many Kristoffersonian efforts involves a few people just trying to stay free. He’ll perform a few songs with Cisco Pike co-star Harry Dean Stanton after a special screening of Cisco Pike tonight, and attending a sneak preview of The Motel Life tomorrow. He speaks now about total commitment—to music, to art and to jumping out of an airplane. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
It’s Halloween night—am I ruining your trick or treating plans?
I’m a little old for that—I’d scare ‘em to death!
You’re going to be attending the screening of Cisco Pike tonight—was the bathtub scene in that film the first time you saw Harry Dean Stanton naked?
Poor Harry Dean, God almighty! He’s in a million movies and they always beat the hell out of him. Listen—he’s a good actor, too, but he’s just been a punching bag his whole life.
How much is the character of Cisco Pike you playing you? You weren’t too far removed from being a down-and-out musician yourself in the early 1970s.
The thing is I went from working in the oil fields to hanging out behind the Johnny Cash TV show to the stage of the Troubadour and in the movie—right then! I’d never acted in anything in my life. So I had to trust Harry Dean and my instincts. He gave me the screen test. We did a scene together and the director filmed it, and I guess it worked? He’s a great actor and a great guy— I was talking to him the other day and he was all concerned what songs we were gonna do [at Cinefamily]. I said, ‘Hell, man—we could do any songs!’ I forget which ones we said we were gonna do. I think ‘Loving Her Was Easier’ and maybe ‘The Pilgrim.’
Tell him not to be worried!
Ah, that’s just part of his routine.
The fear? That’s part of my routine, too.
I know the first part of every gig I ever did was terrifying, but you get past that and it’s OK.
How did you get to a point where you were cured of that?
No, I was never cured! But the first part you’re always scared, and that’s a normal precaution when you step out vulnerable like that. I think we’re just lucky we got this far! You’re totally without anything to stand on out there! You’re either gonna fly or you’re gonna crash!
What was acting like for you—was it like covering someone else’s songs? You’d written so much yourself, and then you were stepping into a character saying lines someone else had prepared for you.
It all happened at once. I went from never having performed for anybody to suddenly I’m written up by Robert Hilburn like I’m Bob Dylan or something, and then the film immediately after. Harry Dean said, ‘They want us to try this scene,’ and next thing you know, I got a film. I’m interested in looking at it. I haven’t seen it for … a century.
Remember that scene in Cisco Pike where you have to eat all the weed when the cop pulls you over—
I hope that was fake weed.
I hope it was, too—cuz we ate it, whatever it was! Shit, listen—I was new to the movies! I dunno, maybe there’s a way to get that stuff outta your mouth without showing it, but I don’t know what it was!
Did they make it up to you with that threesome scene?
Oh yeah—I can’t say that was hard to do. It was just as ridiculous as the rest of my life was at that time. Going from never being on stage, never being in a film or play in school or anything, and suddenly I’m skin to skin with these beautiful actresses! Movie stars! It was an experience.
Did you feel like these Hollywood hustlers were corrupting you, the sweet all-American kid from small town USA?
Listen—I was moving so fast at that time, I don’t think I was in danger. It started like a fire that goes outta control.
At what point did you think, ‘This is scarier than jumping out of an airplane?’ Which I know you did many times in the Army.
They’re very similar! Commit yourself, you know? And it’s an exhilarating experience. But you’re more in control on stage than you are going out of an airplane. I’m not ever gonna leave myself quite that open!
Did learning how to march around all day and stay up all night help you as a touring musician?
Nothing was harder than Ranger school! In my life! Ever! We’d average about two and a half hours of sleep a night in the mountains and the swamps. It’s all been a walk in the park since then!
In Cisco Pike, there’s a line where you say you majored in shitkicking. But actually you majored in English Lit. What great work of Western literature is closest to your shitkicker heart?
William Blake is my man. All my life. At least since I can remember reading that kind of stuff. Since Oxford, anyway. It’s total commitment to doing your job. ‘He who is organized by the divine for spiritual communion, if he refuses and buries his talent in the earth, sorrow and desperation will pursue him for life, and after death shame and confusion of face to eternity.’ That doesn’t leave a lot of room!
That’s really burned into your mind.
Hell yeah! I say it like a prayer.
What made it burn in like that?
Everything I was reading seemed to ring some kind of bell or struck some chord inside of me that hadn’t been touched by anybody else. It was a terrific experience. My youngest son is named Blake.
That’s the best tribute possible.
Well, this guy’s a tribute—he’s got an IQ that makes me feel like a dunce!
I can hear the pride in your voice!
Really! He blows me away!
People say you really changed country music—that you brought new literacy and honesty to the form. Were you writing by design then? Like you saw an opportunity and a space and moved into it? Or were you working on instinct alone?
The guy who opened the door for all of us was Dylan. When Dylan made it an art form that the old Hit Parade wasn’t. And there was room. And it worked. Down in Nashville, all that mattered was the art. They were the greatest bunch of artists—I’m talking about the songwriters that hung out there. They were great! And as excited about somebody else’s good song as their own. The guys that moved me the most were people like Hank Williams, who was just superior to everybody else. And Bob Dylan—he just changed all our lives. Mine, yours, all of us.
What was the first Dylan you ever heard?
It mighta had something to do with when he walked around Johnny Cash at the Newport Folk Fest—he just went up to John like he was a telephone pole or a flag and just marched around him. He was blown away! But they were great together. He just walked around him like he was a flag.
Isn’t Dylan a shorter guy?
He’s about the same size I am—about 5 foot 10.
Me too—great height.
You don’t get in the way, but people don’t pick on you!
Have you ever been in a dark and horrible situation and thought, ‘Well, at least I’ll get a song out of this!’?
No! No! When I felt as bad as I’ve got, ah—you don’t wanna go there. It’s pretty dark. And I never thought of anything else, of music or anything.
So you don’t go for the tortured artist—or torturing yourself to become an artist—thing.
Bullshit! I know artists that have never been tortured that I really respect.
A No Depression writer said your best work combines the highbrow with the lowbrow—what do you think? What’s it like to write for the regular brows?
I don’t know what lowbrow means. If it means I’m dealing with sex or violence or something, I don’t know. Hell, that’s just music!
You worked as a bartender, as a janitor, as a helicopter pilot—you were building a railroad in Alaska—do you ever miss any of these old jobs?
No! I loved it when I quit working! I learned the best way to work was to throw yourself into it, when I went out and spent the summer living with the Hawaiian Dredging labor company. The hardest job I ever had. But it was great! To have to be tested and to see the results and the way people treat each other. The best lesson I ever had. I went back and made first string on the football team and hadn’t even played the year before. It was all summer—just three months. But good lord! That first day! I looked like someone threw hot oil on me. The sun had burnt my skin to bubbling. I’ve never had it before or since. Covered with bubbles!
You’re making me itch.
But the thing is … what doesn’t kill you will prepare you for tomorrow.
What prepared you the most for the life you’d go on to live?
I moved around a lot as a child. I grew up down in Brownsville, Texas, and that was my home and it gave me the strength to go to all these other places and grow up as the new kid in school every year. And then I was able to play football and to study what I wanted. It was quite good.
What’s the Kristofferson method for instantly befriending a stranger?
God, I got no idea! Especially now that I’ve been on the road so many years. I wouldn’t worry about it.
There are so many times in your life where things could have gone different and you could have been a guy who becomes a ‘lost genius.’ Where do you think it went right? What pointed you to where you are now?
The turning point was when I want backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with [songwriter and publisher] Marijohn [Wilkin] and shook hands with Johnny Cash. It changed my whole life! From that moment on.
What was Johnny Cash’s handshake like?
You’re asking me how it feels to shake hands with God! I was so electrified to be shaking hands with him.
How did that compare to meeting Kermit the Frog when you were on The Muppet Show?
I think I appreciated it more to meet Johnny Cash!
You’ve had what people call a ‘political’ sense for a long time—even ‘Bread For The Body’ on your new album Feeling Mortal has some things to say. And I found an old quote from you where you say it’s important to be vocal about these kind of things even when it feels like no one is listening because sometimes people are listening. Why do you feel like that? Because it can definitely feel like people aren’t listening.
I know. So many times. I can remember when I went down to Nicaragua and nobody even knew about Nicaragua and nobody even gave a shit about what we were doing to those people! So looking back, I’m glad I had enough sense to do that. I was plenty busy with my music and the movies. But going down there was the best thing I could have done. It brought attention to El Salvador and Nicaragua that needed to be brought. It was scary even to ride down there. You didn’t know whether the CIA was blowing up the planes going in.
How do you feel about where we are now?
I have no idea—it’s very depressing!
Paradoxically, that makes me feel a little better.
The economy’s going down, money’s getting less, it’s all just spiritually broken—
Was it better before?
It was better before?! Oh God! It was DIFFERENT before!
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON AND HARRY DEAN STANTON AT A SCREENING OF CISCO PIKE ON FRI., NOV. 1, AT CINEFAMILY, 611 N. FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 7:30 PM / MEMBERS ONLY / FREE WITH PRE-REGISTRATION / ALL AGES. AND KRIS KRISTOFFERSON WITH FILMMAKERS ALAN AND GABE POLSKY AT A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE MOTEL LIFE ON SAT., NOV. 2, AT CINEFAMILY. 7 PM / FREE WITH PRE-REGISTRATION / ALL AGES. MORE INFO AT CINEFAMILY.ORG AND MORE INFO ABOUT THE MOTEL LIFE AT THEMOTELLIFEFILM.COM.