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The Silver Tongued Devil And I

Country music’s literary lyricist

Kris Kristofferson

International celebrity, husky-voiced singer-songwriter; Country Music revisionist; acclaimed actor; political activist; army helicopter pilot; Golden Gloves boxer; College Football star; Rhodes Scholar; and the ‘handsome’ lover Janis Joplin preferred to Leonard Cohen; a cerebral hunk with filmstar good looks who is a movie star.

Kris Kristofferson. What’s not to hate?

Of course, his fans adore him. About a decade or so ago this latter-day renaissance man gave a solo recital in Nürnberg’s Serenadenhof, the beautiful outdoor chamber venue in the detoxified former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Approaching the entrance, I was amused to see scores of middle-aged men each with an elegantly trimmed beard and silver, collar-length hair, their dark, corduroy shirts worn loosely over neat black jeans, striding unselfconsciously past posters of their idol, identically coiffed and costumed. In midsummer mufti I wore his influence more lightly, whilst acknowledging its almost lifelong duration.

Over my creative efforts, his spirit still presides.

The next poetry book I will publish is a collection of Country Music lyrics, every song a vignette, all conceived as monologues. Although none is recognisably Kristoffersonian, not a verse or chorus could have been composed without the inspiration and impetus the then emerging troubadour provided a half century ago.

It was 1972 and I was thirteen.

Captain Kristofferson was a Major General’s son but my introduction to the former military man’s burgeoning oeuvre is owed to a retired Major from the Shires.

Deploying two Scots words that denote unperturbed propriety, Kilmacolm is both kenspeckle and perjink. It is five miles and a world from where I was born in the shipbuilding town of Port Glasgow. Recently arrived in our small, damp and overcrowded house was a gramophone in a suitcase, obtained free from our Scout jumble sale because nobody was willing to buy it. We had no fridge, no washing machine, no phone and no car. But we did now have a record player and folk-rock albums bought with the money from my early morning milk round. From that same junk heap source I had acquired a plywood guitar with fingertip-slicing strings. Country Music had yet to impinge. Of Kris Kristofferson I had never heard.

Enter the Major. And some minor chords.

Having begun precociously to ‘pen’– yes, I was that kind of kid – articles for The Renfrewshire Gazette, I noticed in the small ads section a ‘good as new’ Ferguson hi fi. The infra dig Dansette was as scratchy as a midge bite and tinnily mono. My milk-round tips were generous, the asking price reasonable. Dad and I took two country buses to inspect the prospective audio upgrade, which, if liked, my cousin would collect in his van. ‘American Pie’ had been a recent hit. In my head, as we climbed the steps to the substantial timbered villa, I was already hearing Don McLean in stereo.

Opening the door before we could knock, the seller seemed almost self-parodically public school and Sandhurst. Genuinely amiable, this charming chap did not disappoint us. He did however surprise the amateur tenor and his musical son. For the demonstration of the Major’s wares I had been expecting Mozart or perhaps a wartime wireless swing band. However, as the vinyl revolved it was the gravelly growl of Johnny Cash that got the parquet shaking.

Sold.

Yet before we shook hands the Major’s unlikely favourite LP was to transfix me again. Perched on a leather chair in the Major’s study I understood at once why Cash had been drawn to his plangent finale.

These were live takes of performances given mostly in prisons. Hence that unrepentant murder ballad. ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ was the title track. And despite naïveté and emotional immaturity, the adolescent who had never tried drink or drugs, was shy with girls and remained an eager-to-please, firstborn child, was enthralled. To a school debater, swot, Scout and prospective priest, this throaty threnody of fathoms-deep despair spoke to my troubled spirit with almost prayerful intensity. Twenty years later I’d have more to identify with. Ever the gent, the Major presented me with his treasured disc before driving us and our (discounted) purchase home. What if I could write songs even a bit like that, I was thinking, as his Rover traversed the leafy lanes that sleepy Saturday. On the Monday after school I bought the debut album on which its original author sang that song. The one-word title? Kristofferson.

Released in 1970 the record garnered respectful reviews but sold poorly. Of its dozen tracks not one is without distinction; and four of the songs have become uncontested classics. In ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, a posthumous hit for Janis Joplin, Existentialist philosophy was never catchier. Kristofferson remembered Sinatra’s swaggering mantra, ‘booze, broads or the bible; whatever helps [you] make it through the night’. ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is a seemlier variation on that consolatory theme which seemed as poetic to me as most of the verse we were poring over at school. As a Rhodes scholar at Merton, Kristofferson studied William Blake and Shakespeare and his ambitions for Country lyrics were expressly literary, but great songs need not necessarily be great poems. ‘For the Good Times’, as mellifluously crooned by Perry Como, went on to top the charts.

Kristofferson himself breaks into song the way vandals break into churches. Astonished at being signed to do his own vocals, he claimed to ‘sing […] like a frog’. If Harlan Howard was right and Country Music really is ‘three chords and the truth’, Kristofferson’s arrested development guitar technique attests that belief.

Country Music surely loves a dichotomy. (Tattooed.) On the one hand: ‘love’. On the other: ‘hate’. Jekyll on banjo. Hyde on harmonica. Kristofferson as his own evil polar twin. So unfolds the conceit of ‘The Silver Tongued Devil And I’, a faux-archaic metaphysical number from the eponymous follow-up album.

The song conveys a yearning for atonement. The siren song of sin. The struggle for self-forgiveness. As I have cause to aver, the songs of Kris Kristofferson can furnish psychological support along with aesthetic delight.

Most writers are mythmongers and Texans tend to talk tall, but this leading man’s back story needs little embellishment. The legend did get some burnishing. Kristofferson had quit as a Literature Instructor at West Point to take a job as a janitor at the Columbia Recording Studios in Nashville. He had regularly attempted to interest Johnny Cash in his demo tapes. The latter’s account of meeting the supplicant songsmith when he landed his chopper on the black clad superstar’s lawn is fabular. But ought to be factual.

Alcohol abuse would lose him that oil rig pilot’s job. He’d write about the debilitating dependencies he shared with his eventual patron and mentor, Johnny Cash. And, ‘clean’, he kept faith with those beloved early songs. As compelling as Kristofferson’s discography has turned out to be, the material on that inaugural record is, as the innumerable covers confirm, his most sublimely bardic.

Simply poetic; poetically simple, that’s still how I hope my songs will sound.

In Franconia, Kris Kristofferson serenaded the lookalikes with the hits they had come to hear, saying little and singing much; a bit frail and soon to ail, he did not once across ninety minutes ever fail, a maestro as aye. His recovery arc had described sobriety, fidelity and integrity. When Sunday mornings were not yet sweet, he had composed ‘The Pilgrim, Chapter 33’, the song he opened with in Nürnberg. Created as a tribute to his songsmith heroes, The Pilgrim of the title has something of the outlaw about him, a ‘walkin’ contradiction’, both prophet and ‘pusher’, poet and ‘picker’. Haunted by regret, but undefeated, nonetheless.

That could be Country’s peregrination as well as his own. And maybe mine too. As one of my recent lyrics puts it, ‘Prizes, promise, prestige, praise/ Laid waste in clichéd, classic ways…’. There’s no sadder mistake than making the same mistake over and over again. In trying to atone I give thanks for what I call late onset maturity.

Autobiography need not be epitaph. Home, and family, for Kris Kristofferson, at eighty-six, is in Maui. Retirement and recuperation there have been far from lonely. His Lyme disease is responding to treatment. Some American lives do have second acts.

And happy endings.

Donny O’Rourke is about to publish a suite of Country lyrics, a companion piece to his collection of words for show tunes, Blame Yesterday, a mini musical in monologues, premiered at The Royal Scottish Conservatoire in 2009.

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