First published in Time Out, February 2014
The country and cinema legend looks back at his legacy
Let’s not mince words: Kris Kristofferson is an honest-to-god legend. The man is one of the great American country songwriters – ‘Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down’, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, ‘For the Good Times’ – and was one quarter of the outlaw country supergroup the Highwaymen, standing tall alongside Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
He’s also an accomplished actor, probably best known for starring roles in A Star Is Born and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He also has the peculiar honour of having starred in one of the most disastrous films of all time, the studio-killing 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate.
In 2013 he released his 21st album, Feeling Mortal: a typically wry album reflecting on his 77th year on the planet, and he’s coming to Australia for over twenty shows all over the country, including such non-traditional touring destinations as Rockhampton, Lismore and Renmark.
“I’m looking forward to the tour,” he chuckles in that immediately-familiar rasp. “I’ve been doing a film up here and I’m tired of it. I feel pretty lucky to make my living like this, but I really like the music part better than the movies.”
Most performers half Kristofferson’s age don’t do Autralian tour schedules this long, much less this extensive. “Well, I’m glad to be doing it!” he laughs. “I’ve always enjoyed playing in Australia: I’ve always felt a good connection with the audience for some reason.”
Feeling Mortal follows 2009’s equally strong Close to the Bone, and the recurring motifs of loss, mortality and experience make them seem almost of a piece.
“Well, ever since the first albums that I cut, I feel like it’s represented what I was going through at the time, and I think that’s why. I mean, I certainly feel mortal – if you don’t feel mortal when you’re 77, there’s something wrong.”
That being the case, what sort of person makes an entire album about feeling one’ s age, and then goes “…and so now for an extensive world tour where I perform night after night after night?”
“Yeah, but there are a lot worse ways to have to make a living, you know? It’s definitely the thing that comes the most natural to me.”
The sets naturally include his old classics, and Kristofferson feels absoutely fine about performing songs he wrote forty-odd years ago.
“I guess it’s kinda like your kids: once it’s yours, it’s yours,” he shrugs. “Songs like ‘…Bobby MaGee’ and ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ will always feel like my own.”
Sure, but every parent still has moments of feeling like “I love you, but I really don’t want to hang out with you right now”?
“No!” he laughs heartily. “But I tell you, my kids and I get along real good. I got eight of them and they are really easy to be around. When they’re together all I hear it laughter. It’s a blessing. And they’re all smarter than I am.”
That’s no small claim: Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar, before rising rapidly through the military as a pilot before music and acting caught his attention. The man has a brain on him.
“Yeah? Well, that’s kinda hard for me to believe too,” he laughs. “But I got no complaints.”
He’s pleased at the suggestion that Feeling Mortal is less a dark reflection on the proximity of the reaper and more of a wry celebration of a life well lived.
“I’m glad you feel that way, because that’s the way I feel. I really don’t think anything negative about gettin’ old. It happens to everybody,” he says, “and I’d rather get old than not.”
Which is a rare sort of attitude for someone in youth-obsessed industries like music and movies, but Kristofferson doesn’t sound like a man that gives much time to doubts.
“You know, I was never worried about whether I was like the other people or not. I’ve never felt any pressure to be as good as Johnny Cash, or Waylon or Willie – I used to just stand up there amazed to be on stage with them. And I feel that way about the films as well, and I have no idea why I didn’t have more doubt about whether I could do it. But it’s all worked out.”
Well, it appears that if it didn’t work out, there;d have been no hesitation in trying something else.
“Yeah, it’s true. Looking back, I was into football and boxing when I was at school, and that was what I could really lose myself in. And I don’t know how I could have been audacious enough to do either one: I wasn’t big and I wasn’t fast, but I still got to play and I think it was just – like the music – that my heart was in it. It’s like songwriting: I’m sure many people in the world thought I was crazy to go from being an army officer to being a studio janitor trying to be a songwriter, but I never questioned myself – and I’m glad I didn’t.”
Not even when making Heaven’s Gate?
“Well, I always thought it was a good film, but it didn’t last a week in the theatres. The critics gave it unfair reviews,” he shrugs. But look back at it now: great actors, great director. What an opportunity!”