Q&A: Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson has been open about his battle with memory loss, but he’s not about to go gentle into that good night. The singer-songwriter, actor and activist could sit back and retire to his Hawaiian home, but the drive to share his songs is still strong enough to work on a follow-up to his 2013 album Feeling Mortal and play a handful of dates this year with longtime friend John Prine, including an Oct. 30 appearance at The Pearl inside the Palms. He spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen recently.
Thank you very much for doing this interview. It’s an honor to be able to speak with you.
Well, (laughs) I hope I’m up to it. My brain’s getting real old.
Well, we’ll go with it. I’ll try to make it interesting for you at least.
Just to give you a little context, the first movie I ever saw in a theater as a child after Star Wars was Convoy. I didn’t know you were a songwriter. I can look back at that movie now and see how director Sam Peckinpah saw himself in you. (Kristofferson played a maverick truck driver, and previously starred in Peckinpah’s 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)
Yeah, listen, working with Sam was one of the blessings of my life. He was an artist.
Did he convey to you at the time that he was putting himself into the character you played?
I agree with that. I think we both looked at the character in the same way.
Speaking of looking back, after I got word that we might be able to do this interview I went to a local vinyl record store to see what I could find, and I got Jesus Was a Capricorn (1972), Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame (1975), and Full Moon (with Rita Coolidge, 1973).
It was great to be able to be listen to your music on vinyl. The first song I heard, “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” you dedicated to John Prine (the song is a tribute to Prine’s “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”), who’s opening for you at the Palms. I got some insight into what a close relationship you’ve had with him, so it’s really cool to see you performing with him now.
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s like working with Bob Dylan or something.
Do you try to perform with him often?
Who, with Prine?
I haven’t played with anyone for (consults wife Lisa Meyers) how many years? Oh, I’m sorry. I did play with Merle Haggard in September. I got no memory at all.
I know. We’re riding with that, though.
You toured pretty extensively in 2014 but since then you’ve been playing more selective dates. What motivates you to leave paradise in Hawaii and perform concerts this year?
Well, you know, it’s just what I do. I decided to be a singer-songwriter (laughs), back when it was a good way express myself and I’m glad I did because I think I was driven to the business, too, in the direction that Bob Dylan started.
Why did you choose Las Vegas as one of the locations you’d perform in for this handful of dates?
I just go where they tell me (laughs). I had no idea where I was going. If I’ve got an audience that wants to hear the songs, I’ll go.
There’s a lot of demand, that’s for sure.
Well, it still works. That’s about the only thing I can still do (laughs). I’m getting so goddamned old! Thankfully I haven’t lost the songs, and I guess they’ll be the last thing to go.
Do you still get inspired to do songwriting?
Yeah. I haven’t finished any … well, I’ve got a couple, but I’m much slower now.
Do ideas come to you automatically or do you set aside time for picking up a guitar?
I haven’t been very faithful, working. I can’t even remember the last time I picked up a guitar.
You’re going to have to pick it up pretty soon.
Yeah! It’s really cool, because we’re doing the thing with John Prine.
Is he playing with you?
I’m doing 45 minutes, he’s doing 60, and each will sing on a song or two of each other’s.
I don’t think anyone knows that you’ll be playing together.
Yeah, it’ll be great.
Well, there’s motivation for getting out on the road, playing with a guy you basically discovered.
Yeah, well, I didn’t discover him. Somebody took me to hear him.
Some people credit you for helping his career, or at least helping him win a wider audience.
Steve Goodman (writer of “City of New Orleans,” a 1972 hit for Arlo Guthrie) took me over there. Steve Goodman was performing at the same club I was. He took me there. And to hear Prine, man, I was a fan from that time on.
You were able to help him in his career the way you were embraced by certain people in Nashville when you were starting out.
Yeah, I was a janitor for a couple of years, though (laughs).
I read an interview in which you clarified what actually happened when you landed on Johnny Cash’s property in a helicopter (in 1969, to deliver a demo tape). I know you didn’t have a beer in your hand when you landed, but Johnny Cash told a story about accidentally throwing your demo tapes in Old Hickory Lake.
(Laughs) Well, I’ll tell you one thing: He wasn’t there when I landed the helicopter there. John was my hero. I support anything he says.
The title of your last album was Feeling Mortal, which was the last of a three-part cycle where you explored looking back on life in the autumn-winter of your years. Are you still feeling mortal, or maybe a little post-mortal?
(Laughs) Post-mortal’s a little ahead of the game, but, no, I’m definitely feeling old. I think the songs are about the last thing to go. Jeez, I have to remember how old I am.
Fifty-nine, I think it was, right?
Seventy-nine! Fifty-nine, Jesus!
I just watched Lone Star, which was from around that period.
Yeah, I wanna watch that thing, too.
You should! You were like a Sam Peckinpah villain in that movie.
Absolute asshole! Yeah, that was a great movie.
So if you were to record again, what would you do? Have you talked with (longtime producer) Don Was at all?
Yeah, we’ve done some stuff together, and (consults Meyers) my wife says I have an album coming out called The Cedar Creek Sessions. It’s some older songs and some new ones, and I recorded it in Austin.
Do you feel separate from the songwriter you were when you were 30, or you feel as close now to your songs as you ever did?
(Laughs) Are you kidding? I never feel separated from them, and I never will, from the songs I wrote. To me, they’re the only reason I’m on the planet—to write those songs and sing ’em.
Reason I asked is, it seems like some of the songs on the last album, you were kind of looking back. It’s been said that “Ramblin’ Jack” was you trying to write a song with your younger self.
Hmm, well, I wanted to write a song about Ramblin’ Jack and just who he is, you know?
It was pretty cool that you brought Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Shel Silverstein (“My Heart Was The Last One To Know” is an previously unrecorded collaboration between Kristofferson and the author of The Giving Tree) into this album. You’re calling it Feeling Mortal but it helps contribute to their immortality as creative people.
Aw yeah, yeah. They deserve it. I tell you, they enriched my life.
What’s given you the most satisfaction in the latest arc of your career?
Probably just the act of the songwriting, the joy of songwriting. It’s just a great feeling.
Is acting secondary?
Acting is fun, but it’s not the same as songwriting. It’s like trying to be a farmer, you know?
Well, I thought you made a good Andrew Jackson (in the History Channel’s Texas Rising miniseries broadcast this year).
That’s a really good thing to say to me (laughs). He’s one of the toughest guys I ever had to play.
What was it like portraying the Democratic Party’s first president?
It was trying to live up to something. It was kind of hard for me because the makeup always feel kind of stupid, but I was honored to play the guy, you know.
I just saw The Motel Life (2013), too. It was good to see you connecting with those younger actors.
I’ll have to watch it again.
I’d like to ask you a few questions about activism. Like I said, my first exposure to you was seeing Convoy in the theater when I was 9, but the first time I saw footage of you performing live was a clip of you singing “Sandinista.” It wasn’t until later that I learned about your place in songwriting and contributions to country music.
That kind of got me sent out of the country.
You were an activist in the ’80s at a time when social activism was waning. Was it a lonely path for you, and did you feel some sort of validation when you got through that decade with your career intact after sticking by your principles all that time?
I felt like I had to do the right thing, and … it was working so far, because I could make a living and speak my mind. I know a lot of people thought I was a communist or something. Hell, I’m now even a Democrat, you know? I’m not a politician at all, but I lived though it and I think I’m better for the experience.
It made an impact. You were the first person I heard telling a different side of the story (of Central American conflicts in the ’80s). I had confidence in what you were saying.
That’s really good to hear.
Did you feel there was another side of the story that needed to be told or did you just feel supporting them was worth your effort, and your interest inspired the songs?
I thought mostly I had an obligation to tell the truth, and the performing artist has the ability to move people’s emotions and their thoughts. You’ve gotta take the responsibility.
Do you feel connected to the contemporary wave of social activism?
You know, I’m not as involved. I don’t really know. I don’t feel informed enough about what’s going on.
Is it heartening to know that people are increasingly activist-minded, or at least they care?
Yes. It’s good that people care and think they could have an effect on what happens.
Now it’s not a lonely thing to tread the activism path. When you did it, it was a lonely path. You were part of people who helped keep it alive at a difficult time.
I guess I was following the old … “Do the right thing,” you know?
What’s the most important thing you want to accomplish next?
Aw, listen, I’ve had so much blessing, so much reward for my life that I want to stay right where I am, which is on an island with no neighbors and 180 degrees of empty horizon. It’s a beautiful view … shit, I can stay here for the rest of my life.
What’s it like for you living there on a daily basis? Do you have routines?
Nah. I get up, walk with my wife, but really I don’t have any duties to do once I mow the lawn (laughs). I got a lot of lawn to mow.
You get asked why you like to mow the lawn often. I don’t think people understand it’s a way to turn your mind off and relax.
Absolutely, and nobody can fuck with you because you’re the only person on the tractor. Go your own way, speak your own words.
I know a lot of people ask you what your favorite songs were, which songs did you write that weren’t hits you’d like more people to know about?
Hmm. Well, my favorite, if I had to pick one, would be Bobby McGee. But the thing is I think I’ve written a lot of good songs, and it’s like with your children: You like them for different reasons. I feel lucky to have visited Nashville when I did, when I was on my way to being a soldier and an officer in the army. It saved my life.
Do you think showing up to Nashville in uniform is one of the reason you were embraced?
Absolutely. I worked for two years as a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios and I was an absolute civilian (by the end of that time), uniform’s off.
One of the more interesting things I learned about you was how much of an affinity you had for William Blake.
I had a study focus on Blake in college, so …
Yeah? You’re much more alert right now than I am, but William Blake meant a lot to me.
I love that quote that you always bring up, which begins “If he who is organized by the Divine for spiritual communion….” When you heard that for the first time was it like a flash of lightening to you, like something that guided you or the rest of your life?
Yes. Absolutely, and it’s something that I can remember now when I can’t remember your name, or anybody else’s.
I heard you recently recite the entire quote. That’s …
“If he who is organized by the Divine for spiritual communion should refuse and bury his various talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, sorrow and desperation will pursue him throughout life, and after death, shame and confusion are faced to eternity." That’s pretty strict.
I think if I was losing parts of my memory and was given a choice of things to never forget, that quote would be right up there.
Yeah, well Blake had a big effect on my life.
He was all about pure creativity, and in your life you tried to make room for being purely creative.
You started out in the music business with a son with hospital bills, yet you still managed to find that creative place and get your songs across. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment in itself.
Yeah, looking back I kind of admire it, too (laughs).