In last year's made-for-cable movie Tad, Kris Kristofferson portrayed Abraham Lincoln. Given his strong, rough-hewn features, stern mannerisms and deep, raspy voice, the casting was perfect--too perfect, perhaps. After a quarter-century spent on screens big and small, Kristofferson is so readily identifiable as an often-stone-faced actor that a sizable percentage of the public doesn't realize that he continues to be what he was at the beginning of his career: a singer-songwriter. And a pretty damn good one at that.
Kristofferson has a sense of humor about this state of affairs, as he has about most things. In contradiction of his taciturn image, he laughs early and often--a boisterous Haw! Haw! Haw! that's most frequently wielded self-deprecatingly. Upon being told that Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings (with Kristofferson, members of the C&W supergroup the Highwaymen) are seldom found on country airwaves anymore, he replies, "It's been so long since I've been heard that I didn't even know they weren't getting heard. I thought they were hot." He adds, "I remember one time the FBI got Willie and I banned off a couple of radio stations for life for a Leonard Peltier benefit we did. And I said, `Well, in my case, I don't think it's going to cause a stock-market crash.' Haw! Haw! Haw!"
The appearance of A Moment of Forever, a new Kristofferson album issued last year by Justice, the brawny Texas indie that Nelson calls home, hasn't caused radio programmers to recognize the error of their ways. The CD contains the strongest collection of tunes Kristofferson's assembled in one place since the early Seventies; particularly impressive is "Sam's Song (Ask Any Working Girl)," a tribute to director Sam Peckinpah. It's also supremely listenable, thanks in large part to the efforts of producer Don Was and a crew of impeccable sidemen--Benmont Tench and Stephen Bruton among them. But none of that seems to matter to the latest generation of music directors, who apparently believe that only male vocalists who sound like Alan Jackson deserve attention. And not even Kristofferson supporters would claim that he fits in that category. A positive review of Forever that ran last October in the Austin American-Statesman begins, "OK, OK, so he can't hardly sing. Neither can John Prine, nor Bob Dylan. Can we move on now?"
As anticipated, a hearty Haw! Haw! Haw! greets this testimonial. "I think that's the kindest thing that I've heard about my singing, ever," he says jovially. "I'll bet both John Prine and Dylan are pissed."
Like these vocalists, Kristofferson (born in Brownsville, Texas, in 1936) was not raised in a typical show-biz mileu. His was a military family, and by the time he entered Southern California's Pomona College in 1958, he was torn between a love for the arts, symbolized by his involvement with the local folk-music scene, and the brand of patriotism espoused by the armed forces. His grades at Pomona were strong enough to win him a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, but after spending two years in London (and cutting a few singles), he dropped out, returned to the U.S., got married and joined the Army. His determination to spend his life in uniform flagged in 1965, however, and following his discharge, he moved his family to Nashville and tried to make it as a musician.
Things did not go smoothly. He had little impact as a bandleader, and his on-the-edge lifestyle proved too much for his wife, who left him a few years later. But other artists began to recognize the power of Kristofferson's work. Among those who hit with songs he penned were Janis Joplin ("Me and Bobby McGee") and Johnny Cash ("Sunday Mornin' Comin'"). In 1970, he finally was rewarded with an album deal of his own. But even as critics praised his songwriting, they excoriated his singing. Robert Christgau's analysis of the 1970 platter Kristofferson is typical: "He's the worst singer I've ever heard. It's not that he's off key--he has no relation to key. He also has no phrasing, no dynamics, no energy, no authority, no dramatic ability and no control of the top two-thirds of his six-note range."
When pressed, Kristofferson admits to the tiniest amount of frustration over assaults like this one. "I think I sing better than most of the reviewers who write about me," he insists. "They act like I can't carry a tune, but I've been a good musician since I was a kid, and I know I can carry a tune. I'm not Ray Charles or Hank Williams or George Jones, but I can interpret material honestly, particularly my own stuff."
For a while, the public seemed to agree. Long-players such as 1971's The Silver-Tongued Devil and I and 1972's Jesus Was a Capricorn sold fairly well, as did several albums he made in conjunction with Rita Coolidge, his second wife. He even had a couple of pop smashes--most notably, 1973's "Why Me."
Meanwhile, Kristofferson became a sought-after actor. He survived his film debut (1971's The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper's catastrophic followup to Easy Rider) to appear in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Martin Scorsese's 1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. He also went down with the ship that was Michael Cimino's 1980 epic Heaven's Gate, seen by most observers as an example of directorial excess run amok. Kristofferson doesn't deny that Gate was a mess, but he notes, "Michael was at least trying to make something good, and it was disgusting to me that he was busted by the same kind of people the movie was attacking. The movie was about the Johnson County wars, where money was seen as more important than people. And that's just the way it was with Heaven's Gate.
"On the day it came out at Cannes, the president of United Artists gave an interview in a newspaper over there blaming the failure of the film on Michael Cimino--and it hadn't even come out yet," he points out. "Then he said that unless we get control of films out of the hands of creative people, the industry is headed for disaster. And I'm like, who are you going to give it to? The uncreative people? Well, that's just what they did, and look where we are today."
Since this debacle, Kristofferson has made some strong movies with outside-the-mainstream directors like Alan Rudolph (they teamed up for 1984's sadly underrated Songwriter and 1985's atmospheric Trouble in Mind) and John Sayles (whose Lone Star, featuring Kristofferson, is set for release later this year). Musically, the sledding was rougher. He was seen as merely a supporting player in the Highwaymen, and his solo discs sank like anvils. The last before Moment was 1989's Third World Warrior, which was filled with left-wing political screeds that repulsed the conservative country establishment. "I'm still glad I did that album," Kristofferson asserts. "All my albums have been just what I wanted to record--the best songs that I'd come up with from that period to organize my experience. I felt that as a serious songwriter, each one was like part of a family album, and I've tried to be true to that."
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Kristofferson hasn't set politics aside: For example, he participated in Martin Luther King Day festivities in Atlanta earlier this month. President Bill Clinton, the guest of honor at the event, thanked the singer by name in his remarks. Given how often he's protested against the government, Kristof-
ferson says he was "pleasantly stunned" by the mention.
No matter how nicely Clinton treats him, though, Kristofferson is unlikely to zip his lip when it comes to the issues of the day: He launches into pacifist rhetoric at the least provocation. But he's no stick-in-the-mud. Ask him to compare the acting approaches of co-stars Bob Dylan (Billy the Kid) and Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens (1988's Big Top Pee-wee) and he happily complies. "Pee-wee is brilliant. He's entertained generations of my kids," he says. "But he's a lot more actorly than Dylan. Bob is more intuitive. He could have been great in Billy the Kid, but he didn't get a lot of direction out there. Sam had no idea of the genius of this guy--he felt the producers had foisted him on us to make the film commercial. I remember him saying at the time, `I'd just as soon have Roger Miller.'"
Kristofferson considers that. "Well," he reasons, "at least Roger Miller could sing. Haw! Haw! Haw!"
Kris Kristofferson. 8 p.m. Friday, January 26, Grizzly Rose, 5450 North Valley Highway, $15, 830-