Stories to fuel your mind
Country legend has faced memory loss and the death of old friends, and has also found peace – just don’t try to tell him what to do.
“Oh, my god, the son of a bitch is back,” announces Lisa Kristofferson as she stands in the kitchen of her Los Flores Canyon home in Malibu. The son of a bitch, who is next to her, is more commonly known as Kris Kristofferson. He has been her husband for the past 36 years. He also happens to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time (covered by Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and some 500 others), not to mention an iconic actor in his own right (from A Star Is Born to the Blade movies).
Three decades ago, “the son of a bitch is back” may have been the rallying cry of Kristofferson’s girlfriends or wives after he went off on a drinking or cheating bender. But today, just weeks away from Kristofferson’s 80th birthday, it means something different entirely.
It means that the rugged, fiercely independent spark of consciousness that is Kris Kristofferson, which has been fading for the past few years due to memory loss, is brightening again – to everyone’s surprise.
For years, doctors had been telling Kristofferson that his increasingly debilitating memory loss was due to either Alzheimer’s or to dementia brought on by blows to the head from the boxing, football and rugby of his teens and early twenties. Some days, Kristofferson couldn’t even remember what he was doing from one moment to the next.
It became so bad that Kristofferson started writing a song about it. “I see an empty chair/Someone was sitting there,” it began. “I’ve got a feeling it was me/And I see a glass of wine/I’m pretty sure it’s mine.”
But then, like the chair and the wine, he forgot about the song. And it lay unfinished like many others he’s begun these past few years. In this case, his daughter Kelly completed the song, which remains unrecorded.
Then, earlier this year, a doctor decided to test Kristofferson for Lyme disease. The test came back positive. His wife believes he picked it up from a tick as he crawled around the forest floor in Vermont for six weeks while filming the movie Disappearances.
“He was taking all these medications for things he doesn’t have, and they all have side effects,” she says. She is wearing one of her husband’s tour merchandise shirts. After he gave up his Alzheimer’s and depression pills and went through three weeks of Lyme-disease treatment, Lisa was shocked. “All of a sudden he was back,” she says. There are still bad days, but “some days he’s perfectly normal and it’s easy to forget that he is even battling anything.”
Kristofferson stands next to her, alongside the kitchen counter, a black T-shirt tight on his thin but still-solid frame, his gray goatee neatly trimmed. Behind him, there is a wall covered with pen and pencil marks, denoting the growth of his children, stepchildren, grandchildren and foster children. One would imagine that he’d be elated by his unexpected recovery.
“Yeah,” he replies, unconvincingly, when asked.
So you were never scared about losing your past? Kristofferson stares straight ahead, into a sweeping ocean vista, his sky-blue eyes shining brightly under a brow that thrusts out like a rock ledge. “What good would it do?” he says with a shrug.
Seventeen years ago, Kristofferson had bypass surgery. As he was being wheeled into the operating room, the doctor told Kris and Lisa that this would be a good place to say goodbye. “I hope it’s not goodbye,” Lisa said.
His response: “So what if it is?”
This blunt, fatalistic streak is something Kristofferson has carried with him for most of his life like a birthmark. It’s one reason directors like Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah have cast him in their films.
“I really have no anxiety about controlling my own life,” Kristofferson says, taking a seat at the head of a wood dining table. “Somehow I just slipped into it and it’s worked. It’s not up to me – or you. I feel very lucky that [life]’s lasted so long because I’ve done so many things that could have knocked me out of it. But somehow I just always have the feeling that He knows what He’s doing. It’s been good so far, and it’ll probably continue to be.”
He pauses. “Now as soon as I said that, of course…” He looks upward as if a lightning bolt is on its way down to strike him.
And there he goes: Just on the verge of a happy ending, Kristofferson imagines the worst will happen instead. It’s a theme that runs through many of his best-known songs. Saturday nights end in Sunday hangovers (“Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down”). Great relationships end, leaving lifelong regret as their legacy (“Loving Her Was Easier [Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again],” “Me and Bobby McGee”). The perfect lover who sweeps a woman off her feet is destined to abandon her, robbing her of body, soul and pride (“The Taker”).
To spark his memory, Kristofferson has been going through all these old songs again. A box set of his first 11 albums, The Complete Monument & Columbia Album Collection, due on June 10th, rests on the counter. He has been listening to it album by album to get reacquainted with his life’s work. “It just takes you back like a picture of something would,” he says.
I bring him the box set. He examines the sleeves of each disc, which are designed like the original vinyl album covers. “I was also interested in seeing if they still sounded good to me,” he continues. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised, particularly with this one.” He points to his third album, Border Lord. “I can remember at the time being so disappointed at the reception it got.”
His wife sits to his left and looks at him, beaming at his recall. “To me, the song is what matters, not necessarily the performances,” he says as he moves a napkin to examine a picture of him in his twenties, looking disheveled in his meager Nashville bedroom. “Just the words and melody – that’s what moves your emotions.”
The box set is just one flake in a flurry of activity happening around Kristofferson this year. There was a celebration of his life and music at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville in March, for which he re-formed the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson and Waylon Jennings’ son Shooter. Kristofferson recently traveled to Canada to record with Gordon Lightfoot and Ronnie Hawkins. He played the lead in a new Western, Traded, also coming out June 10th. His upcoming album, The Cedar Creek Sessions, includes a duet with Sheryl Crow for his first-ever recording of “The Loving Gift,” a song made famous by Johnny and June Carter Cash.
He’s also embarking on a special string of summer dates with Nelson: Just before Merle Haggard passed away this year on his 79th birthday, he requested that his backing band, the Strangers, continue without him. So Kristofferson, his longtime friend, decided to bring the Strangers with him on the road for a few dates to perform his and Haggard’s songs together.
“I’m thinking of his face when he was dying,” remembers Kristofferson, who was touring with Haggard up until the end. “I had the highest respect for him. Knowing him and Willie and Waylon and Johnny Cash – that’s been one of the biggest blessings in my life.”
In his current state of mind, there is one period of his life that Kristofferson often returns to when reflecting on his past – a decision that, for him, changed everything. It was a combination of luck and choice. The year was 1965; the luck was that he was a captain in the Army and signed up to go to Vietnam, but was assigned a teaching position at West Point. The choice was to leave the Army instead. After reporting to West Point, he moved to Nashville to try to make it as a songwriter. As a result, this Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar soon found himself emptying wastebaskets at Columbia Recording Studios.
“I’m kind of amazed by the whole thing,” he marvels. “I was on my way to a totally different life. And all of a sudden I committed my future and all my family and everything to this! It was pretty scary.”
Kristofferson and Lisa say that his brother joined the Navy; his father was a two-star Air Force general; both grandfathers were in the military; even his great-grandfather was in the Swedish armed forces.
“Didn’t your mother say she would rather have a gold star in the window?” Lisa asks him. Kris gives a sheepish shrug. It is his way of saying, “I can’t remember.” It is an expression he uses a lot these days.
“When you have a family member that died during World War I, they would put a gold star in the window,” she reminds him. “And your mother said she would have rather had a gold star in the window than to see what you’re doing with your life.”
“She said that I was an embarrassment to the family,” he recalls a little later. “I’ve given them moments of pride, when I got my Rhodes scholarship, but she said, ‘They’ll never measure up to the tremendous disappointment you’ve always been.’ Why tell your kid that?”
But when his mother sent him a scathing letter disowning him, Kristofferson experienced something he’d been seeking his whole life: freedom. It’s an independence he’s embraced to this day. He bucked Nashville’s conventions, helping start the outlaw-country movement. More recently, he canceled a book contract for his autobiography because he didn’t want to work on a deadline. His latest album includes a song called “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”
“Even if someone tells him to have a good day, he’ll say, ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ ” Lisa says. “He’s unmanageable. You can’t manage him.”
Kristofferson looks down at the table and screws up his face as she speaks.
What were you just thinking? I ask.
“I…” He pauses and purses his lips. “I think it’s probably true.”
In several of Kristofferson’s songs, characters burn brilliantly in the present moment without a past or future, trading in “tomorrow for today” or proclaiming, “Yesterday is dead and gone/And tomorrow’s out of sight.” In an unexpected twist of fate, Kristofferson sometimes finds himself similarly marooned in the present moment due to his memory problems. Except unlike the characters in his songs, who usually find loneliness there, he says he feels remarkably content and well-supported.
Kelly has observed that he “forgets to get nervous,” and Kristofferson notes that a couple of years ago, his anxiety just went away. “He hasn’t always been happy,” Lisa says. “His nickname when he was doing Star Is Born was Kris Pissed-off-erson.” These days, one of his favorite things to do is simply mow the grass or weed-whack for hours at his primary home, in Maui.
He recently went to a reunion of the Pomona College football team, where he saw his former coach, who’s now 93. And he’s still in touch with his childhood nanny Juanita, who’s 93 and still calls her former charge mijo (my son).
“She probably saved my life,” he says. “Because God knows my mother was an asshole. And my old man was gone most of the time.”
He adds that without Juanita, he “probably would have ended up as some serial killer.”
Two weeks later, Kristofferson sits in a booth of a Malibu studio, playing the part of a ghost for an animated pilot for Fox. When he reads a line about cellphone coverage, Kelly laughs: “He doesn’t know what a cellphone is. He calls them hand machines.”
Afterward, the director asks Kristofferson to sign a guitar. “I’m not a very good guitar player,” he tells Kristofferson.
“Neither am I,” Kristofferson responds.
Self-deprecation is one of Kristofferson’s most conspicuous traits. He is especially down on his singing: “I don’t think I’m that good a singer,” he says. “I can’t think of a song that I’ve written that I don’t like the way somebody else sings it better.”
Yet even as he’s pushing 80, there is no shortage of demand for his voice – whether it’s films, TV dramas, cartoons, performances or albums. He has one of the most unique careers in music, which he says was inspired in part by seeing Frank Sinatra excel as both a singer and an actor.
We drive back to his house with Kelly and her boyfriend, Andrew Hagar, son of Sammy. When asked half an hour later about going to the studio today, Kristofferson works his tongue around the inside of his mouth, thinking hard. “I’ll be honest with you,” he finally says. “I don’t remember going to the studio.”
Kris and his wife have spoken about Lyme disease, head injuries and aging interfering with his memory. But there’s one thing they haven’t mentioned: the smoking.
“Do you think the weed hurts your memory?”
He answers quickly and defiantly: “If it does, it’s too bad. I’m not quitting.” He pauses and considers it further. “I’m sure that it slows me down and doesn’t make me the sharpest-witted person in the room, but I’ll probably be smoking till they throw dirt on me.”
As we’re speaking, one of Kristofferson’s sons marches into the kitchen. He is known as War Pig, though he was born Jody. A heavyweight wrestling belt testifying to his prowess in the ring hangs in the living room. Each of Kris’ children seems to have taken on one aspect of his career, even down to his youngest son, Blake, who majored in creative writing.
One of the few ambitions that Kristofferson never got to realize was as a literary author. In his Maui home, there are trunks full of notepads – a treasure trove of short stories, journal entries and even novels, none of it published.
“You have stories from college on,” Lisa reminds him. “All through the Army, all through your time with Janis Joplin, all through your working in Wake Island, working in Alaska, working fighting fires and on the railroad. You even have stories from being a janitor in Nashville.”
“I don’t feel very creative anymore,” Kristofferson confesses a little later. “I feel like an old boxer.” He laughs. “The brain’s gone, but I can still move around.”
“He says that,” Kelly protests, “but he leaves little pieces of songs lying around the house all the time.”
Kristofferson considers this. “I may have some more creative work in me,” he finally admits, then concludes on a characteristically impassive note. “But if I don’t, it’s not going to hurt me.”