It was 1971, and I was leaning over the jukebox in Maury’s pool hall. I had just finished reading Sammy Davis Jr’s autobiography and found it fascinating. Because of that, I was thinking about playing his song, “Candyman.” The problem was, despite Sammy’s talent, I thought "Candyman” was a dumb song, so I hesitated. Kevin Stotesbery leaned over my shoulder and said, “Silver Tongued Devil” is pretty good.”
I’d never heard of the song or Kris Kristofferson, but I caved in to peer pressure and pushed A7.
I have to admit, I didn’t usually take advice from Kevin. Those of us who knew him at the time would probably agree that was a prudent move, but he was right on the money about Kris Kristofferson.
I really liked his music, and discovered I liked his resume even more.
Kris grew up in Texas, near the Mexican border. His father was a military officer, who ended up as a General in the Air Force. He was a good-looking kid who played football and rugby in college and was a Golden Gloves champion. Just looking at him, a person might think it would be easy to figure out the course of his life.
But you would have been wrong. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he got his degree in English literature.
Once again, easy to plan a course for his life. But, once again, wrong.
He returned to the United States, joined the Army, and became a helicopter pilot. After a tour in Germany, he became a Ranger and volunteered for Vietnam.
The Army didn’t send him to Vietnam. Instead, it wanted him to teach English at West Point. Because, Rhodes Scholar.
He didn’t want to teach at West Point, so he resigned from the Army, moved to Nashville, and got a job as a janitor in a recording studio.
Like you do.
It was about that time that his parents disowned him and he and his wife were divorced.
He swept floors and emptied ash trays for a while. Then he landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn so he could pitch a song to him. ”Sunday Morning Coming Down” was voted Song of the Year and was followed by “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Loving Her was Easier” and many others.
Around that time, I took a girl I was trying to impress to one of his concerts. He was a little under the weather, or under the influence, to the point that he forgot the words to” Me and Bobby McGee.”
Despite that hiccup, it was a great concert and the girl married me anyway.
Kris had a few ups and downs in the years after that - most of them of his own doing. The talent was always there, but he drank a lot and had a problem with not saying what he was thinking. The world doesn’t really have an issue with an artist who drinks too much, but telling the truth is very seldom a popular habit. To outward appearances, he didn’t seem to care. As his daughter said, “Dad has never had a problem with getting booed off the stage.”
He’s old now, and respectable. I’ve been listening to his music a lot the past couple weeks and I’ve been captivated all over again by one of his very first songs. I heard it the first time four or five decades ago and liked it, but while bouncing around YouTube, I heard Kris sing it again, except now as an eighty-year-old man. Still the same words, of course, but now it’s a completely different song.
The song is titled, “To Beat the Devil,” and the lyrics, written by a young man, are even better when sung by an old one.
“And you still can hear me singing
To the people who don't listen
To the things that I am saying
Praying someone's gonna hear
And I guess I'll die explaining how
The things that they complain about
Are things they could be changing
Hoping someone's gonna care
I was born a lonely singer
And I'm bound to die the same
But I've gotta feed the hunger in my soul
And if I never have a nickel
I won't ever die ashamed
‘Cause I don't believe that no one wants to know”
Sad, hopeful, despairing, determined…it probably takes an Oxford graduate who emptied ash trays in a Nashville recording studio to write something like this. I’m sure glad he did.
And, Kevin, thanks for the tip.
Copyright 2019 Brent Olson