Feeling mortal

VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2014
Kris Kristofferson
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Boxer, Rhodes scholar, college football player, actor, military officer, helicopter pilot, Grammy-winner, and acclaimed singer-songwriter.

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Kris Kristofferson was standing around, scuffing his well-worn boots in the dirt one afternoon, presumably feeling nearly as faded as his jeans, when the owner of the record company he was working for strolled up.

The boss, Fred Foster, had a song title for him.

"He said: ‘Me and Bobby McGee', " Kristofferson recalls.

The major hit song was the product of a dare for which Foster earned co-writing credits.

It also bears a spelling mistake.

"Well, it turned out later that I got the name wrong. He had said 'Bobby McKey', that was a secretary of the songwriters who were in the same building, " he chuckles.

" 'Here's the hook', he told me, 'Bobby McKey is a she, how does that grab ya?'

"I said: 'How does what grab me?' "

With no idea how to write the song, Kristofferson "hid" from him for a month, until, with scenes from 1954 film La Strada fresh in his mind, the words suddenly all "came together".

"I was trying to get into a trucker's song and it worked. Then, of course, I was blessed because Janis cut it, Janis Joplin, and we had been pretty close for about a month. It just had its own momentum from then on."

Joplin was one of the most iconic musicians of the 1960s. Arriving at Woodstock in 1969 in a helicopter shared with a pregnant Joan Baez, hands covered in elaborate silver rings, her eyes framed by round rose-tinted glasses, she fiercely sang such songs as Kozmic Blues and Ball and Chain. She died of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970 at the age of 27.

Me and Bobby McGee, her only No 1 song, topped the charts in 1971. It became the second posthumous No 1 single in United States chart history after Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay.

When the 77-year-old speaks of Joplin now, someone he knew more than four decades ago, his voice softens a little. "Yeah, she was special."

The country music legend was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in January, alongside The Beatles and Kraftwerk.

And what a life it's been.

He's been a boxer, a Rhodes scholar, a college football player, an established actor, a military officer, a helicopter pilot, a Grammy-winner, an acclaimed singer- songwriter and a notable entry in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But people know him, he says, for either his music or acting roles. "They come up and they might have seen a film they liked or there's a song they liked, Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down or Help Me Make It Through the Night or they know The Highwaymen, " he says. "But if they know me through the films, they usually don't know the music."

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Although he turned down a role in the first Rambo instalment, his film appearances over many decades are notable.

A Golden Globe winner as Best Actor for his role in the 1976 film, A Star Is Born, his long list of film credits - spanning 1971 to recent years - includes the Blade series, Sam Peckinpah's cult classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, more recently, the family film, Dolphin Tale.

Throughout his lengthy acting career he's starred alongside Johnny Cash, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Harry Connick Jr, Dolly Parton and, in his latest film appearance The Motel Life, opposite Emile Hirsch.

Acting is not his first love, it is just a pleasing creative outlet he fell into in the same way he's energetically pursued various sporting and creative interests his whole life.

"I never really had any acting training, " he says. "I was just being me, writing songs, playing football or boxing or anything else I've done in my life. It took a bit of nerve to get into acting when I think about it now."

Born in Texas into a military family, he enrolled in the United States army in 1960. A talented athlete and writer, he earned a Rhodes scholarship and during his time at Oxford University was starting his singing career while also aiming to be a novelist. An army helicopter pilot, and teacher of English literature at West Point, he left the army in 1965 to pursue music fulltime. His family was aghast and disowned him. Moving to Nashville, he took on all sorts of odd jobs at the studios of Columbia Records, from sweeping the floors to polishing ashtrays while working as a helicopter pilot for an oil company.

He did this for a "couple of years", always writing songs in his spare time and showing them to musicians he met in the studio - and liked and respected. People like Mickey Newberry and Shel Silverstein, Playboy cartoonist and the author of the Johnny Cash classic A Boy Named Sue.

"We both loved the art of songwriting . . . we clicked because we felt the same way about it," Kristofferson explains. "To most people he was the Playboy cartoonist, but to me he was a writer."

Various tall tales have emerged over the years about a flying visit Kristofferson once made to Johnny Cash.

The Man in Black wasn't home when Kristofferson landed a helicopter on Cash's Tennessee property. "I was working for an oil firm at the time," he recalls. "No-one was home when I dropped in with my tape."

Silverstein would give him a title to work on and Kristofferson would mull it over while in a helicopter over the Gulf of Mexico, and would show him the finished song upon his return to the studios. One song, My Heart Was the Last One to Know, first cut by Connie Smith in 1967, is on his latest and 28th album, Feeling Mortal.

"I was going through a rough time, personally," Kristofferson says. "I was trying to write like [country music artist] Hank Williams as if he was having the worst time of his life, because that's how it felt to me at the time."

In the three-day recording session for Feeling Mortal, with long-time producer Don Was at the helm, 20 tracks were recorded, with 10 making their way onto the album.

"For as long as I can remember I've been writing songs or thinking about songs and sharing ideas for songs," he says. "I'm slower at it now than I once was." He attributes this, in part, to concussion from his time as a boxer.

"I always try to be as honest as I can in the songwriting, and what I'm finding, to my pleasant surprise at this age, is that the words are more inclined to laughter than tears - I hope I'll feel this creative and this grateful until they throw dirt over me."

Feeling Mortal is an apt title.

Kristofferson is making the most of life and of his family. He has been married three times and is clearly proud of the achievements of his eight children. His daughter, Kelly, performed her own short set around Dad's show on a recent European tour, and son, Blake, is an aspiring fiction writer.

"Kelly is really good, and I'm not just saying that because she's my daughter, I'm saying that because she's really good. Blake writes short stories and he's a better writer than I am."

Upcoming film roles are always in the mix but, aside from the odd tour, the septuagenarian largely leads a quiet, secluded existence in idyllic Hawaii.

He mows his own enormous lawn with a tractor - "I can spend days doing that" - and says he enjoys the anonymity life in a small town provides.

"Most of the kids are out of the house, they've got school or jobs, " he says. "I've got plenty of kids, but mostly they're doing their own thing these days. People around here leave me alone."

Not many 77-year-olds embark on tours, but Kristofferson still performs regularly. In February he was a featured performer in the 2014 Hemp Aide concert in Sacramento. Right now he's working his way around Australia.

Soon he is touring New Zealand, performing several shows as a victory lap for Feeling Mortal.

Kristofferson's ability to craft honest, emotionally truthful songs that hit a common nerve is one reason for his enduring popularity.

Listening to the album it's clear that Kristofferson is looking in the rearview mirror, assessing his life.

This tour sees him performing in an intimate style, playing his well-known songs on guitar, but he will also share the stories of his life.

"I'm lucky to have had the life I've had and the family I've got. My life is full. I don't have any regrets, " he says.

"I feel grateful that anything I have wanted to do I have done. Looking back I don't know how I did it or how it all came together, but I was lucky that it did.

"I may be getting closer to the end of the show, " he laughs. "But I sure am enjoying the encore."

An Evening With Kris Kristofferson is on at the Civic Theatre, Invercargill, May 1 and the Dunedin Town Hall, May 2. Tickets from $65 from TicketDirect. Fairfax NZ

- Fairfax Media

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