A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Well I think what they’ve done is well worth doing
And they’re doing it the best way that they can
You’re the only one that you are screwing
When you put down what you don’t understand.
- Kris Kristofferson, If You Don’t Like Hank Williams (You Can Kiss My Ass)
I was raised on country music, specifically outlaw country. By people of my nationality and generation – to many of whom Johnny Cash became acceptable only when, very late in life, he started covering U2 and Nine Inch Nails – this is generally seen to be some kind of shameful confession; something for which I really ought to atone. I have no truck with this kind of prejudice, often simultaneously uninformed and incredibly smug. I have particularly little patience when the people affecting to be far, far above liking country music subscribe to the depressingly new fashion (new in comparison with the span of his career) for finding Johnny Cash acceptable. It’s a dirty little word, acceptable. And for far too many people, Cash only became so when he moved away – in their eyes – from country music, although in fact he never did.
I never intend to atone for my country background. In fact, I am deeply grateful to my parents for introducing me, live and in recorded form, to artists who have stayed with me ever since. One such is Kris Kristofferson: singer, songwriter, actor, activist, veteran, Oxford graduate, former helicopter pilot and Blake enthusiast. Today’s post will look at his lyrics. Song lyrics are too often overlooked as a literary form, but the best songwriters, in my opinion, produce lyrics that stand alone as poetry even when stripped of the added impact of music and voice. Kristofferson’s music is simple – in the best sense of the term, elegant and punchy and memorable – and his voice rough around the edges. All the subtlety is in his lyrics. The balance is sublime.
This article can in no way be comprehensive enough to give more than an idea of the extraordinary richness and complexity of Kristofferson’s songwriting. Instead, I will have to restrict myself – reluctantly – to a brief overview. Here, then, are five essential things you should know about Kristofferson; five things I very much hope will inspire you to explore his work further (even if it is – insert shudder here – country).
Kristofferson is a poet
Casey leaves the hollow sound of silent people walking down/ The stairway to the subway, in the shadow down below/ Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors/ In silent desperation, never speaking to a soul/ The poisoned air he’s breathing has a dirty smell of dying, ’cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain/ But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes of the clicking of the turnstile and the rattle of his chain… (Casey’s Last Ride)
As we will see below, Kristofferson’s songwriting is nothing if not eclectic in terms of content. What unites his creations, from protest songs to love songs to breakup songs to breakdown songs, is a particular skill with – and joy in – language that is unique to him. Kristofferson plays with internal rhyme, assonance, consonance and alliteration with an apparent ease that would make strong poets weep. Read the extract above out loud and see what I mean.
Why Me, Lord?
Kristofferson is a comedian
I was running through the summer rain, trying to catch the evening train/ And kill that old familiar pain weaving through my tangled brain/ But when I tipped my bottle back I smacked into a cop I didn’t see… (The Best of All Possible Worlds)
This skill with language, combined with a heavy sense of irony, makes for some of the best bittersweet comic songs (I believe) in any genre. Kristofferson rarely if ever goes in for pure comedy: his songs always carry an edge of sadness, of anger or of indignation. Nothing is straightforward: he sprinkles literary references through songs about bums, hobos and miscreants, and his most damning indictments of social and political hypocrisy are strongly tinged wth self-deprecation.
New Mister Me
Once More with Feeling
Blame it on the Stones
Kristofferson is a tragedian
Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over/ And life goes on, and this old world just keeps on turning/ Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together/ There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning… (For the Good Times)
This might be surprising to those who know the more traditional form of the sad country song (for those who don’t, go and look up He Stopped Loving Her Today) but the great strength of Kristofferson’s songs about love and loss is their lack of sentimentality. His saddest songs are sparse, pared down and elegant, both lyrically and musically. He can convey a world of sorrow in a few well-chosen words. Warning: if you’re anything as soppy and susceptible as I am, listen with care…
I’d Rather be Sorry
Loving Her was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)
Kristofferson is a polemicist
So thank your lucky stars you’ve got protection/ Walk the line and never mind the cost/ Don’t wonder who them lawmen was protecting/ When they nailed the Saviour to the cross/ ‘Cause the law is for protection of the people/ Rules are rules and any fool can see/ We don’t need no riddle speaking prophets/ Scaring decent folks like you and me… no siree… (The Law is for Protection of the People)
When it comes to the things he sees as unjust, Kristofferson does not hold back. His usual subtlety tends to fly out of the window when it comes to Nicaragua, or poverty, or the police state; I won’t pretend that these are his most technically accomplished songs. But good Lord, are they satisfying.
Under The Gun
Jesus was a Capricorn
Don’t Let the Bastards (Get You Down)
Kristofferson is a chameleon
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose/ Nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free/ Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues/ Feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and Bobby McGee… (Me and Bobby McGee)
Janis Joplin, Perry Como, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patti Page and Brenda Lee are only some of the artists who have sung Kristofferson. His ability to write for a diverse range of artists across a number of genres is one of his great strengths, and it’s also the reason that many people are unaware just how influential his work is. However, I maintain that the greatest pleasure is hearing Kristofferson sing his own songs. His interpretation always reveals some extra layer of meaning, some particular impact that other performers overlook.
Help Me Make it Through the Night
Sunday Morning Coming Down
For information about Kris Kristofferson’s recordings, biography and tour dates, visit his official site here. All citations in this article are from memory and as such any errors are my own. The picture of Kris at the South by Southwest Festival 2006 was taken by Ron Baker and is licensed underCreative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.