Pop Playground
Best of All Possible Worlds: Kristofferson’s Wine, Women & Song

begun in Brownsville, stretched yonder to San Mateo and settled slowly into a desk at Claremont's Pomona College; surrounded by unruly eucalyptus boughs and mathematical proofs unproven that likely seemed silly and ephemeral in the face of Oxford's earthy bottom-drawer history; tales of chin-high, china-white dons lingering over lines of Voltaire, Yeats or Brecht, dripped from lips or soundly dropped, their letters unglued from an unsteady notion of syntax, the whole thing a deep brown whirlwind of dust spilt in loose towering columns, pulled higher into the blue from chopper props, the whole metal oil platform rumbling and whining and rattling, Kristofferson’s steel-gray mirrors glaring over eyes while Lama booted toes tapped songs that stood only as ideas, as fading ghost accumulations of longing and loss; brain squirming under the brim of a bone-bleached straw Stetson, struggling with pitches made and unmade, a weekend trip to Nashville on the back burner at midweek as dusk dropped over the Louisiana sky, stardust and want briefly shimmering, a threat of sparks in the writhing early evening heat. Words came and went, slamming doors in retreat or settling into a cardiac beat: "I don't care what's right or wrong; I won't try to understand / Let the devil take tomorrow / Lord, tonight I need a friend."

Kristofferson tended bar, he fought forest fires, he buzzed and fizzled with the other songwriting “bugs” in Nashville’s soup of discontent. Mostly he lived. He did what any young songwriter must do; he accumulated experience; he thought as he felt and he tried and often succeeded at gaining a little objective distance from action and emotion and the crepuscular sheet that often shields the two from easy ascertainment. His oil rig job in the Gulf eventually pushed him a pink-slip; Kristofferson pushed back. Beaten and willing to embed himself in the sort of sticky nihilism that had threatened to pull him under for so many years, he flew straight in the face of the whole mess, figuring jail or death—or worse. He ended up pitching songs to Johnny Cash. The first of which, “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a dreary, surgical examination of the quotidian was rendered in crippled but supple prose, yet imbued with the possibility of change in the face of so much banality—a key facet of Kristofferson’s system-building, and one that gleefully balances the gravitas of his more robust and sardonic poesy.

Those lean Nashville years eventually set the table for a feast of a debut. When Kristofferson emerged on Fred Foster’s Monument Records in 1970, it already had a hand and foot in the populace’s consciousness. You already knew so many of his sundusk country songs. You just thought they were by someone else, whether Ray Price, whose version of “For The Good Times” was that Song of the Year that year for Academy of Country Music, or that other fella, the one in black. As he tells the engineers before “Me and Bobby McGee,” “If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is. It’s a country song.” And so much of Kristofferson lies in that line. He’s reclaiming his own creations and giving them, again, for the first time, his own sensibility for just what a country song should be. Fall-down drunk, a little bit foul, and desperately in need of a meal ‘cause drinking your dinner ain’t like stuffin’ your belly. “My thirsty wanted whisky / My hunger wanted beans.” He sounds offended, like Bowie explaining how to pronounce “Warhol,” except where Bowie was scissor-clean and plenty of haircut, Kris was ready to piss in your boots for the error. His is the voice of the quiet traveler with something in his pocket for which he’s about to reach, a little beatific but a lot more bastard, hands fumblin’ at something unseen.

Janis Joplin, one of Kristofferson’s lovers, would top the charts a year later with “Bobby McGee.” But it was here already, parched and just a little husky from road and drink, so little water… The quintessential buddy song, “Bobby McGee” is almost too soft and dandy to scrape things loose in you the way it does. It’s a shared song after all, a communal moment where boundaries are momentarily waived, one singing of secrets and souls that somehow pools all of ‘em in a large place for us all to gather. Kristofferson, like Neil Diamond with a throat blind of light, got a chance with Kristofferson to record the songs that had already been hits for others, and would continue to be in the next couple of years, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Patti Page to Joe Simon and Bobby Bare. And though the Folks still take to The Man in Black’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” it’s this one I feel the most, a slow beat trickling itself to waste and that twinkling acoustic guitar; it’s slower, unsure of its ritual day progress ‘til the bells ring, and the bells always ring the sound of measure on a Sunday, no? For what it gives out in the morning-after blues, it takes back in its lack of light—its shutting out of day and cornering in someplace dim and quiet: Kristofferson making it every bit as shambolic and dizzy, as unfocused and vague, as that morning which came at him so hard and boiled and left this very song in its break.

Kristofferson’s songs were, after all, chafed by that charcoal voice, in how we can’t possibly sound so impossibly deep and weathered. Like he’s stolen something we left unattended and only missed when we heard its absence retold in such bold, beautiful terms—it’s always more interesting to hear somebody else speaking out your sly truths. “Oooooh, she said, Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you… I’ve put on new stockings just to please you.” We have stories and moments, all, and they’re kind of extraordinary. But as much as they flutter only ‘til we get a chance to speak to someone we love, they are here with Kristofferson in the moment he busts forth on “To Beat the Devil” with his “If you waste your time a-talkin’ / To the people who don’t listen / To the things that you are sayin’ / Who do you think’s gonna hear?” But we didn’t make them resonate like a Bible verse. There’s something stony and cool here that makes Leonard Cohen’s stuff—which really comes so fucking close to this particular brand of Americana—sound almost warm by comparison. And, often, that’s what Kristofferson’s offering, in language so earthy and homespun it’s easy to quote: part tribal myth, part bandanna psalm, part brokeback blues, part chain-gang chant. It’s a territorial sort of verse, a piss-and-vinegar speech.

On Kristofferson, his own songs gain a creator’s texture. And whether you prefer the covers, you have to hear this shadowy voice croak ‘em out before you really understand them. I mean, Joplin may have felt the terror and love in losin’ Bobby, but Kris had the crude glory of his death on his breath and he placed it back in you in a way that made you feel that diesel escape and the rapid, mountainous pull of leaving him behind. It’s the hitchhiker’s story, a telling again of rocky places and people and three-day-beardo at home only in the American West… These songs come to be what they must have sounded like to him originally—what must have remained so homeless and odd ‘til he got them back—before the Cashes and the Prices. The arrangements are simple even when they’re wide-sprung. They play out in lots of rickety bottom, saccharine strings and bells, tambourine, warbling organs, acidic protest pop, harmonica, and shambling guitar solos, sure, but there’s that one other thing—the bedraggled voice that can go soft and honeyed so fucking fast, the way it does in the cantina chorus of “Casey’s Last Ride,” before he returns to the vagabond routine, a costumed truth as hard to follow as the hands that deal three-card monte.

That sort of sleight-of-hand exists also in the man’s bona fide ability to render the dizzyingly abstract in familiar, folky terms. Kristofferson was the only one who could’ve ever named a honky-tonk stomp after a Leibnizean concept. “The Best of All Possible Worlds” stands simultaneously as the aforementioned German philosopher’s theological avenue to eradicate the problem of evil and a stale, beer-soaked paean to puttin’ up or shuttin’ up. An unfortunate run-in with Johnny Law results in a 24-hour lockdown. With no one to ogle or post bail, Kristofferson’s left with the “kindly jailer,” whose spat one-liners bang a bottomless brass spittoon: “If booze wuz just ah dime uh bottle, boy you couldn’t even buy tha smell.” Leibniz worked his way out of Evil’s trough by recasting the Supreme Being as a sort of “optimizer,” an all good, all powerful entity who spun Either/Or’s roulette and allowed it to land on this world: a collection of all that is the case, a positivistic needle hidden in a metaphysical haystack. Since this Being is all good and all powerful how could this choice—this world—not be the best of all possible worlds? A place rife with lots of wine and lonely girls; a place of muscular longing and endless possibility, where the shortest distance between two points yields infinite opportunity gawking in all its naked glory at every station in between. “’Cause there’s a lotta drinks that I ain’t drunk / Lots of pretty thoughts that I ain’t thunk, oh yeah / Lord there’s still so many lonely girls, in this best of all possible worlds.”

The flipside, of course, is the sadsack shtick of “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which perpetually sets the bar in the clouds for any singer-songwriter who’s ever felt a remote semblance of head-in-oven blues. A fucking undertow of a tune, “Sunday Morning…” plays on several different stages: the numbing morning routine; the forced and lonely walk; the pigeon-on-a-park-bench predilection. The shit is nothing short of Beckett via Artaud, and that’s precisely how Kristofferson plays it, his tux and tails threadbare and ashen; his face sour, stricken; painted with stubble and scat smears. We find our narrator sucking down beers for breakfast, donning his “cleanest dirty shirt.” Remarkably, the I-can’t-go-on-I’ll-go-on paradigm never overextends, as the music that backs his lithe and downtrodden lyrics is nothing but songbird sweetness: dental office ambience smack down in the midst of a man barely buoyed by his own bleeding—an irritatingly slow death at the patient hands of loneliness. Smells and sights poke and prod, Proustian recollections that gag the mind’s throat, leaving thought asphyxiated, hung up and swinging from the noose of its own longing. “Somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’ / And it echoed through the canyons / Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.”

You can hear that same miserable vein to Kristofferson on “For the Good Times.” It’s a waltz in country time—a dead sand-crunched kind of time, layabout, and on siesta; one as likely to lead to leavin’ everything gone to dancin’. With sugared strings that could have soundtracked any Douglas Sirk film and a bassline so sleepy it seems to nod off mid-cut, it’s almost too treacle to play out the kind of rough, scabbed heartbreak he’s singing about. A voice this barked ain’t really s’posed to play out so grandiose. In those seconds when he measures out the title phrase, he’s speaking most assuredly—the strings cut out, the bells blown down, and for a moment it’s just Kristofferson and an acoustic. After all, the song’s about the comfort of one final moment, when everything has already been thrown about in the goin’ out and you’re trying to straighten it up just enough to sit her down in memory one last time. A strange kind of irony, sure; a present so filled up by past—your one final source of persuasion—but whose last nows you still need more desperately. “Lay your head upon my pillow / Hold your warm and tender body close to mine.” Just that quiet, once again, ‘cause tomorrow isn’t a day but a stack of them with no ceiling. He offers distractions: don’t listen to me but to the wind and the rain on the windows. And yet he’s still talking, louder and more closely than the storm. A fantasy moment certainly; hard to believe it ever actually happened, like he implored it but was rejected. The child in denial: ‘as long as I don’t see it didn’t happen.’ But when everything else is removed—those saccharine strings, those ridiculous bells—he’s going to take his parting shot. For Kristofferson, the moment’s an arrogant one, where his demands seem almost abusive. But, it’s a confident one, and a reminder that it wasn’t always so bleak and foul, heard in those few seconds, so close and bare as everything else is erased, “for the good times.”

But sometimes there’s something to be heard in all those bells and whistles. The fabled “To Beat the Devil” begins with Kristofferson smoldering his fire tones in a speaking voice. He’s as dry and cigarette-crisp as ever. Like some of his best, “Devil”’s a song about songs, a bleached, hungry tale about the life he’d been living in those slim Nashville years—his basement, below-ground years. It’s where he plays semantics with the “bar” and “tavern” based on just how much smoke you pound out of your jacket the day after. But the moments to hear are just the opposite of those that kindle “For the Good Times”—when the bells peal out before the devil’s tale and Kristofferson goes from speech to song, the devil gives his favorite bar-room lesson in a voice almost peach-sweet. Unlike “Good Times,” “Devil” is at its most prophetic and affecting when all of those studio touches are aflush—the bells, brushed drums, and twinklin’ lightspaces. It’s a meta kind of track to a meta kind of thinking, and since we all know the devil’s a flashy bastard, why not turn up the sound to spotlight his entry? But when I said it’s a song about songs, I was half-right. It’s really a song about failed song; it’s a quiet comfort against Kristofferson’s worries these words he’d written would never leave the dead bunks of Nashville. And though it’s hard to gauge, given how important the covers of Cash and others would prove to Kristofferson’s career, you can’t but hear a line like “I ain’t sayin’ I beat the devil / But I drank his beer for nothin’ / Then I stole his song” as a lovely inversion of Kristofferson’s own history and the songwriter’s long path from scribe to singer of those very same crumpled pages.

From history to fable came The Silver Tongued Devil & I, a sophomore effort built upon the byproducts of Kristofferson’s self-mythologizing—yarns frayed and worn and left in such confusion that no honest chronicler could’ve ever decided if they once comprised anything at all. Smoke, mirrors and flash for sure, and certainly more of an edge than its predecessor. Silver Tongued… is leagues darker lyrically; the words band together like castaways left to the salt and waves and sharks. Instead of doing much fighting, they slowly give away, slipping into a grave that never yawns to take them. Repeated listens unpack straining trunks of meaning: these songs aren’t about the states of things as Kristofferson sees and thinks of them; they are vanishing memories, feverish notes-to-self jotted down and now rendered as rotting eulogies. The hackneyed sci-fi trope—the Last Man on Earth—never held truer. This is a collection of failed folky incantations, a man with nothing but time to spend on rejuvenating the events of his youth through song to keep him company. These songs exist for and because of him: the proverbial solipsist sharing an empty stage with his epistemological predicament, bowing to an audience of barren, coil-sprung seats. Songs sung to the self for the self; songs applauded for closure in a system that knows naught of binding a function to its scope, a single white point vanishing slowly upon a bruised black horizon. If ever there where a locus, it would be burned out, deserted, a punishing parody of dystopia that holds none of the particular obsessions that tirelessly haunted his houses of song. The title track alone is phoned in just to imagine the ring on the other end. Words make memories and vice versa. Kristofferson’s “bottle of beer” and “tender, young maiden” are choices upon a tattered menu, their ink drying up, disappearing. This is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Country & Western style. “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” is the cruelest sort of mirage, a mélange of flora, fauna and fucking brought home tender, lachrymose. There’s a bottomless and metaphysical sadness to the whole of these words; little wonder Travis Bickle borrowed them to empower his purpose, a kamikaze mantra spoken to extinguish the flames of crack-up cross-chatter.

Instead of heeding his own warnings, Kristofferson embraces the antagonist of his title-track only to find familiar reflection. “Silver Tongued Devil & I” is partly aw-shucks-in-sheep’s-clothing, part backdoor-man-lycanthropy. Lots of sauce works up the sass that leads to an empty bed, and Kristofferson tries in vain to remember what that was even like in the first place. He wanders the hypothetical setting until it takes on a crime scene air, a place of musty transgression unsolved and forgotten. Warning’s unheeded; smiles as baited—and set—hooks; alter-egos altered beyond recognition: a song of impressions unaware of its own interface that allows those impressions in the first place. “Some people swear he’s my double / And some people swear we’re the same,” he sings, a smile fulla shit and a tongue firmly in cheek. “Silver Tongued Devil & I” sounds mostly like careless, unmediated action. Nothing could be farther from the truth: this is a prolegomena to wide-open living—a worn guide harnessed and ridden to its logical conclusion.

“Billy Dee” flips the script, working well as Devil’s advocate, a scared-straight sort of song that holds no quarter, drawing a perforated line between crazy and free and erasing any impediment where it may stand. “It may be his soul was bigger than a body’s oughta be,” Kristofferson opines, trying to chalk up deathwish bullshit to a child who was every bit a man, living far beyond his years in any and every way he could. Life’s paths are apparent to some, hidden to others. Signs pined for and found in honky-tonk neons; sudsy, draft beer puddles; pursing, glossed lips. The poet/prophet/pusher paradigm so loved by Kristofferson gets another treatment, replete with so many failed efforts to ring a halo around curved, cartoonish horns. Tone never ambles away from trodden Go Ask Alice territory, with a rise barely perceptible and a fall at once mortal and immortalized in tavern scuttle, words shared between barflies in the midst of beers and shots, the clock just aglow with broken minute and hour hands, a juke clogged with swaths of country and gospel ghosts. “The world he saw was sadder than the one he hoped to find / But it wasn’t near as lonesome as the one he left behind.”

“Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever do Again),” meanwhile, marks a return to Kristofferson’s gospel glory take on the breakup song. Much like “For the Good Times,” Kristofferson’s lost in pastel thoughts of back-whens and before-this, but this time around, his melancholy lies not so much in holding too tight to something ungraspable and already gone but in understanding just how awful the actual loss is. He anticipated something bleak and purple; he sees now how close to black it’s gonna be, after too many broken nights and bitter after-Sundays to think about it. It’s like he waited out ten days of “For the Good Times” and sat down to write again, now so many hours of absence marked by just how many times his mind’s turned back. The writing wasn’t so much a distraction as a balm; there’s a closeness in the memory. While for so much of Silver-Tongued…, Kristofferson’s voice lacks the gravelly touches of his debut, here he is again, weathered and beat, sounding as though he walked onto the wrong soundstage—so dusk-bent and departed against those heaving, soundscore strings and a chorus of dandied good ol’ boys.

Likewise, “When I Loved Her” adopts the same notion but applies it to everything summoned by the idea of “house and home”—it’s like you’ve left both when you’ve lost someone so close, like you’ve been tossed out to sea or some other space we don’t really belong ‘cause we can’t adapt so fast. Give us a million years, and sure, maybe our bodies will adjust to fit this cold new place but never within a single lifetime. She’s no longer there. Two crucial cures for the vagabond—the warm-stove meal or the warm-bed. And she was both. But it’s like Kristofferson’s lacking closure; he hasn’t yet reached the simple, mournful understanding of “Loving Her.” He’s puzzled—as much by just how he got so star-crossed in this thing as by how he can’t back away from it: “She didn’t look as pretty as some other I have known / And she wasn’t good at conversation when we were alone / But she had a way of making me believe that I belonged.” Against more of those nectar strings, siesta horns, and a bellowin’ rough dog of a chorus, he hasn’t yet reached for the solace of memory; he can’t come to terms with this phantom thing, but he’s sure he’ll never see it again. But if “Loving Her” was a patient nod to an end, “When I Loved Her” still has a little fight in it. For a narrative so mellow and comfortable at the stool, it’s sometimes hard to hear him trying to get it back, but when he sings “it’s the closest thing to livin’ that I guess I’ve ever known,” you know the man ain’t gonna go on too much longer this close to bleak and gone before reaching back and yanking. Hard.

Both of these figures—the brawler and the sad-eyed woebegone—are diffused in almost every song Kristofferson ever wrote. As the industry sped into those epic seventies years, Kristofferson would stretch himself out, shirtless, lizard-skinny and bearded as always, though those of you who’ve seen Convoy might argue against the man’s restraint. Following the overlookable Border Lord, 1972’s Jesus Was a Capricorn would close out what many view as the holy trinity of Kristofferson’s catalogue—and those people are right—but it was these first two landmark releases and his attempts to recapture what he’d sold and given away as he busted himself bent to find a place in the industry that really cement his contribution—not only to country music, but also to the emergent crossover potential of all genres whispered out on the tumbleweed breath of America and its Americanas. Kristofferson was always a voice of weather, of its excess and toil. His songs could only come from open-horizoned places, full of turmoil and quick ends to long-lived things.

Both Kristofferson and Silver-Tongued Devil and I are peopled by and told in places that breathe out so much trouble and pain, but as a way of getting comfortable with life. They’re redemptive and defiant in ways that give them so much more pull than your average woe-is-me tales. He gave out the howl and complaint for all those things that can’t bear the sun ‘cause they’re still burned from three days ago and drunk from the one after. Though he’s singing about heartbreak, it’s like he’s reading from the myths, hymns, and Bible verses cut into the bathroom grain of the cantinas and taverns of every stop-off spot in the country. He was always a voice that could have marked marble slabs—one of weight and heft and eternal somethings you should heed more often than in your Sunday blacks. But Kristofferson knew far too much about the late-hour failures that take the idol out of us all to ever take the pulpit. He is, after all, the fumblings and cross mumblings that go on beneath burned out lights and heaving skies—everything worth remembering when we turn, finally, to yesterday and tomorrow as both the better of today.

By: Derek Miller & Stewart Voegtlin
Published on: 2007-10-12
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