This interview with Kris Kristofferson was arranged for the time of his sound check at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on 28 June 2004. Kris Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas on 22 June 1936 and he came to the UK in the Fifties to study as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.
SL: You’re noted for being a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Did studying Blake help with your songwriting?
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Any exposure that you have to good literature whether it is Blake or Shakespeare is going to help your writing and I should imagine that it helped me to express myself. The way Blake helped me the most was that he was such a committed, creative artist: he was determined that if you were organised by God to be a creative person, then it was duty to do it. That is what kept me going for a long time when the rest of the world said that I was insane to do it.
SL: Yes, ’cause you were over 30 before you made an album.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: I was about 30 before I even went to Nashville! I was 29 when I went there and hell, Hank Williams died at that age. He’d already made his legend by that age. I didn’t make a record until I was 33. I was ten years older than my peers, all the people that was I was hanging out with, all the people who were trying to be writers at the time. It was a very exciting time.
SL: Is your first album so strong because it contains a collection of songs that you had built up over the years?
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: It was probably because I paid my dues in Nashville. For at least four years I was hanging out with other writers and the good thing was that people helped each other out. The established writers like Harlan Howard and Willie Nelson would be encouraging new writers that they liked.
SL: Felice Bryant told me that you brought the bedroom onto the Opry stage.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: (Laughs) Felice and Boudleaux were awfully nice to me and their secretary gave me the title for the breakthrough song. They had a secretary named Bobbie McFee, and Fred Foster who owned the building where they had an office called me. At the time I was flying helicopters on the off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico every other week and trying to be a songwriter the rest of the time. He said, ‘I’ve got a song title for you’ and it was Me And Bobbie McFee. Since he owned the publishing company that I was writing for, I felt obliged to try and write it. I have never written a song on assignment before or since. But it worked, after about three months of hiding from him. (Laughs)
SL: What about the wonderful line in that song, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’? Does that mean if you’ve got nothing, there’s nothing you can lose, so you’re free.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, there is a freedom to it but it is a two-edged sword. Some of my songwriting friends wanted me to take it out of the song. (Laughs) They said, ‘You got these great concrete images and then you change to this philosophical statement in the chorus.’ I was looking for the feeling that Fellini got in the end of La Strada, and I love that film. Anthony Quinn has let that little Giulietta Masina slip away from him. He left her on the road when she was asleep. He had killed the fool in the travelling circus and she couldn’t handle that and he couldn’t handle her grief. He let her slip away and later he heard a woman who was hanging washing on the line humming the tune that this little girl used to play in the circus. He asked her about it and she said it was sung that by this little strange girl who passed through here and she died. Nobody knew where she came from and Anthony Quinn goes off and gets drunk and gets in a fight and he ends up on a beach howling at the stars in his grief. That was the rough edge of the freedom. He was free from her but he was miserable.
SL: Felice Bryant meant that your songs went inside the bedroom whereas the country songs before that didn’t. Songs like For The Good Times and Help Me Make It Through The Night are bedroom songs.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: They were both controversial when they came out. The guy that recorded them first couldn’t get them played on the air, but I always felt that they were in the tradition. Country music was more real than pop music at the time. The songs spoke about cheating and getting drunk and maybe they didn’t talk about sex quite as directly as that, but they certainly have since!
SL: Well, that’s down to you!
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Okay, and Felice didn’t like it! (Laughs)
SL: You love using the word ‘body’ and it is very erotic.
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: One of my songwriting buddies in the underground said to me that if they took all the Devils, bodies, shadows and sidewalks out of my songs, they’d be nothing left. (Laughs)
SL: I’m going to play For The Good Times by Aaron Neville. Is that one you particularly like?