Mention Kris Kristofferson to women of a certain generation and they’ll still swoon over his performance as the bare-chested, bad-boy rocker opposite Barbra Streisand in “A Star Is Born” 30 years ago.
Their kids know him best as Whistler, the grizzled mentor to vampire Wesley Snipes in the “Blade” trilogy.
Those are notable bookends for a film career that has taken Kristofferson from “Heaven’s Gate,” the debacle that torpedoed Academy Award-winning director Michael Cimino’s career and bankrupted United Artists studio, to “Lone Star,” one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the 1990s, and from “Big Top Pee-Wee” to “Planet of the Apes” to the endearing “Dreamer.”
For all that, Kristofferson remains an accidental movie star true to his first calling, singer/songwriter. The only member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame whose resumé includes Rhodes Scholar and Army helicopter pilot, he’s back out on tour at age 70, promoting a powerful new album, “This Old Road.”
During a stop in Louisiana this month for a performance at the Paragon Casino in Marksville, he reflected on a musical career that produced the likes of “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Why Me” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and how it was influenced by his time in the Louisiana oil fields before he caught his first break.
Kristofferson turned down an instructor’s post at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to try and break into the music business in the 1960s. Unable to get any closer than a janitor’s job at the Columbia Records studio in Nashville, Tenn., he came to Louisiana and took a job with Petroleum Helicopters Inc. of Lafayette, flying between the Louisiana marshes and offshore petroleum facilities.
“That was about the last three years before I started performing, before people started cutting my songs,” he recalled. “I would work a week down here for PHI, sitting on an oil platform and flying helicopters. Then I’d go back to Nashville at the end of the week and spend a week up there trying to pitch the songs, then come back down and write songs for another week.”
That was several lifetimes ago for Kristofferson, who now lives with his wife and the youngest of his eight children in Hawaii when he’s not globe-trotting to make music or motion pictures. Don’t expect him to take his music publisher’s advice to leave that life of luxury behind and get back to the Oil Patch.
“Bob Beckham told me, ‘You know, that was the most productive time for you, because you didn’t have anything to do but write songs,’ ” he said. “I can remember ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ I wrote sitting on top of an oil platform. I wrote ‘Bobby McGee’ down here, and a lot of them.”
As the composer of “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kristofferson deserves some of the credit for bridging Janis Joplin’s popularity beyond ’60s stoners to the American cultural mainstream. Originally a country hit for Roger Miller, the song was recorded by rock’s first female superstar shortly before her death from a drug overdose in 1970 and was the monster hit off her posthumous “Pearl” album in 1971.
Thirty-five years later, it remains the Joplin song most people are likely to sing along with.
“It’s such a shame that it happened after she died, because it was her first great popular hit,” Kristofferson said. “I thought she did a great job on ‘Bobby McGee.’ I had never imagined a girl singing it, you know.”
It’s not by accident that the song is infused with images of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
“I’ve always loved the feeling of Louisiana,” he said. “It just had a soul down here that was different from any place in the United States. There was something about it that just appealed to me the same way that a lot of Europe does.”
His recent live performance in Marksville bore little resemblance to the arena concerts he brought to New Orleans and Baton Rouge during his rock-star heyday in the 1970s. There was no opening act. No Rita Coolidge (his Grammy Award-winning second ex-wife). No band. Just a scruffy old troubadour with his guitar, his harmonica and his songs.
“It’s kind of scary,” he admitted with a chuckle, “but it put a focus on the songs that has been working in a way that it hadn’t before.”
The songs have worn well. From “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” to “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” from “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” to “Jesus Was A Capricorn,” the Kristofferson songbook holds up smartly to modern-day interpretation — witness the all-star tribute CD, “The Pilgrim: A Celebration of Kris Kristofferson,” released earlier this year.
Meanwhile, “This Old Road” is his first album of new music in 11 years. The songs are intense and personal, recorded with strikingly sparse arrangements that serve to focus all the more attention on message and messenger.
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Originally published in The Times-Picayune, November 29, 2006.