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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Sept. 19, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Kris Kristofferson: [Plays and sings] “And I just got to wonder what my daddy would have done / if he’d seen the way they turned this dream around. / I got to go by what he told me, / ‘Try to tell the truth and stand your ground. / Don’t let the bastards get you down.’”
Ken Paulson: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a man who has used that freedom in remarkable ways. The highly respected songwriter, singer and actor, Kris Kristofferson. Great to have you here.
Kristofferson: Thanks, Ken.
Paulson: You know, you do not pull your punches, do you? You weren’t going to warm this audience up with, like, “Me and Bobby McGee.” You’re going to go right for it, one of your toughest songs.
Kristofferson: You might as well know when to leave.
Paulson: The people, the people who are still watching are going to be very much into this show, I’m sure.
Kristofferson: I hope so.
Paulson: The — you know, that has been the hallmark of your music. And you talk about telling the truth. You’ve made a practice, throughout your career, of writing songs that reflected what you really believed. Has there been an exception to that?
Kristofferson: I, I think I figured when I came here, that’s what I came here to do, you know? And, of course, John Cash was an inspiration and a good example for me for that.
Paulson: When you say “came here,” I should tell our viewers that we are in Nashville.
Paulson: A city that is not your home but began your career.
Kristofferson: It saved my life, is what it did.
Paulson: And we also need to share the good news that there’s a brand-new CD out called Broken Freedom Song, on Oh Boy Records, a live recording from San Francisco, which I guess was initially done in conjunction with a Bread and Roses benefit?
Kristofferson: Yes, there was — Alan Abraham was taping the show so I could give a song off it to Mimi Farina and Joan Baez’s organization that’s for the shut-ins, prisoners, and hospital people.
Paulson: Let’s talk about those beginnings in Nashville, because what an interesting choice you made. I mean, it’s often been talked about you’re a Rhodes scholar. You had an opportunity to teach at West Point. Your future was very bright in one direction. And you took the ultimate risk, coming to Nashville, becoming a songwriter, and emptying ashtrays in a recording studio. That had to be horrifying to your family.
Kristofferson: You picked the right word, Ken. No, it was, for, for a few years there — about four — it did look pretty stupid. But I’ve always felt like it was the best move I ever made and just about in the nick of time.
Paulson: What drove you? I mean, how did you know that this was something you could do so well for the rest of your life?
Kristofferson: Well, I didn’t know I could do anything. I didn’t know I’d be a success at it, but, but I came here on leave when I was still in the Army. And Mary John Wilkin was a cousin of my platoon leader in Germany. And he had sent her a tape of mine. She said, “Stop by, you know, if he’s ever in the area.” She didn’t say anything about the songs. But it was enough of an encouragement to come here. And, in the two weeks I spent here, I just fell in love with it, with the whole way of life, with the whole music family.
Paulson: And we had, actually, Cowboy Jack Clement was on the show.
Kristofferson: He was one of the first, first guys I met here.
Paulson: You, you fell immediately into the community —
Paulson: — and you met Johnny Cash very early on.
Kristofferson: Yeah. Well, Cowboy helped that out, too.
Paulson: And there are people who are in this town now who have never run into people who can help their career, but there were people who actually were in a position to hear your music. If they weren’t willing to, you were going to find other ways. There is this great story, and I don’t know if it’s true or not — but you can set the record straight — about you in a helicopter and Johnny Cash.
Kristofferson: Well, I had — I have to go back before that. I had, I had known John about a year and a half before I ever did anything that audacious. But I was a janitor over at Columbia Recording Studios for about a year and a half. And then I got in the National Guard for about a month, and during that time, I figured that would — I had pitched him every song I ever wrote. And he hadn’t cut any of them, but he had always encouraged me and carried my lyrics around in his pocket, you know? And, and I, I figured I would impress him one way or another if I flew into there with that helicopter, and I did. He was lucky I didn’t crash it into the house, because they were pretty old helicopters we had.
Paulson: Who was the first one out the door, June or Johnny?
Kristofferson: You know, I can’t remember. I can’t remember. They’ve both got versions of it that, that kind of differ from mine. But I owe so much to them, I believe whatever they say.
Paulson: I think there’s a quote from you that said you pitched every song you could to Johnny Cash because you were convinced he wasn’t going to live very long, that he was on pills; he was a really skinny gentleman.
Kristofferson: Well, back in those days, it didn’t look like he, he was going to be around much more. And Hank Williams only made it to 29.
Paulson: Yeah, yeah. Let me embarrass you with an early record called Vietnam Blues. Maybe you’re not embarrassed by it.
Kristofferson: I’m not embarrassed about that.
Paulson: It’s just, it’s completely different from your later politics. And it was —
Paulson: — of the time. And those people —
Kristofferson: I was still in the Army when I wrote that.
Paulson: Right. And it’s a song that’s — it’s a very honest song as well.
Paulson: And it was a song I guess Dave Dudley recorded?
Kristofferson: Dave Dudley cut it. Before that, Jack Sanders did it. And it made a friend of Harlan Howard and Ralph Emory. And both of them were good friends.
Paulson: For those who haven’t heard it, it’s a song about a gentleman who’s walking down the street, and he sees protesters, and they’re actually handing around a petition asking to send condolences, I guess, to Ho Chi Minh, I guess is —
Kristofferson: Yeah, it was a talking blues.
Paulson: Yeah, and then, in the end, you discover that the person who’s singing is actually a soldier, and —
Paulson: — he’s headed off to Vietnam.
Paulson: It’s a very powerful record. I just read that you had mixed feelings about the song later.
Kristofferson: Well, only because, because my own feelings about Vietnam turned 180 degrees. But I still felt, at the time, you know, that — all my friends were over there. And it wasn’t their fault that they were over there. But I come to believe that it was a tremendous mistake for our government to be over there and that the things that we were doing were inhuman.
Paulson: Can I put you on the spot and ask you to do “Vietnam Blues”?
Kristofferson: I’ll give it a try. [Plays and sings] “I was on leave at the time, / just duckin’ the fog, / nosin’ around like a hungry dog / in that crazy place called Washington, D.C. / I saw a crowd of people on the White House lawn / all carrying signs about Vietnam, / so I went on over to see what I could see. / They was a strange-looking bunch. / But I never did understand civilians. / A fellow came to me and with a list in his hand. / He said, ‘We’re gatherin’ names / to send a telegram of sympathy.’ / Then he handed me a pen. / I said, ‘I reckon this is goin’ / to the children and wives / of my friends over there who’ve given their lives.’ / He says, ‘Uh-uh, buddy, this is goin’ to Ho Chi Minh.’ / I said, ‘Ho Chi who?’ / He said, ‘Ho Chi Minh, / People’s Leader, North Vietnam.’ / Well, I wasn’t real sure I was hearin’ him right. / But I thought we’d better remove / before we got in a fight / because my eyes were smartin’, / and my pulse started hitting a lick. / I thought about another telegram I’d read / tellin’ my buddy’s wife that her husband was dead. / It wasn’t too long till I was feelin’ downright sick. / Another held the sign that said ‘We won’t fight.’ / And I thought to myself, ‘You got that right. / You’d rather let a soldier die instead.’ / I said, ‘You ever stop to think / that every man who / died there in that far-off land / was dyin’ so that you won’t wake up dead?’ / Of course, he looked at me like I was crazy, / just another warmonger. / Well, I left that place and went to town / and hit the first bar that I found / to cool myself and pacify my brain. / See, I was on orders back to Vietnam, / to a little place just north of Saigon, / and I had about an hour to catch my plane. / So, all I mean to say is, / I don’t like dyin’ either. / but I care about the way I live.” But it was a good song. It was well written. [Laughing]
Paulson: And, and one of your earliest commercial successes.
Kristofferson: Well, it was — I don’t think it was a commercial success.
Paulson: You make any money at all from that song?
Kristofferson: Ah, I don’t — $7 or something, maybe.
Paulson: Well, in, in ‘60s money —
Kristofferson: No, but if it got Harlan to be nice to me, it was worth it.
Paulson: And then you fell in with Roger Miller at one point, who had to be, also, a remarkable guy.
Kristofferson: Yeah, I didn’t meet Roger — well, I met him as a janitor during a brief session one time. I didn’t get to know him till, till some years later, back when John was doing the television show. And Mickey Newbury told Roger about “Bobby McGee,” and he cut the first version of “Bobby McGee.”
Paulson: There’s a story about you actually playing that for Miller on an airplane. You had to go —
Kristofferson: I had to teach it to him on the way back to Nashville.
Paulson: And that was probably your biggest hit at the time, when Roger Miller covered that.
Kristofferson: Well, yeah, it was, it was the first, but there were about four that were all kind of tied in with that show, of John’s show, that, that were cut within a period of about a month. Ray Price cut “For the Good Times” first. And then Roger did that. And Sammy Smith did “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” And then John cut “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on the show. And they used the live version of it.
Paulson: Let’s talk about that, because this show is about free speech in part and making choices. And there were people on that show who did not want Johnny Cash to sing your lyrics.
Kristofferson: Well, the, the television part of it, I think, brought the censorship in because they were all worried about the line “Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.” And I remember Bob Tubert suggested, “Maybe you could say, ‘Wishing I was home,’ you know?” [Laughs] And, and I — we were all standing around there. I said, “You know what? It’s not the same.” And John didn’t let on. He never said a word, you know? I had no idea what, what he was going to end up doing. Until he sang it, and that night, and when he got to that line, and he looked up to me in the balcony, and said, “Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.” And I’m convinced that — had he changed that line, I’d have gone with it. And it never would have been the powerful song that it was.
Paulson: You, you recorded — actually, you wrote a number of powerful songs, and you’ve cited a couple of them. What’s remarkable, listening to songs like “For the Good Times” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” — which are both classics now, on the radio all the time — is how controversial they seemed to be when they first came out.
Paulson: And beginning with “For the Good Times,” why — why was that groundbreaking? Why was that regarded as too adult?
Kristofferson: Because the line “Hold your warm and tender body close to mine.” If you can believe that was controversial. It kept the [line] — the first guy, Bill Nash, I think his name was, that recorded it. Jerry Kennedy recorded him on it. They had a good record. Just like Ray’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was a good record. And they wouldn’t play it on the air. I know there was a big radio station in New York that was pretty important for country music at the time, and they, and they said the lyrics were too racy or something.
Paulson: As a writer, especially a young writer who’s hungry, isn’t there a temptation to just change the line?
Kristofferson: No. [Laughs] I’m sorry. I had had so many — so, so few songs recorded anyway. There was no point in changing the lines in them, you know? I figure I might as well stick to my guns while I was there.
Paulson: You stuck to your guns on “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Which I get a little bit more. That’s a bit more explicit.
Paulson: Well, you won the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year for “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and all these hits. And, you know, you clearly were the hottest songwriter in America. What took you from that writing career to being in front of the microphone, being a performer?
Kristofferson: Johnny Cash put me on, on his show at the Newport Folk Festival in ’69, same year that he had the, the TV show, and had me do two songs: “Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” And they didn’t want him to put me on. They said, “We just don’t have time, John.” And Carl Perkins, who was opening for him, said, “Hell, you can just introduce me as the late and great.” And it made all the difference. It was like — it, it went over so well, they held me over for some workshops the next couple of days singing with guys like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Everly Brothers. It was heaven.
Paulson: Had you played in front of an audience before?
Kristofferson: No. Well, I had played one night in Nashville at a place called Nero’s Cactus Canyon. I sat in for a friend of mine who wanted to do a session one night. And, and I got fired after about an hour. I was supposed to be playing my 12-string while they ate dinner, and I don’t think anybody could eat. Nero came up to me and said, “How long have you been playing that thing?” And I said, “Well, about an hour.” And he said, “No, I mean in your life.”
Paulson: [Laughs] Well, that’s a pretty big leap, then, to the Newport Folk Festival, isn’t it?
Kristofferson: Yeah. John said, on the, on the way out to the stage, he said, “You know, you don’t sing very loud in my house.” He said, “You’d better sing out so they can hear you past the first row, you know?”
Paulson: It sounds like you liked it, though.
Kristofferson: Oh, it was, it was, it was like heaven.
Paulson: For somebody who is protective of your lyrics, concerned about your lyrics on “The Johnny Cash Show,” Janice (Joplin) did a little adapting, didn’t she? Did you get to know her afterwards?
Kristofferson: Yeah, we hit it off and hung out together for — out there at her, where she lived in Larkspur, out in California — for a month or so. And then she was going off in a tour in one direction, and they had a train tour with the guys in the band and all that. They were trying to get Bobby Neuwirth and I to go off with them, and I get a gig at The Troubadour, my very first gig, that a girl from The Johnny Cash Production Show had gotten me. And so, I went off in that direction, and I never saw her again.
Paulson: You’re in town in Nashville as part of a celebration of free speech. You’re receiving an award called The Spirit of Americana Award, presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center. And, of course, as you know, the first recipient was Johnny Cash.
Paulson: And it was a remarkable evening shortly before his death that he accepted the award. And one of the reasons — I was reading people’s interpretations of why you’re receiving the award, and the point was made that there are people out there who are at the left end of the spectrum, some people on the right end of the spectrum. But it’s actually rare for somebody to publicly have an opinion now, to actually say what they believe and, and write songs with conviction and actually have their — their life’s values, their convictions, and their art all merge together. And, of course, you’ve done a lot of that throughout your career. There was a point, though, I think, when you became more politicized in your music, that, that where your early music was candid sexually, had adult themes. You turned a corner at one point. And you began writing songs that were a little bit more in the face of people, a little bit more like Woody Guthrie in a lot of respects. What happened?
Kristofferson: Well, a lot of things happened around 1979. Sandinistas had a revolution and overthrew the most brutal dictatorship in the hemisphere, that we had supported. And there was a revolution in Iran as well. And, and I was doing a kind of a controversial TV movie called “Amerika,” and —
Paulson: Spelled with a “k.”
Kristofferson: With a “k.” And I was becoming aware of a lot of the things that were being done in, in our name that were not the principles that I was raised to believe America stood for, particularly down in Nicaragua, where we had a real bad history of, of messing with their attempt. Right, right at the time, the Sandinista revolution was dedicated to really helping the people for the first time in the century, you know, of giving them free health, free education, and land reform. And it was the last part of it that got them in our crosshairs, that the land was, was being more equally distributed to the citizens of the country down there. But I went to Nicaragua. I, I sang at a human rights concert down in Mexico. And there was a Nicaraguan band down there, and the, the leader of what turned out to be one of — Carlos Mejia Godoy, he’s one of the top songwriters down there — came up to me after the show and said he wanted to thank me for his country and in regard to — for sticking up for them and saying what I was saying in some of the songs that I had sung. And I got an invitation to go down there. And I ended up going down two or three times down to — four times, maybe — visit the hospitals full of kids whose — had their legs and arms blown off by the mines we were putting in and finding out that the Contras that we were training, the terrorists that we were sending down there were not attacking the Sandinista Army but were attacking the so-called soft targets — the schools, the health facilities, and the agricultural co-ops. And it, it will radicalize you. You know, and it, it was definitely not a commercial move, as you said. It probably got me off of one record label. And it might have got me off the air forever, I don’t know.
Paulson: Well, you had, you had an album called Third World Warrior, which, actually, “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” is from, isn’t it?
Paulson: And two questions. One, did you feel like those songs would make a difference? And two, what was the reaction of the record company? Was there an attempt to have you tone that message down?
Kristofferson: They didn’t say anything. They just didn’t market it.
Paulson: I see.
Kristofferson: And then when we tried to — Al Bunetta wanted to reissue it now. And I believe he’s going to. But we couldn’t find it anywhere. And they said, “It’s disappeared. It’s gone.” I said, “Jeez, this sounds like the Kennedy assassination or something.”
Paulson: So, was the music going to make a difference? Did you think people were going to hear those songs?
Kristofferson: Well, you know, I, I don’t know if it would make a difference. All I knew is it was the only thing I could do to make a difference, you know? And it was coming from the heart. And I was singing them on the road. And I was getting a mixed reaction there, too. A woman came up to me after I sang that — “Don’t Let the Bastards” — and said, “I’ll never listen to another song you write.” Because of “killing babies in the name of freedom,” you know? And I think I asked her whether it was the song that upset her or the fact that we were doing it, you know? But I have no regrets about, about putting it out. I still think it’s — I can understand why they never played it on the air.
Paulson: There’s been some history in Nicaragua since then. Just for the record, what’s your take on the Sandinistas now?
Kristofferson: I think we eventually beat that revolution, not with the Contras and Oliver North and all that, but with money. And we bought an election and bought another one. And the people voted with their stomachs, you know? They thought it was going to help them. Unfortunately, today, they’re the second poorest country in the hemisphere.
Paulson: And I’m not here to debate. And you clearly know Nicaragua better than I do; what we did see, though, for a period, were some civil rights abuses and some free-speech and freedom-of-religion issues. And I would think that that would be — you know, it’s really tough to embrace a new regime because you embrace them in their entirety.
Kristofferson: I wasn’t aware of any civil rights thing. I knew that they, that they had prison reform and that they did away with their death penalty and, and things that were — that really mattered —
Kristofferson: — to the people down there.
Paulson: Do you think that your political stands hurt your career?
Kristofferson: Listen, who knows what hurts a career, you know? I remember, when I put out the Third World Warrior, I read one review. I think it was in USA Today. It said, “Surely, he knows pigs will fly before they play this on the air.” But I can’t think that, that anything hurt my career. I can’t think of anything that I would have done differently. Because, because I’m pretty happy with my life the way it is right now, you know, with — I got, I got a beautiful family. And I’m still able to do what I love for a living.
Paulson: Well, we focused on the music, but we cannot ignore the fact that you’ve had a remarkable film and, and television career as well.
Paulson: And you mentioned “Amerika,” which was a controversial show about if the Nazis had actually won World War II.
Kristofferson: Yeah. Well, you know, I, I was, I was trying to justify how that could have happened, that scenario where the — I think it was the Russians that end up taking over, over the U.N. or somebody taking over the U.S. — and I thought at the time, you know, it could only happen if the rest of the world finally got together and said, “Enough.” Now, what’s been going on lately could cause that — to the rest of the world to just finally just say, “Listen, you, you got no right to be the only superpower of the world, going around fighting anybody you want to in whatever name you want to call it,” you know? I mean, they look at what we did in Iraq as terrorism. And it was state-sponsored terrorism, you know? I’m in an awkward position because I grew up in the Second World War, you know, and before, during, and after, and, and believing in God and honor and country, you know, and duty. And, and I still respect the troops. I just don’t, don’t agree with the policy.
Paulson: Our guest this week, Kris Kristofferson. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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