Let the bad times roll

Kris Kristofferson is 60 today. He's had his share of pain and box-office flops. But, as he tells Jasper Rees, he just wouldn't have wanted it any other way

It's always a shock when a pop star hits 60. For Kris Kristofferson, whose turn comes today, the birthday is both easier and harder to take on board. Easier, because musically he hails from Nashville, home of the stetsonosaurus. Harder, because he actually hasn't been around so very long. "I did my first paid gig was when I was 34 the same week," he says.

And for significant swathes of his quarter-century in the limelight, Kristofferson has actually been nowhere near it. Most of the work on which his reputation rests was concentrated in the 1970s, the singer-songwriter decade when the hunt was on for the new Dylan. (Before stardom, the closest Kristofferson got to Dylan was as a janitor in Nashville, when he cleaned out the studio ashtrays during the Blonde on Blonde sessions. Did he hang with Bob? "Nobody hung with Bob.") The story of his 1970s is pretty much told in the part he played in A Star Is Born, in which rock icon hits bottle and self-destruct button. In real life, he married not Barbra Streisand but Rita Coolidge, with whom, true to the rules of celebrity matrimony in Nashville, he cut a few albums as a preamble to messy divorce.

He made three films with Sam Peckinpah, one with Martin Scorsese. Scorsese obviously understood how cool a figure he was, because when Robert de Niro buys an LP to impress Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver it's a Kristofferson album. And she's so hip she already has it. "To this day I just think, what a sweet thing that was to do - the notion that I have Robert de Niro in a Martin Scorsese film holding up my album and quoting it and mentioning my name." For a while, then, Kristofferson got as close as anyone ever has to being pop star and film star in equal measure. "No," he demurs modestly. "Frank Sinatra did it."

At the summit of his career parabola he took star billing in Heaven's Gate, the flop of flops that pulled his Hollywood career under for years. In Final Cut, the page-turning post-mortem by producer Steven Bach, the author recalls the star showing up for the demoralising New York premiere with the wrong trousers. The whole year felt like that. "Everything fell apart in a year. My manager got Alzheimer's disease and my agent died and my family split apart and then just as I was trying to be a bachelor father, the film was blown out of the water."

Those clear blue Swedish eyes, set deep in a concave Celtic face, take in the copy of Final Cut awaiting his signature ("Thanks. Peace. Kris Kristofferson"). "I haven't had the stomach to read past a few pages of that. I got as far as the part where somebody was telling [director] Michael Cimino that they didn't like the choice of Isabelle Huppert because both Chris Walken and Kris Kristofferson are prettier than she is. He was trying to make a real piece of art, and he was fightin' the philistines the whole fuckin' way."

Professionally, there wasn't much solace in the early 1990s either, when he cut an album called Third World Warrior to get off his chest views on Iraq, Cuba, Nicaragua and other popular American holiday locations. "It was murder in my name," he says of US foreign policy, "with my taxes that was paying for it." Sympathisers scouring the radio for his songs twiddled the dial in vain. When Sinead O'Connor was booed offstage at Madison Square Gardens during the Dylan tribute in 1993, it was Kristofferson, ever the underdog's friend, who publicly roped a comforting arm round her. By then he didn't have a recording contract to call his own.

Then last year he made an album with Don Was, and a movie with John Sayles. Lone Star opens in the States this week, and finds Kristofferson playing "a racist sheriff in a Texas border town who is particularly murderous against blacks and chicanos. My wife said it wasn't a real stretch. I feel a great sense of gratitude," he adds, "that at my age whatever obstacles there were between the time of Heaven's Gate and now are not, that someone's willing to take a chance."

To push the album, he has just finished a month-long European tour with no nights off, and that raggedy, groaning voice is shot to bits ("How can you tell?" as Willie Nelson once quipped to him; when he started out, Kristofferson wasn't even allowed to sing on his own demos). But by the time he got to the Mean Fiddler last weekend he was still having a ball. The highlight came not with one of the many old, much-covered standards - "Help Me Make It through the Night", "Sunday Morning Coming Down", "For the Good Times" - but a new one called "The Promise", a growly dirge about love and learning and how at his time of life this father of eight is beyond improvement.

So what brought about the depoliticising of his songwriting? "My albums have been a reflection of whatever is going on in my life at the time. And, fortunately for me and the world, the life is better now. I have a real happy family life that I would never have predicted I could ever enjoy."

Five years ago, he moved his third family from Los Angeles - "like raising kids in a war-zone" - to Hawaii. Kristofferson's own youth was comfortable but peripatetic, his father being high up in the Air Force. A Rhodes scholarship brought him to Merton College, Oxford, where he got a degree in English, "which means you're qualified for absolutely nothing", and boxed for the university.

He spins a good boxing yarn, including one about his little-known association with Henry Cooper. "He worked in a place called the Thomas a Becket. They let me work out at the gym up there. I got to watch Henry spar with his brother. He was a good man. In fact, I ran into him once in a street in Soho when Paul Lincoln and I were coming out. Paul says, 'Goddamn, where's the camera right now?' "

Lincoln was Tommy Steele's manager, who had placed an ad in the Daily Mirror seeking musical talent. Kristofferson, who wrote his first song at the age of 11 - "an imitation country song" called "I Hate Your Ugly Face" - answered it. He'd already recorded a song or two in the States, so changed his name in London to Kris Carson. The results, produced by Tony Hatch, "were awful. I just wasn't up to it. I guess Paul figured with the PR possibilities of a Yank boxing at Oxford and that everything else in music at the time was bullshit he might as well do this one, too."

Back in the States, and after a stint in the army, Kristofferson "decided to start at the bottom and work my way up". A first marriage came and went while he worked as a helicopter pilot ferrying workers to the Gulf of Mexico oil-fields and commuted up to Nashville to sell songs. His employers didn't like that, or his drinking, and fired him. His first-born, meanwhile, was in hospital with a birth defect that needed $10,000 worth of treatment, and he faced jail for falling behind on child support.

This was the first of the trademark Kristofferson slumps that he seems to find oddly improving, even inspiring. "Me and Bobby McGee" improbably grew out of a parallel moment of despair in Fellini's La Strada, and the scene when Anthony Quinn realises that Giulietta Massina is dead. "He goes off and he gets drunk and he ends up on the beach howling at the stars and he was free but he was the most lonely son of a bitch in the world. So it showed the two sides of freedom. Freedom" - and this may as well be his career motto - "is just another word for nothing left to lose."

Out of curiosity, I ring up Henry Cooper and ask him if he recalls an American amateur sparring at the Thomas a Becket in the late 1950s, and whether he knew what became of him. Apologetically, Cooper dredges up a vague memory. "He was a charming guy, and he loved his boxing." Which is probably why he's never written about it: Kristofferson's songs are all about having a bad time, even thrilling on it. It's no fluke that whenever the conversation gets round to some cataclysm or other, it's usually punctuated by a rasping explosion of laughter. A Mexican boxer once told him that "a Mexican boxer will never give up". Has he carried that message out of the ring and into the rest of his absurdly colourful life?

"Absolutely. If you're trying to win, you can't really lose." And it seems to have worked. This may be a cliche, but if he whipped 10 candles off his birthday cake today, only then would one be able to say he was looking his age.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform