The Silver-Tongued Devil And I

by Naman Crowe
posted August 27, 2007

I met Kris Kristofferson back in 1973. I was 27 and had been working as a general assignment reporter for The Chattanooga Times for a couple of years.

I had been a Kristofferson fan for about three years, so when I heard he would be coming to town I decided I’d cover the show and try to get an interview.

He was at the height of his popularity. His songs, ranging from “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Me And Bobby McGee,” to “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “For The Good Times,” were everywhere and he was being touted as the best country music songwriter since Hank Williams.

He had made several well-received movies and had just finished the Sam Pickinpah film, “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid,” in which he starred as Billy the Kid.

Kristofferson was happening and it was my intention to check him out and see if I couldn’t find out a little bit more about him, both for the readers and my own curiosity.

I got to the back door of Memorial Auditorium just a few minutes before he and his group arrived. When I made it known to some official connected with the show that I was there to cover the concert and interview Kristofferson, he told me that Kris wasn’t giving any interviews.

He also said that the singer had had a run-in with a reporter in Atlanta recently and that he might throw a punch at me if I asked him for an interview. My answer was that if that happened it would be a good story by itself.

So when Kris, along with his wife, Rita Coolidge, and four or five band members came walking up the ramp, I introduced myself as Naman Crowe of the Chattanooga Times.

He smiled and said, “Good to see ya,” as if we were old friends. So I just walked through the door with him and followed them to a large dressing room on the ground floor just to the right of the stage.

We were only in the room for a couple of minutes when I broke the silence by asking one of the band members, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” The guy shook his head and said he didn’t think so. “But you look so familiar,” I said.

“He’s probably thinking of Funky Donnie Fritts,” I heard Kristofferson say from behind me and across the room.

When I turned to look at him, I was met with a sight that I thought was pretty astounding. Kristofferson was charging straight at me. It flashed through my mind what the fellow had said about the possibility of Kristofferson punching me, but I stood my ground anyway, like a deer that’s caught in the headlights.

He ran right past me to a tall waste can and bent over it. While this was happening, I noticed that everyone else in the room was hurrying out the door. I just stood there like a fool, alone in the room except for Kristofferson, who had his head bent over the waste can. In a few seconds he apparently realized that I was still standing nearby and waved an arm at me, indicating that I should leave.

I don’t remember where Rita was during all this, but I left the room and stood near the band members who were seated on the stairs by the door. No one said anything until I finally offered, “Does he do this very often?”

Someone snickered and someone else said, “It’s probably the rotgut whiskey.”

That drew a couple more snickers and I left it at that. The fellow could have been pulling my leg. But, by the way they had all scattered out the door like a bunch of chickens, I figured this sort of thing wasn’t unusual.

A few minutes later Kris asked if I wouldn’t mind holding off my questions until after the show, but that I was welcome to hang out with them. That was fine with me. It was the kind of color I was looking for anyway, not just the performance but what it was like from the performer’s point of view.

I struck up a conversation with his wife, Rita Coolidge, a stunningly beautiful Cherokee woman who was as charming and sweet a person as you could ever meet. She was a little worried about her husband.

“He never gets sick,” she said, “but he’s been working too hard…he blew his voice last night at the end of a three-day recording session.”

We talked for quite a while. She was very happy and was thrilled with the excitement of a new life and expecting a baby in March. Life was good and I was glad for her.

Out on stage, Kris was having a little trouble with his voice, stopping halfway through a song, apologizing and trying another one.

“Buddy, tip your bottle back and climb aboard the bus, join your brothers in the band…”

The more he sang the better he got, hitting his stride with a song about “being on rock and roll time.” From there on he was rolling and did a great show.

The highlight of the whole thing for me was when Rita came out and joined him for a few songs. Rita Coolidge had a voice of outstanding quality and character, like a blend of expensive brandy and honey.

The sound of their voices together was unique and charming. The fact that they were obviously in love may have added something to it. It was as if the audience was eavesdropping on the tenderness between them.

They ended the show singing “Me and Bobby McGee” to a very pleased and satisfied crowd.

When it was all over, Kristofferson asked me if I wanted to go with them to a party that was being given for them at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. I told him that I would like to, but that I had left my car parked at the newspaper.

“We’ll drive you to your car and you can follow us from there, how’s that?”
On our way to his limo, Kris was like a kid, asking me if I thought he had sounded all right. I assured him that it was a great show.

I remember thinking as I got in my car and followed them to the Choo-Choo, how neat it was that this big star, who was not supposed to be giving interviews and might even punch me for my trouble, had given me a ride back to the office and was now leading me to a party.

When we got to the party, which turned out to be a large room with plenty to drink and eat, and a lot of people, Kris was true to his promise and spent most of his time answering my questions.

I told him that the first song I ever heard of his was “Me and Bobby McGee.” I was driving down the road and Roger Miller was singing it on the radio.

The feel of the song, especially the line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” had made such an impression on me that I would never forget it.

For me, that song with its cheerful poignancy and cool play on the word “freedom,” was like having my ears unstopped as far as the country music that I had been hearing coming from of the radio.

It was kicking it up a notch, giving it a little more poetry, a little more sensitivity, a little more intelligence – in short, turning a country music song into something hip, with a single line.

“A friend of mine tried to get me not to use that line when I wrote the song,” said Kris. “He later came back and apologized.”

That song came out at a time when country music was changing and “new doors were coming open, because of a lot of things together,” he explained.

“Like when Dylan came down to Nashville and started spending time with Johnny Cash … new people started listening to what was coming out.”

“Speaking of Johnny Cash,” I said, “there’s a song I heard him do on an album which I think is just great. It’s called, ‘I Don’t Want To See Ruby Fall.’”

“I know it, I know it!” laughed Kristofferson. “It’s great!”

Suddenly we were singing that song together right there in the middle of the room:

“Yeah, so go downtown at 9 o’clock this evening,
“Walk under that old red light and down the hall, down the hall,
“Look for the highest flying girl, that’s Ruby,
“And if you wait your turn, you’ll see Ruby fall.”

Nobody in the room clapped or seemed to be paying us any mind, but we were having a ball. And we laughed some more about how the song came about.
Apparently Cash and Roy Orbison were stuck in Chattanooga, between shows with nothing to do, so they made a bet on who could write the best song about the place. Orbison won and Cash recorded it.

Getting back to the subject of when things started to change in country music, Kristofferson gave a lot of credit to Cash and his TV show that aired from 1969 through 1970.

“He helped me a lot, and a lot of others who had not yet been heard by a national audience.”

“Who influenced you the most in terms of your songwriting?” I asked.

“Hank Williams and William Blake,” he answered.

“What an unusual combination,” I said. “But I can dig it. I can see what they would have in common. They were both great poets and different from everyone else around them in their time.”

Kristofferson beamed with pleasure. Maybe because he was glad that I understood the combination. Maybe because he was glad he didn’t have to explain it.

I almost recited one of my favorite lines from Blake, “Piper, pipe that song again,” from the “Introduction to Songs of Innocence,” but I didn’t. In my mind I was thinking about how much I appreciated him revealing that to me. Not only were Blake and Williams both great poets, they wrote the poetry that was understood equally by all classes. They knew how to write a country song.

Blake was a learned man and Williams may have had a few years of grammar school, but they were both geniuses. When one hears Williams sing, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” they are listening to the words of a master poet, taking poetry to a higher level by the use of music and a voice perfectly suited to the telling. He was able to create beauty and paint a masterpiece from a simple, heartfelt sadness that is common to all people of all classes at one time or another.

I remember thinking to myself how much sense that made, that there would be a William Blake and a Hank Williams, followed naturally by a Kris Kristofferson, a Bob Dylan and a Johnny Cash. There was no way out of it and no chance to avoid it.

While Kristofferson was getting himself another beer, I got involved in a conversation with Bobby Neuwirth about a song he said he had co-written with Janis Joplin called “Mercedes Benz.” He and Janis were out drinking at a bar when she started singing and making the song up as she went, keeping time by banging the bottom of an empty beer mug against a table top.

Neuwirth, the fellow Kristofferson said I had mistaken for Funky Donnie Fritts, was the one who had gotten Kristofferson and Joplin together. Her version of “Me And Bobby McGee” was the only number one hit of her great career and appeared on the “Pearl” album that was released after her death in 1971.

You may have heard “Me and Bobby McGee” sung by Roger Miller and even Kristofferson himself and a lot of other people, but if you never heard Janis Joplin sing it, you’ve never really heard the song and you’ve never experienced how the simple poetry of a country song can transformed into an extravaganza so powerful and expansive that both William Blake and Hank Williams would have been stunned into absolute silence by the pure magic of it.

Also on that album was Janis singing “Mercedes Benz” without any musical accompaniment. She didn’t even know she was being recorded. A single mike had been left on accidentally, which caught her taking a break and entertaining herself with a song she had written with the aid of an empty beer mug and a friend spurring her on by throwing a line in every now and then.

I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful way to write a song. I could picture William Blake and Hank Williams fitting right in on a session like that, along with Cash and Kristofferson and Dylan. It seemed like such a fun and interesting life to lead, where your occupation and your recreation and your life were all rolled into one.

“Hey!” said Kristofferson. “You want to go see Charlie Rich? He’s playing tonight down on Rossville Boulevard.”

So I followed him down to some club on Rossville Boulevard where we drank some more beer and watched Charlie’s show, which included, “Behind Closed Doors,” which was named Best Country Song of the Year in 1973 at the Country Music Awards ceremonies.

When Rich took a break, Kristofferson and I walked out the back door which opened onto an ally. Rich was sitting on a chair in the bed of a pick-up truck, drinking from a bottle all by himself. There were a few others standing around, but they were all allowing him his space.

Me and Kristofferson stood in the doorway and continued talking. By now, he had the right to punch me in the face. I was pretty well loaded and kept asking him questions which would have annoyed a normal human.

I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know what made him different from the rest. What made him a star? What made him who he was? What was the secret of his success? How was he able to write such wonderful songs?

He looked at me as if he would truly like to know the answer himself.

“Honest man, I don’t know … I write things that I feel, things that happen … it’s about honesty … there’s a world to write about.”

“With all your success and all the movies you’re going to be making, what would you do if you woke up someday and realized that you could never write another love song?” I asked.

“I’d slit my throat,” he said without hesitation and looking me straight in the eyes.

I was too drunk and too tired to press him any further than that. He walked me to the end of the alley and we shook hands. “It’s been fun, man. You take care of yourself,” he said.

“You too, brother.” It was about 2 a.m., and he looked like he was just getting started. I felt like the devil.

As I drove home, I sang one of his songs, “The silver-tongued devil’s got nothing to lose, and I’ll only live til I die. We take our own chances and pay our own dues, the silver-tongued devil and I.”

Naman Crowe

One Response to “The Silver-Tongued Devil And I”

  1. My dream evening come true. I’d die for an evening talking to KK. I’ve been a true-blue fan since 1971. Sigh….

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