I confess that I haven’t been paying much attention to Kris Kristofferson or his work over the years, but thanks to this Rolling Stone article about Kristofferson I’m going to buy every note of his music I can get my hands on. What sealed the deal for me was this anecdote from Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert, which took place in 2003 at the Beacon Theater:
Up from the basement came one of country music’s brightest stars (who shall remain nameless). At that moment in time, the Star had a monster radio hit about bombing America’s enemies back into the Stone Age.
“Happy birthday,” the Star said to Willie, breezing by us. As he passed Kristofferson in one long, confident stride, out of the corner of his mouth came “None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.”
“What the fuck did you just say to me?” Kris growled, stepping forward.
“Oh, no,” groaned Willie under his breath. “Don’t get Kris all riled up.”
“You heard me,” the Star said, walking away in the darkness.
“Don’t turn your back to me, boy,” Kristofferson shouted, not giving a shit that basically the entire music industry seemed to be flanking him.
The Star turned around: “I don’t want any problems, Kris — I just want you to tone it down.”
“You ever worn your country’s uniform?” Kris asked rhetorically.
“Don’t ‘What?’ me, boy! You heard the question. You just don’t like the answer.” He paused just long enough to get a full chest of air. “I asked, ‘Have you ever served your country?’ The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man’s life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the fuck up!” I could feel his body pulsing with anger next to me. “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about!”
“Whatever,” the young Star muttered.
Ray Charles stood motionless. Willie Nelson looked at me and shrugged mischievously like a kid in the back of the classroom.
Kristofferson took a deep inhale and leaned against the wall, still vibrating with adrenaline. He looked over at Willie as if to say, “Don’t say a word.” Then his eyes found me.
“You know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him?” he whispered.
I shook my head.
“They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’.”
“One of country music’s brightest stars,” by the way, was Toby Keith — the Jonah Goldberg of country music. It was 2003, remember: Dickhead Nation was in the ascendant and Keith was whoopin’ along with the rest of the rumpus room warriors all lathered up to start bombing brown-skinned people in Iraq. He’d had a hit with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” so Keith felt entitled to play pompous ass in the presence of Paul Simon and Ray Charles, who had recorded more classics than Toby Keith could ever hope to make, years before Toby Keith was even out of grade school.
That little encounter between Keith and Kristofferson is one of the most entertaining things I’ve read since “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in which Gay Talese described young writer Harlan Ellison facing down Ol’ Blue Mouth during an encounter at a night club.