Feeling Mortal by Kris Kristofferson
Country Music Alternate Universe: Week 3
Remember that scene in Inception when Leo (Cobb) travels all the way down into 7th level dream hell to find the Asian man (Saito) who’d been lost/died in 2nd (or 3rd) level dream hell, and who’d promised Leo his freedom back in the awake world? Once Leo’s brought before him, Saito’s very old as he’s lived many lifetimes in 7th level dream-ville, and he’s almost incapable of remembering his promise to Leo. So Leo has to remind him of that arrangement so they can go back to the real world and “we’ll be young men together again.”
Feeling Mortal is also the title of Kris Kristofferson’s 19th studio album. And if this title is any indication, KK is feeling old. But I suspect that no one is searching for him so they can go back and be young men together again.
Things you may know about Kris Kristofferson:
- He acted in a series of unfortuneate vampire hunter movies with “always bet on black.”
- He was in a country supergroup in the 80s, The Highwaymen, with Cash (1932-2003), Waylon Jennings (1937-2002) and Willie Nelson (prolly immortal)
- He wrote Me and Bobby McGee made famous by Janis Joplin
- He acted in A Star is Born with Babs Streisand.
- When he was younger, he was almost criminally handsome.
Things you maybe didn’t know about Kris Kristofferson:
- He appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1958 in “Faces in the Crowd” section for his achievements in rugby, football, and track and field at Pomona College (N.B. Where many years later DFW was on the faculty)
- He graduated Summa Cum Laude in Literature from Pomona and earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he began boxing and writing songs.
- In the 60s he joined the Army and became a helicopter pilot and Army Ranger.
- He was offered a position to teach literature at West Point, but he turned it down to pursue a music career, and his family disowned him.
- He once landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s yard (uninvited) to offer some songs to him.
- Johnny Cash won the 1970 Song of the Year from the Country Music Association for the impossibly perfect hangover song Sunday Morning Coming Down written by guess who?
- He turned down the role of Rambo in First Blood.
- The vehicle for his burgeoning Hollywood stardom was to be 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, written, produced, and directed by Michael Cimino fresh off his 1978 triumph, The Deer Hunter.
- Heaven’s Gate is the standard by which all other Hollywood flops are measured. It bankrupted its studio, United Artists, effectively ended Cimino’s career, and pushed KK back into country music.
Not counting Willie and his cross-genre appeal, KK seems to be the last country and western icon from the post-origin glory days. The second wave, if you will, the perfectors of country music. On Feeling Mortal, he seems like he knows it, and is OK with it, well as OK with it as the long-forgotten “Fifth Beatle” of country music could be. Never a grudge with those who got famous on his songs, but maybe a chip on his shoulder. But they’re all old and dead now.
To a certain extent, country music is the only genre of popular music that can be successfully sung by the old. It’s meant to sound old, so an old voice singing it seems natural. And when those who made country music great dip their toes in the pool for one last swim(s), it’s had the effect of the public reevaluating their careers. Case in point is Johnny Cash and the Rick Rubin produced American Recordings (N.B. Although Loretta Lynn and Jack White is another). Surely none of us would be as big a fans of Johnny Cash without them. Joaquin wouldn’t have played him in the movie, and the late 90s-00s mythology of the Man and in Black would have never leaked its way into the Zeitgeist. But the talent was there before, and I’m glad it got reintroduced to me.
Feeling Mortal won’t do that for KK. It’s not as good most of the American Recordings even though he sounds old. But I don’t think he’s that interested in the late career revival. KK wrote better songs than Cash, but no one could perform like Cash, the liquid fire baritone in his younger years and the weary and graveled cadence of his older. KK doesn’t have that.
But I’m glad he’s still making the music he wants to make, and that’s why I included him in the Country Music Alternate Universe. Maybe I’m naive, but to me country musicians as their careers wind down should make albums like this. Long missives in their gravely voices reflecting on hard lives lived. And to me country musicians should maybe forego the 70 date arena “goodbye” tours in the same Wranglers they’ve worn since ’82 singing the same tired songs written by someone else (N.B. Strait, George) that avoid complex emotions and tell tired stories…trying to be young men again.
Alternate universe, indeed.