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The songs of experience

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON sure has come a long way since he was the guy he wrote about in Sunday Morning Coming Down around 35 years ago. A long way up.

Back then, on a Sunday, maybe even on Easter Sunday, he did wake up with no way to hold his head that didn't hurt. And the beer he had for breakfast wasn't bad, so he had one more for dessert. Yet the booze didn't kill the pain which was made even more acute later that morning when he walked by a park and saw a daddy with a laughing little girl he was swinging.

Of course you recognise those images. Most come from Sunday Morning Coming Down. But maybe you didn't know that Kristofferson was telling his own story, only slightly fictionalised, in that song. At the time, his wife, finally broken by her husband's craving to start a music career in Nashville - and the fact that after four years trying, he was working as a bartender and janitor - left him and took their children back to Texas.

The irony, of course, is that Johnny Cash would soon record Sunday Morning Coming Down and help give Kristofferson that long-overdue break. Kris also had realised, while writing that song, what he'd been doing wrong as a songwriter - not investing his own emotional truth in his lyrics. But, sure as hell, that was what Kristofferson would do in the future, leading one critic to observe that "his literate lyrics" were "soul-baringly autobiographical". And so they were. Particularly early songs like Burden of Freedom and Nobody Wins.

But fast forward to another Sunday morning, this time backstage at the Point Depot, and the 67-year-old Kristofferson is telling me he "thanks God every day" for his wife Lisa, his children and the "amazing resurgence" of interest in his music which has resulted in him selling out that venue three times this year. See what I mean about his journey being a long way up?

So, where did it originally start? Brownsville, Texas, where Kristofferson was born in 1936, the son of an army general. Yet "it would be wrong", he says, to presume that his militaristic background might have made him grow up more tough then tender - Kristofferson is a healthy blend of both - or even dead to the soul.

"My father was in the military, but it was more a fact of life in those days, something that everybody had to look forward to in their experience," says Kris. "Yet he really wanted to be a pilot more than anything else. He wasn't actually in any war but he did become a pilot with Pan American Airways."

Kris himself would later become a pilot in the US Army, an experience that inspired him to write Vietnam Blues, the first song he ever pitched to Johnny Cash. The young Kristofferson had started writing songs at the age of 11, after he "fell in love with the music of" Hank Williams.

Kris also won four Atlantic Monthly magazine fiction prizes - at the same time he was a football player and boxer at Pomona College - and won a Rhodes scholarship in 1958. He studied classics at Oxford University and at this point a British promoter tried to launch his music career as Kris Carson!

"The golden-throated thrush, my friends used to call me back then!" he says. After getting his degree, Kris went into the army, where he was assigned, part-time, to teach English at West Point. Yet did he become a pilot, even partly, to please his dad?

"That may have been at the back of it all, somewhere, but the real reason I did it was because when I was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college they offered us a pilot programme if we had five people qualify," he responds. "And I was the battalion commander - which I am sure I wouldn't have been if my parents hadn't been in the military - but I did qualify and we got that programme. But at the time my great loves were American football, boxing and Hank!"

Not exactly the image we have of a sensitive singer-songwriter, is it? So when did the women, to whom Kris would address all those songs, come into the equation?

"From the beginning!" he says, smiling. "I was a pretty straight arrow back then and I did get married, at 24, to Frances. Our families were friends because her father was also a Pan American pilot. So Frances and I had been friends since childhood."

Even so, Kristofferson's songs of loss, such as For The Good Times, which were written at the end of that marriage, suggest far more than mere friendship was lost when they parted. "There was," he admits. "Partly because, as I say, Fran had been a part of my life for so long. But we actually originally got married in a hurry because I had a military obligation, after leaving Oxford University. I had been a commissioned officer when I left college in the States and went to do my scholarship, but they deferred my active duty time until I got back. So I knew I had an army sentence coming up.

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"I ran into Fran during a Christmas vacation, when I'd come back to the States, and we hit it off again, so we decided to get married and be in the army, which we did. It definitely was a true love for us both of us. We'd had feelings for each other for a long time, but until I met her that Christmas we hadn't been together for a long time. So that's where it really all started."

KRISTOFFERSON agrees that most of his best songs capture the pain of losing, rather than the joy of finding. "Yet I think there were some that were a mixture," he says. "Like For The Good Times, Help Me Make It Through the Night or, from later, a song like A Moment of Forever. But love has always been the most important thing in my life. I think I would have tossed everything over for love. Whether it was for love of a person or the love of a way of life."

Sadly, his love of the way of life that came after he became successful accelerated the demise of his second marriage, to Rita Coolidge. This is news for those of us who saw the couple perform at National Stadium in Dublin in 1972 and thought they looked totally in love. It now transpires that "Rita didn't want to come on that tour" and touring was "part of the problem" in terms of their marriage.

"I wanted to take my family with me on the road," says Kristofferson. "Before we married, I realised I was going to be on the road and that I loved the road. I also realised being on the road and having somebody back home was no way to live - for either of us.

"So, hoping I'd learned from the failure of my first marriage, I really thought it would work out for Rita and me at that level. Our little girl, Casey, was with us on the road and it did work. But only for a while.

"Yet I really had wanted to get married to Rita and start a family and the happiest thing that ever happened to me was having that little girl. I was able to give her the attention that - because of the stage of my life I was at with Fran - I hadn't been able to give my other daughter and son. My son was born when Fran and I split up, in Nashville. We had already decided to break up but said we'd stay together until the child was born."

That must have been an almost unbearably tragic time for Kris, his wife and kids?

"It was," he concedes, sadly. "And that's why I was doing a lot of drinking at the time. I love my children more than life itself and I was in denial in terms of a lot of the pain. A lot of my drinking had to do with the obvious guilt I was carrying around because of the selfishness of my life. In fact, if I have any regrets it's that I wasn't able to be as close to those kids as I am with my kids today."

That said, Kris says "the good thing is" that the children he had with Lisa have brought him "back into contact with" his "first kids" and they're all "as close as you could be". But Kris Kristofferson certainly didn't rush back into the arms of love when he met attorney Lisa Meyers. On the contrary.

"I was a bachelor father at the time and I told her: 'I take a little girl to school and I pick her up at the end of the day and then we go do whatever she wants to do and I haven't got room for anything else.' That's how it all started for Lisa and me!" Kristofferson remembers, laughing. But the story gets even funnier and more romantic.

"We met at the gymnasium and we were looking at each other and I borrowed a piece of equipment off her, which was a ploy, I guess, because I saw something there that was promising," he continues. "But when she suggested we go for a run I went into that whole tap dance I just told you about! And after I finished she just said [Kristofferson pauses, as Lisa probably did]: 'Listen, I just want to go for a run!' But she has been a real blessing, because we both value the family as much as anybody could."

That blessing extends to many of the songs on Kristofferson's last studio album, the ridiculously under-rated A Moment of Forever - even if tracks like Good Love (Should Feel so Bad) do capture the inevitable collisions that are bound to occur between two lovers who obviously are as strong-willed and as Kris and Lisa.

"Those collisions only make us stronger," he says. Kris Kristofferson, who is currently completing a movie in Scotland, also seems to have finally gotten the balance right between his family and his career. No wonder he thanks God.

"The kids now come with me and Lisa wherever I'm working, and they are a joy all the time," he says. "Looking back, I really have to say I'm not sure I would change anything. Because something, especially over at least the last 15 years, has finally made my life perfect. My family, in particular, is the best thing in my life."

©Joe Jackson

Kris Kristofferson is Joe Jackson's guest in 'Under the Influence' on RTE R1 at 2pm on Easter Monday. Kristofferson plays the Killarney Summerfest Concert on June 27

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