Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hiatus



This is just a short note to let anyone who may be interested know that I have taken a break from working on this blog for the past few months - but I haven't rested on my laurels.

The pictures above are of the late Dave Tarr, a fiddle player and indeed multi-instrumentalist who blazed an impressive trail in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Dave died in 2002.

Since taking a break from Global Rock Legends, I have been working on a new blog, Kin Bentley In Line - http://kininline.blogspot.com/ - which you may be interested in visiting (see Links, left). It includes a tribute in words and drawings to Dave Tarr, but is in fact an autobiographical project. I have been scanning and posting some of the thousands of sketches and watercolours I have done since the mid-1970s. Since music lovers are often also lovers of the other arts, you might be interested in clicking on the images and experiencing something of an art - drawing - which like so much else that once was treasured, now seems to be considered of little importance.

By the way, the top watecolour, as you probably gathered, is an attempt to make a more formal art work based on the original sketch done at a gig.

Oh and I hope, once this "in line" project is over, to return to the Global Rock Legends blog with a vengeance and tackle those tantalising musos I've thus far neglected.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Bee Gees






Growing up in the 1960s would have been incomplete without the disarming harmonies of three brothers, two of them fraternal twins, who became known as the Bee Gees.

Their hit songs from the latter half of the decade made as much of an impact on me as did those of the Beatles and Stones, possibly even more so. We heard the singles on the radio and bought the discs. Songs like New York Mining Disaster 1941, Massachusetts, Words, World and numerous others, made an indelible mark on the minds of music lovers at the time.

Of course the band went through numerous mutations in the 1970s and 1980s, with some of the directions they took not always finding favour among those who enjoyed their early music, but one thing always remained: their innate musicality. The vocal harmonies of the brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin and Maurice – ensured they became one of the most successful music groups of the era, on a par, for a while anyway, with the Stones and Beatles.

Many have questioned whether they were in fact Australians, and until the advent of the Internet, it would have required a journey to your library to try to discover the salient biographical details. Now, fortunately, relying on Wikipedia, it is possible to place on record that they were born of English parents on the island state of the Isle of Man, midway between England and Ireland.

Barry, the eldest, was born in 1946, with the twins, Robin and Maurice, born in 1949. In the early 1950s, the family returned to dad Hugh Gibb’s home town of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in greater Manchester. The boys got a taste of stardom when, at a local cinema, they were scheduled to lip sync to a record, as other children did regularly. Only Maurice dropped and broke the record on the way to the cinema. Nothing daunted, the three got on stage and sang the song themselves, to a very positive response. This planted a seed, which was to grow beyond their wildest dreams – but initially in Australia.

Because in 1958, with Barry now 12, the family – including infant Andy, who was born that year, emigrated to Brisbane on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Soon, the Rattlesnakes, and then Wee Johnny Hayes & the Bluecats were making their mark. A local racetrack promoter, Bill Goode, saw them perform at the Brisbane Speedway Circus and introduced them to radio DJ Bill Gates (no relation). While the name Gates gave them – the Bee Gees – has long been taken to refer to the Brothers Gibb, it is also, probably was initially, based on the initials of the two BGs, Bill Goode and Bill Gates.

As early as 1960, with Barry, the eldest, just 14, they were already featuring on local television shows, and over the next few years at Queensland coastal resorts. This culminated in a recording deal with Festival Records in 1963, under the name the Bee Gees. They cut several singles a year, while Barry wrote songs for other artists.



They even released an album in 1965, with the clumsy title, Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. But late the next year, 1966, the family decided to return to England. Barry was now 20. On the ship home, in January 1967, they learnt that their single, Spicks And Specks, which they recorded in 1966, had gone to No 1 in Australia. Just to interrupt the flow, I am fortunate to have this track on a “best of” compilation vinyl album, and have just given it a spin. What is immediately striking is that even then, the lads knew their voices were a very powerful weapon. Few groups can have started on the basis of such confidence in their vocal prowess. I mean for most of the bands I have covered so far, it has been more about being a guitarist and a song-writer, with the vocals almost an afterthought. Except, of course, the Beatles, who from the outset knew this was also their strong point. But in the case of the Bee Gees, Spicks And Specks is a fine example of how they crafted songs to make the maximum mileage of their vocal gifts. Sure the song lacks the later refinement, starting as it does with a fairly basic piano-driven melody, joined later by electric rhythm guitar. I’ll never be able to say for sure which of the guys is singing at any given time, but all I can say is that the key to their success, provided right from this first hit, is in how they sing alternate sections, each perfectly matching the timbre of the singer’s voice, and then combine on choruses to powerful effect. But what was this song all about?

A perusal of the lyrics shows that simplicity was the key to their success. They needed smooth-flowing lyrics to showcase their silk-smooth voices. “Where is the sun / That shone on my head / The sun in my life / It is dead / it is dead / Where is the light / That would play / In my streets / And where are the friends / I could meet / I could meet.” Even back then, they had a great sense for writing soft rock music, ratcheting up the tension as the song progresses. “Where are the girls / I left far behind / The spicks and the specks / Of the girls on my mind / Where is the sun / That shone on my head / The sun in my life / It is dead / it is dead.” This really was what we called bubblegum or teeny-bopper music, and who could blame three such young, good-looking lads from riding this lucrative wave. Of course their voices were infectious, and I suspect they really did offer a clean-cut alternative to the somewhat dodgy Beatles (especially that John, you know!) and the very dodgy Rolling Stones. “Where are the girls / I left far behind / The spicks and the specks / Of the girls on my mind.” Then, it’s down to that one chick. “Where is the girl I loved / all along / The girl that I loved / she’s gone / she’s gone.” It is an odd concept really, fashioning this phrase, spicks and specks, into a song about missing a girl. Anyway, it ends with: “All of my life / I call yesterday / The spicks and the specks / of my life ’ve gone away / All of my life / I call yesterday / The spicks and the specks / of my life ’ve gone away. / Spicks and Specks!”

So, with this song making waves down under (it was part of an eponymous album), the lads clearly hoped they could break into a UK pop music scene which by now was cut-throat in the extreme.



Despite being told that “groups are out”, they were signed by Robert Stigwood, who was to have a profound impact on their careers. He found them a guitarist and drummer and they cut New York Mining Disaster 1941 in 1967, which is probably when I would first have heard it, being all of 11 at the time. Incredibly, for such a young band, it made the Top 20 in both the US and UK – especially since it deals with a rather tragic matter: a group of miners trapped underground as they discuss their predicament (“don’t go talking too loud you’ll cause a landslide”).

It was a time when psychedelia was starting to dominate the pop scene, and their first UK album, Bee Gees’ 1st, was in this vein. We had it as kids, with its colourful cover of psychedelic flowers and an umbrella, and featuring such early classics as To Love Somebody (which has been covered by some 400 musicians down the year, most notably by Eric Burdon and the Animals) and the equally impressive I Can’t See Nobody (“my eyes can only look at you”). Another haunting hit from this album was Holiday, while Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show had one of the quirkier titles and is also remembered well. New York Mining Disaster 1941 was another hit from this album.



The singles came thick and fast in the late 1960s, with Massachusetts launching them into stardom. It is interesting, reading on Wikipedia, to discover that this was actually a rebel song; they were rebelling against the flower power movement, as people flocked to the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, causing the lights to “all go out in Massachusetts”. But I hope to get back to the lyrics a little later.

In 1968, capitalising on their success, they released two albums, Horizontal (featuring Massachusetts and World) and Idea, which had a cover photograph of the guys inside a lightbulb. I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You and I Started A Joke were the hit singles from Idea. Ever wondered what that message was about? Wikipedia divulges that it concerns a man condemned to die on the electric chair, who begs a prison chaplain to pass a final message to his wife. It was inspired, apparently, by a row Robin had with his wife. The man’s crime: he murdered his wife’s lover.

I remember how taken I was with their next album, Odessa, in 1969, when I was in my last year of primary school, Standard 5 (Grade 7). It had a bright red cover and was something of a concept album.

Saved By The Bell


It also led to the first split among the brothers, over which song should be their next single (First Of May was decided on). Robin left the group and released a solo album, Robin’s Reign, which featured the hit single, Saved By The Bell. It reached No 2 on the UK charts – as did Don’t Forget To Remember, the hit single off an album by Cucumber Castle, the name given to the Barry and Maurice duo, which was also the soundtrack to a TV special.

By the early 1970s we lost interest in the Bee Gees, but for nostalgia’s sake I recently bought a DVD of a live concert of theirs from the early 2000s. Even songs I probably barely heard, like Lonely Days (No 3 in US), from their reunion album, 2 Years On, sounded familiar. They also had their first US No 1 hit with How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? Run To Me, from the album To Whom It May Concern, made it to No 16 in the US in 1972, while they again made progress in the UK charts.

But the band needed new direction, and R&B and soul seemed the way to go.

Among the new musicians they brought in was Blue Weaver, former keyboard player for Strawbs, one of my favourite bands at the time.

Many 1970s fans of the Bee Gees enjoyed their disco sounds, but for me they were a letdown, albeit a commercially successful one. The sound had its genesis in singles like Jive Talkin’ and Nights On Broadway, on which Barry first sang falsetto in backing vocals near the end. The album, Main Course, raced up the charts.

Indicative of how little interest I was now taking in the brothers, their next album, Children Of The World, which featured the single, You Should Be Dancing, failed to even register with me, though Wikipedia says it “pushed the Bee Gees to a level of stardom they had not previously achieved in the USA”.



But their biggest break came when they agreed to work on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, which catapulted disco into a global obsession. Incredibly, three Bee Gees singles – How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever – reached No 1 in the US, as well as in most other countries. Add to that If I Can’t Have You, which they wrote for Yvonne Elliman, and they had another No 1 hit. Indeed, during an eight-month period starting at Christmas of 1977, the brother had six songs they had written holding the No 1 spot on the US charts for 25 of 32 consecutive weeks – three under their own name, two for brother Andy, and the Elliman single.

The album itself became the highest selling album in recording history up till that time. It has since sold about 40 million copies, the most ever for a soundtrack album. Interestingly, the film’s title evidently arose after Stigwood came up with Saturday Night and Barry Gibb proposed Night Fever. They simply combined the two.

With Emotion by Barry and Robin giving Samantha Sang a Top 10 hit, the brothers then wrote the title song for the Broadway musical Grease. Performed by Frankie Valli, it went on to reach No 1. Indicative of their success, at one point they had five of their songs in the US Top 10, approaching the Beatles’ achievement in April 1964 when they had all of the top five US singles.

Of course in the late 1970s, while I was a lay-about art student at the East London Tech, disco was all the rave. The “in” place to go jolling was the Holiday Inn, where we would stand around drinking Castles and getting plastered, unable to make much conversation (due to the noise) and not really into doing that ridiculous dancing with girls whose teeth glowed brilliant white in the ultraviolet light, while strobes played havoc with the senses. Bras and panties could often be detected through thin clothing on hot summer nights. Phew! This was also the time when a friend of ours, Peter Thesen, laid the foundations for a highly lucrative career as the owner of Numbers disco. Many were the weekends we ended up at a venue in a hotel basement in Fleet Street, and later in a large disused cinema building next to the Beacon Bay Drive-In at discos run by Peter “Bentleys Don’t Pay” Thesen and his sidekick, Squibs (his nickname; I never knew his actual name). We’d also sometimes repair to his flat in Cambridge after a Sunday lunchtime drinking session, or debriefing as we called it, at the Hobnob pub in the Bonza Bay Hotel. The afternoon would be spent consuming more alcohol and listening to the likes of Meatloaf, Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen played at full tilt on his obviously immensely powerful record-playing equipment.

So disco was more about the chicks than about any musical quality. Indeed, the mere fact that we, who grew up on stuff like Cream, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan, were in the same room as this music was more a testament to the power of female allure than to the quality of the sounds. Too tight underpants was usually the quip made whenever Barry Gibb’s falsetto sent shivers down one’s back.

But the Bee Gees weren’t complaining. They were massive at this time, and their next album, Spirits Having Flown, yielded three more No 1 hits in Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Love You Inside Out.

Thankfully, the disco bubble finally burst in late 1979, while I was into the first quarter of my two-year sentence of military conscription. The Bee Gees kept at it over the next decade or two, but the magic formula seemed to elude them. Their next Top 10 single in the US, One, only came in 1989. But everyone was still very much aware of their soundtrack to Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, which featured the hit single, Woman In You. Then there was You Win Again, from 1987, which also performed well globally.

Andy Gibb



Tragedy struck in 1988, when younger brother Andy, who had also enjoyed a solid solo career, died of an inflamed heart muscle after a viral infection.

But such was the quality of their harmonies and song-writing that the brothers managed to keep producing quality albums through the ’90s, though no real blockbusters. But songs like For Whom The Bell tolls, from 1993, still gave them a UK Top 5 hit, which is something they would not have sneered at when starting out all those years ago.

I mean an album like Still Water, released in 1997, sold four million copies, and I never heard of it, or its hits single, Alone.



Late that year they embarked on a massive tour, which included playing to a crowd of 56000 at London’s Wembley Stadium on September 5, 1998. Not bad for a bunch of old codgers!

Their last album as a group was This Is Where I Came In, from 2001. On January 12, 2003, Maurice died from a strangled intestine. The Bee Gees name was abandoned, with the remaining two brothers pursuing independent careers since then.

The Bee Gees are typical, in a way, of how those groups which had their birth in the heady days of the 1960s went on to become stellar, global icons. They sold over 180 million records and singles, “easily making them part of the list of best-selling music artists”, according to Wikipedia. Their songs have been covered by some of the world’s top stars, including Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Elton John and Tom Jones.

The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, with the citation saying that “Only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and Paul McCartney have outsold the Bee Gees”. Garth who?

Wikipedia notes that after Maurice’s death in 2003, Barry and Robin “temporarily ended the group after 45 years of activity”. Then in September 2009, Robin “revealed that he and Barry had agreed that the Bee Gees would reform and perform again”.

Thanks to Wikipedia, that is a brief synopsis of their career. But what of that awesome music – especially from the early days? Sadly, all I have to rely on are couple of “hits” vinyl albums and a CD I acquired of Odessa, as well as that DVD. But let’s give it a bash, starting with that psychedelic debut album, which features five of their greatest hits, all of which are on my “best of” album.

Words



However, before looking at this album, just a note that there is one song, Words, which does not seem to appear on any of the albums, but is also a great hit from the Sixties. It was also on that “hits” album, and is yet another superb vehicle for their vocal dexterity. Simple piano lays down the melody, backed by acoustic guitar. Again, I’m not sure whose voice launches into those famous lyrics, but as the song progresses, each brother brings his own bit of magic to bear. Another feature of their music, of course, is the orchestral backing. They seem to relish singing alongside soaring violins or pulsating cellos. “Smile an everlasting smile, a smile can bring you near to me. / Don’t ever let me find you gone, ’cause that would bring a tear to me. / This world has lost its glory, let’s start a brand new story now, my love. / Right now, there’ll be no other time and I can show you how, my love.” It was still a catchy soft rock sound, but then that’s where the Bee Gees were at. But, of course, with their penchant for melody and harmony, none of their songs would be ordinary. Each had a stamp of class. “Talk in everlasting words, and dedicate them all to me. / And I will give you all my life, I’m here if you
should call to me.” The verse picks up here, the vocals becoming more assertive. “You think that I don’t even mean a single word I say. / It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.” And we all know that when the word “away” is sung, it comes out “awa-a-ay”, dripping with their own unique brand of vocal magic.

But let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about those lyrics, which to me seem to allude to a boy-girl fall-out. Recorded at IBC Studios in London in 1967, produced by Stigwood and released in 1968 by Polydor, the song reached No 8 in the UK and 15 in the US. Wikipedia says the three wrote it “after getting in a few arguments and realising the power of words – how they can make you happy or sad”. For the tone-deaf, like me, we are told Barry sang lead vocals.

Words apart, most of their early hits, which we grew up with in the Sixties, are to be found on that first UK album.

Bee Gees 1st



Recorded between March 7 and April 14, 1967, and released on the Polydor label on July 14 of that year, the group’s debut album, produced by Robert Stigwood, combined folk, pop and psychedelic rock. How I’d dig to hear it again. But let’s see what the Wikipedia oracle has to say.

Well, I’m afraid, not much, except noting which of the songs were subsequently covered by which other artists. Most notable was that folk legend Martin Carthy did a version of their debut hit single, New York Mining Disaster 1941.

The credits on the album, vocals aside, include Robin Gibb on violin, Barry on guitar, Maurice on guitar, bass and keyboard, Vince Melouney on guitar and Colin Petersen on drums. Wikipedia notes that whatever style song, the brothers sang “tight three-part harmonies that were instantly recognisable; as brothers their voices blended perfectly, not unlike the Beach Boys”. It adds that Barry sang lead on many songs, along with that R&B falsetto during the disco years, while Robin provided “the clear vibrato lead that was a hallmark of their pre-disco music. Maurice “sang high and low harmonies throughout their career”.

And all three brothers “co-wrote most of their hits, and they said they felt like they became ‘one person’ when they were writing”, says Wikipedia. But a brief look at the tracklist of this album reveals that Barry and Robin were the primary composers. Only three songs – Every Christian Lion Hearted, I Close My Eyes, and Close Another Door – were written by all three – which seems to contradict the above assertion.

Oh and it seems the album is out on CD, with Reprise Records reissuing it in 2006 along with a bonus disc of “unreleased songs and alternate takes”.

Bee Gees Ist reached No 7 on the US magazine Billboard’s pop albums chart, which means that from the outset the lads were never going to struggle.

Thanks to the Internet, I am finally able to lay hands on the lyrics of these songs. I shan’t, however, be looking at the songs I can’t recall, such as the opening track, Turn Of The Century. Next up, however, is that famous song, Holiday, which starts quietly, with cellos and various other string instruments. Then that incredible Gibb voice: “Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday / Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday.” I mean this was like an emblem of our own virtually non-stop holiday in the seaside village of Bonza Bay, where we grew up beside river and sea. “It’s something I think’s worthwhile / If the puppet makes you smile / If not then you’re throwing stones / Throwing stones, throwing stones.” The meaning? Who cares. “Ooh it’s a funny game / Don’t believe that it’s all the same / Can’t think what I’ve just said / Put the soft pillow on my head.” I like the fact that they are simply playing with pleasing rhymes and rhythms. The song starts to soar at this point. “Millions of eyes can see / Yet why am I so blind / When the someone else is me / It’s unkind, it’s unkind.” There is some lovely plucked violin and obviously superb harmonising on this song, with voices and cellos at one point tacking along in tandem. After a bit of “de de de de de” the churus is repeated.

The next three songs – Red Chair, Fade Away; One Minute Woman; and In My Own Time – I don’t recall, but then came a weird-sounding track which seems to have its origins in a monastery. Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show again starts with strings, before some monk-like vocals arise out of the darkness. Not having spent much time in a monastery, or having studied Latin, I can only guess this, judging by the title, is an early Christian hymn. “Oh solo Dominique” is repeated four times before: “Take this in hand / Said he who stands / Behind the chair / A broken table there.” The sound of drums, bass and a thrust of electric guitar is quite heavy and psychedelic at times. The most memorable line is the title. “Every Christian lion hearted man will show you / Every Christian lion hearted man will show you.” What he will show is not revealed. With “Oh solo Dominique” again repeated four times, the next verse offers more substance. “Don’t walk so tall / Before you crawl / For every child / Is thinking of something wild.” The song plays out with the title repeated and more donimiques. It is an interesting piece and seems to take a similar direction to the sounds the Beatles achieved on their Sgt Pepper’s album, which was released on June 1, 1967.

The next song, Craise Finto Kirk Royal Academy Of Arts, I don’t recall. But, as noted earlier, New York Mining Disaster 1941 was one of their earliest hits. Released first as a single on April 14, 1967, it charted at No 12 in the UK and 14 in the US. It was, says Wikipedia, their first song to be released in the UK and first to chart in both countries. Such was their quality, says Wikipedia, that at the time there were rumours circulating that the Bee Gees were “the Beatles recording under a pseudonym”, with the name supposedly code for Beatles Group. This was partly because the record “referenced NEMS Enterprises (Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s management agency, which had just been joined by Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood)”. While the song title is self-explanatory, Wikipedia says that a miner trapped after a cave-in is showing a mate (Mr Jones) a photograph of his wife as they “hopelessly wait to be rescued”. The song was, the Bee Gees later revealed, inspired by the Aberfan mining disaster in Wales. The song had a huge impact on me as a youngster, up there with the best of the Beatles, Stones and Simon and Garfunkel. It opens with a few electric guitar chords, before just the guys' voices are heard: “In the event of something happening to me, / there is something I would like you all to see. / It’s just a photograph of someone that I new.” So he’s showing the picture to several people. Then that powerful chorus. “Have you seen my wife, Mr Jones? / Do you know what it’s like on the outside? / Don’t go talking too loud, you’ll cause a landslide, Mr Jones.” There were sure to have been a few Joneses in that Welsh mine. It is those voices which carry this song along. “I keep straining my ears to hear a sound. / Maybe someone is digging underground, / or have they given up and all gone home to bed, / thinking those who once existed must be dead.” The chorus is repeated before they return to the opening verses. It was a classic by a group who could best be called, at this stage, global soft rock legends.

I’ve no recollection of the next song, Cucumber Castle, but of course know the following track, To Love Somebody, well, both from this version and of course the lengthy Eric Burden and the Animals take on Love Is. Again, simple electric rhythm guitar and strings lay down the melody, to be joined in turn by muted drums and bass in another Beatles-like song which strong orchestral manoeuvres. Not even Eric Burden, powerful blues singer that he was, could be said to outdo the Bee Gees themselves in the vocal department on this song. “There’s a light / A certain kind of light / That never shone on me / I want my life to be lived with you / Lived with you / There’s a way everybody say / To do each and every little thing / But what good does it bring / If I ain’t got you, ain’t got faith?” The song stalls briefly before building up to that famous chorus. “You don’t know what it’s like, baby / You don’t know what it’s like / To love somebody / To love somebody / The way I love you.” And so the next verse. “In my brain / I see your face again / I know my frame of mind / You ain’t got to be so blind / And I’m blind, so, so, so very blind / I’m a man, can’t you see / What I am / I live and I breathe for you / But what good does it do / If I ain’t got you, ain’t got faith?” With such strong vocals, and an arrangement few could hope to equal, this song will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of rock.

Next up was another song not recalled, I Close My Eyes, followed by the well-remembered I Can’t See Nobody, which again is set in train by strings playing out the melody. The voice – is it Robin? – is piercingly powerful. “I walk the lonely streets / I watch the people passing by / I used to smile and say hello / guess I was just a happy guy / Then you happened, girl / this feeling that possesses me / I just can’t move myself / I guess it all just had to be.” Smitten by love, poor lad, it’s left him blinded as the chorus kicks in, with all three voices bolstering the by now full rock sound. “I can’t see nobody / No I can’t see nobody / My eyes can only look at you, you.” Not blind, but obsessed. “I used to have a brain / I used to think of many things / I watched the falling rain and / listened to the sweet birds sing / Don’t ask me why, little girl / I love you and that’s all I can say / You’re every every breath I take / You are my nights, my night and day.” I wonder if one Sting latched onto that phrase, “every breath I take”? Just asking. After that chorus, he keeps going in a churned up voice. “Every single word you hear / is coming from this heart of mine / I never felt like this before / a love like yours so young and fine / And now as I try to forget you / it doesn’t work out any way / I loved you such a long time ago / but in my eyes you’ll always be.” He tries again. “Every single word you hear / is coming from this heart of mine / I loved you such a long time ago / don’t know why / And I don’t know why, baby.” And so another Bee Gees gem concludes with the chorus repeated twice.

The album ends with two other tracks I’d love to hear again, but can’t recall: Please Read Me and Close Another Door.

It was an album which, with five “hits”, set the Bee Gees firmly on the road to stardom.

Horizontal



To be honest, until I started this project I don’t think I had heard of the Bee Gees’ second studio album, Horizontal. (From now on, like Wikipedia, we’ll ignore those two Australian releases in so far as the numbering of their albums is concerned.) Recorded at IBC Studios in London in 1967, the album was released on the Polydor album in January 1968. And, while the album probably passed us by, obviously its two stand-out tracks, both of which became international hit singles, did not. Wikipedia says aside from Massachusetts and World, the love ballad And The Sun Will Shine stood out. A love ballad by Robin, it contains “psychedelic references to trains walking by and pastoral orchestral backing”. Robin Gibb also contributed two other tracks “worth noting” – Harry Braff, “a rocking story about a racing driver that is reminiscent of the Beatles or the Kinks”. Also significant was “the poignant Really And Sincerely, which documented Robin’s emotions following his survival of the Hither Green train wreck while the album was being made”. There is also much psychedelia to be found, says Wikipedia, on Lemons Never Forget. The album was released on CD by Reprise Records in 2006 with bonus tracks.

Staccato piano and drums launch the opening track, World, which give way to calming violins and another vocal tour de force. “Now, I found, that the world is round / and of course it rains everyday.” Who could have been alive in the late 1960s and not been familiar with that opening gambit? The urgency increases: “Living tomorrow, where in the world will I be tomorrow? / How far am I able to see? / Or am I needed here?” As noted earlier, the songs are simple and effective – ideal vehicles for their vocals. With the chorus repeated, comes the next three-liner verse. “If I remember all of the things I have done, / I’d remember all of the times I’ve gone wrong. / Why do they keep me here?” Notable here is the bit of psychedelia preceding each verse, especially some sharp, incisive electric guitar work. The vocals and guitar in tandem towards the end, alongside what sounds like a harp, adds to the impact. The song concludes with the chorus repeated several times.

This is followed by songs I’d love to hear: And The Sun Will Shine; Lemons Never Forget; Really And Sincerely; Birdie Told Me; and With The Sun In My Eyes.

Then follows Massachusetts, another of those sublime Bee Gees success stories. Written by all three brothers, it was released as a single in 1967 and reached No 1 in the UK and 11 in the US. It was, says Wikipedia, their first UK No 1 hit. As noted earlier, it was the Bee Gees’ response to “the flower power movement of which they were growing weary”, says Wikipedia. Instead of entreating hippies to head for San Francisco, as Scott McKenzie had, this song is about a man who had tired of the Haight-Ashbury high-jinks and is homesick for his home state of Massachusetts, where – following the exodus to Frisco – the lights had “all gone out”. Wikipedia relates a poignant tale about how Beatles manager Brian Epstein had told Maurice Gibb that the song was beautiful and would be the hit of the summer. Epstein died a few days later.

Drums, bass and soaring strings set the melody afoot, before the lads lay into the vocals. Which of them has that vulnerable sounding voice, which is a hallmark of the song? Again, the opening lines are like iconic architecture in the history of rock/pop music. “Feel I’m goin’ back to Massachusetts, / Something’s telling me I must go home. / And the lights all went down in Massachusetts / The day I left her standing on her own.” How great to have a song which is also interesting social commentary. “Tried to hitch a ride to San Francisco, / Gotta do the things I wanna do. / And the lights all went down in Massachusetts / They brought me back to see my way with you.” The nostalgia kicks in. “Talk about the life in Massachusetts, / Speak about the people I have seen, / And the lights all went down in Massachusetts / And Massachusetts is one place I have seen.” The song concludes with the line, “I will remember Massachusetts...” A feature here is the pulsating bass, which really keeps those verses rolling along.

The album concludes with the songs, Harry Braff, Daytime Girl, The Earnest Of Being George, The Change Is Made and Horizontal. Love to hear them sometimes.

Idea



I remember the cover of Idea and its two stand-out tracks – I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You and I Started A Joke – a but again the album was not really part of our upbringing.

The Bee Gees’ third album, it was released by Polydor in August 1968 (their second of the year) and, says Wikipedia, sold over a million copies worldwide. It also notes that the song, Such A Shame, was the only one by the Bee Gees where the lead vocals are not be a Gibb brother, or where the lyrics weren’t written by a Gibb. In fact, this honour fell to Vince Melouney, because, as noted earlier, this was still a five-person outfit, with Melouney on lead guitar and Colin Petersen on drums. The album was reissued by Reprise on CD in 2006 along with bonus tracks.

Unfamiliar to me are the first six tracks, Let There Be Love, Kitty Can, In The Summer Of His Years, Indian Gin And Whisky Dry, Down To Earth and Such A Shame. Then comes the classic, I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You, which I found on that “best of” album and which was such a big part of my youth. It starts as a slow rock number, with all the requisite instruments. The vocals, as usual, are instantly compelling. “The preacher talked with me and he smiled / Said ‘come and walk with me / come and walk one more mile’ / Now for once in your life you’re alone / But you ain’t got a dime / There’s no time for the phone.” I’m not sure why he feels threatened by this preacher, but he suddenly needs to make a call, as the chorus explains: “I’ve just gotta get a message to you / Hold on, hold on / One more hour and my life will be through / Hold on, hold on.” Is this priest counselling him, perhaps? “I told him ‘I’m in no hurry / But if I broke her heart / then won’t you tell her I’m sorry?’ / And for once in my life I’m alone / And I’ve gotta let her know / just in time before I go.” Again, the bass is superb, reminiscent in a way of Paul McCartney at his best. After the chorus, with those storming harmonies and orchestral backing, the final verse. “Well I laughed but that didn’t work / And it’s only her love / that keeps me wearing this dirt / Now I’m crying but deep down inside / Well I did it to him / Now it’s my turn to die.” The chorus is repeated a few times, but I’m at a loss to explain what’s just happened here. Who did what to whom and why?

Fortunately, Wikipedia goes into the song in some depth, noting first that as a single it became their second to reach No 1 in the UK, while peaking at No 8 in the States. Indeed, in the UK it was their biggest selling single of the Sixties. But what was it about? Well I wouldn’t have guessed from those somewhat obscure lyrics, but Wikipedia says it deals with a man “condemned to die on the electric chair who begs the prison chaplain to pass a final message on to his wife”. Written by Robin, it seems the man had murdered his wife’s lover. Apparently, as noted way earlier in fact, Robin wrote the song “following a row with his wife”, and originally had soul singer Percy Sledge in mind. Incredibly, as happened with some early Stones albums, this hit song did not appear on the original UK version of Idea, only the US edition, with Such A Shame appearing instead in the UK. Both, however, were on the CD edition first released in 1991. Hit though the song was, it only stayed at No 1 in the UK for a week. The opposition was rather stiff, with the Beatles’ Hey Jude supplanting it.

The other hit on the album, I Started A Joke, is bracketed by the songs Idea, When The Swallows Fly and I’ve Decided To Join The Air Force before it, and Kilburn Towers and Swan Song after it. Love to hear them.

But what of I Started A Joke, another of those Bee Gee songs that will survive in people’s memories long after we are gone, simply because it was, what so many of the great songs covered in this project were, completely original. It is great to hear acoustic guitar to the fore on this song, which starts slowly with gentle bass and light drumming. That voice, when it comes, is like the town crier. “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying, / but I didn’t see that the joke was on me, oh no.” As with the Beatles, Stones, the Who and so on, the strength of these lyrics lies in the simple use of idiomatic English. “I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing, / oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.” With great harmonising, the acoustic guitar is now strummed with growing urgency. “I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes, / and I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’d said.” Then, some more enigmatic verse. “Till I finally died, which started the whole world living, / oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.” The chorus and final verse are repeated, with attendant great strumming and strong strings. Here you really get the feeling that the brothers Gibb are having great fun throwing their weighty voices around. But what was the song about?

Well first, Wikipedia tells us it was released in September, 1968, and reached No 6 on the US singles chart. All three brothers had a hand in writing it, though Robin is credited with being the main contributor and also the lead vocalist. Wikipedia says the song is “supposedly about someone who has done or said something horribly wrong, which results in social alienation”. It says another interpretation is that it is sung “from the point of view of the Devil”. In fact, I thought at one point it could have referenced Jesus who died so the whole world might live. Robin is quoted as saying the melody, with its almost trancelike quality, was inspired by the droning of a four-engine propeller driven BA Vickers Viscount that they flew in.

Odessa



Their next album, a double, was Odessa, which was what we called a concept album. It least it seemed to have something of a storyline, but nothing on a par with the Who’s Tommy. We had this album and, happily, I picked up a CD version recently, which brought the whole thing streaming back. But before giving it a fresh spin, let’s see what Wikipedia’s take on it is.

Their fourth album, Wikipedia says it was released by Polydor in January, 1969, having been produced by the Bee Gees and Robert Stigwood. It runs to 63:47 minutes – and led, would you believe, to a disagreement among brothers who, one would have imagined, almost thought as one, like they sang. But no, Wikipedia says they disagreed over which song should be released as a single. First Of May was chosen and this “led to Robin Gibb leaving the group in 1969”, which seems petty on the face of it. Wikipedia adds that guitarist Vince Melouney also quit, leaving just Barry, Maurice and Colin Petersen to record the Cucumber Castle album.

Sadly, Wikipedia offers no further info on the album itself, apart from the tracklist. Oh, and it notes that early CD editions omitted the 13th track, With All Nations (International Anthem). Sadly, I notice my version is also lacking this instrumental track.

The album cover was unmistakable, the slab of red with yellow lettering. But I do think the back cover also featured the evocative black-and-white drawing of a young boy being thrown by sailors from a stricken ship to the catching hands of adults in a lifeboat. This is featured inside the CD cover insert.

Oh, I’ve just found another snippet regarding that fall-out over the choice of a single from the album. Wikipedia says First Of May was a Barry Gibb song, while the single’s B side was Lamplight, by Robin Gibb. So that’s why Robin quit in a huff. But Wikipedia adds that, ironically, in 2005 Robin sang First Of May with the pop group G4. There were no other singles from the album. But there was always another Gibb sibling around. Wikipedia says their sister Leslie “made an appearance with Barry and Maurice after Robin went solo”.

I was wrong about this being a concept album. It is really just the long opening, title track, Odessa (City of the Black Sea), which gives that impression. It runs for 7:33 minutes and boasts typical late-1960s experimentation. It also again underlines just what wonderful voices the lads had and how their harmonising was often beyond compare. It opens with atmospheric sea sounds, with interesting bass and acoustic guitar. Then a somewhat distorted voice intones: “Fourteenth of February , eighteen ninety nine. / The British ship Veronica was lost without a sign. / Baa baa black sheep, you havent any wool. / Captain Richardson left himself a lonely wife in Hull.” With some wonderful cello and piano joining the fray, a catchy melody showcases the following: “Cherub, I lost a ship in the Baltic sea. / I’m on an iceberg running free. / Sitting, filing this berg to the shape of a ship; / Sailing my way back to your lips. / One passing ship gave word that you have moved out of your old flat. / You love the Vicar more then words can say. / Tell him to pray that I won’t melt away. / And I’ll see your face again.” Matters stall, before a full set of strings herald the lines: “Odessa, How strong am I? / Odessa, How time goes by.” Which of the lads had that voice which kind of warmly embraces you and almost smothers you in its richness? Anyway, it is that voice that dominates here. “Treasure, you know the neighbours that live next door. / They haven’t got their dog anymore. / Freezing, sailing around in the North Atlantic. / Can’t seem to leave the sea anymore. / I just can’t understand why you just moved to Finland. / You love that Vicar more then words can say. / Ask him to pray that I won’t melt away. / And I’ll see your face again.” I seem to be getting this. Is this the voice of the dead man’s spirit, telling his widow some home truths? After that big “Odessa, How strong am I? / Odessa, How time goes by”, things quieten for an interesting instrumental section, including flute and harp. The song ends with those haunting first two lines: “Fourteenth of February, eighteen ninety nine. / The British ship Veronica was lost without a sign.” It was one of the defining songs of the decade, with the Bee Gees using their obvious talents to explore arenas beyond the confines of the catchy hit-parade melody.

But that addictively enticing voice – is it Robin? – is back in full swing on the next track, You’ll Never See My Face Again, which is another I grew up with and will never forget. Acoustic guitar and bass again lay the groundwork, alongside impeccable strings. “Ev’ry single word has been spoken. / It’s much too late to change your ways. / Far too many vows have been broken. / You can’t expect a soul to stay.” So this is the eternal issue of a love grown cool. Keyboards join in around here, while for some reason I couldn’t help thinking how much this sounded like the Beatles in their tight-harmonising days. The mood becomes more assertive. “You think that you can stand and lie. / It makes me laugh. You’ve got no friends. / It took a thousand years to find out why. / You’ll never see my face again.” Ouch! So even the Bee Gees can get hard-arsed. I remember those lines – “It makes me laugh. You’ve got not friends” – were bandied about at the time, not always in a pleasant way. The next verse, was it as memorable? “You know that you’ve been left before this night. / It’s come my turn to make it over. / I wish that ev’ry thing was coloured white. / I wish that I could be a rover.” No it wasn’t memorable, but of course the chorus, “You think that you …”, more than compensates. Commercial? Sure. But then the Bee Gees battled to make anything that wasn’t likeable. And this was simply a key track on an iconic album.

The title of the next track, Black Diamond, would normally not ring any bells. But give it a listen and it all comes flooding back. This is something of a psychedelic album, and the use of cello on this song has strong echoes of Jack Bruce’s many fine compositions for Cream. This starts with strummed acoustic guitar: “Where are you? I love you. / Where are you? I love you. / Where are you to keep me warm?” That cello – or is it a double bass? – is joined by electric bass and drums as the haunting Gibb voices soar. “I had a dream of a place far away. / I followed a river where the dead man would play. / And I’m leaving in the morning. / And I’m leaving in the morning. / And I won’t die, so don’t cry. / I’ll be home. / Those big black diamonds that lie there for me. / By the tall white mountains which lie by the sea.” Certain word sequences are ingrained – including “I’m leaving in the morning” and “those big black diamonds”. There is a nice change of mood now, with the Cream-like cello prominent alongside great acoustic guitar. “And you a man who’s as tall as the sky / Followed a river where thousands have died. / He was leaving in the morning. / He was leaving in the morning. / If I come home and my woman has flown. / Those big black diamonds that lie there for me / By the tall white mountains which lie by the sea / Oh oh oh oh oh / Say goodbye to auld lang syne.” This refrain is repeated as the song fades.

Marley Purt Drive. Another title that at face value leaves one cold. Bet I know it though. Of course I do. One glance at the lyrics confirms it is as familiar as any Beatles song, especially that somewhat frenetic opening line, launched with drums, acoustic guitar, bass and piano. An electric guitar makes a rare appearance alongside what, a mandolin? Or banjo? Hard to say. “Sunday morning, woke up yawning, filled the pool for a swim, / pulled down the head and looked in the glass just to see if I was in, / went up the stairs and kissed my woman to make her come alive / ’cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / Fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” Of course, this is that country-rock type track that sounds so incongruous. With strings and slide guitar, the sound is awfully American. But what is it about? “That’s how they are, so I grabbed out the car, convertible fifty-nine, / headed to the freeway, tried to find the Pasadena sign. / Ten miles and three quarters, I wasn't feeling any more alive, / ’cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / Fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” There is good acoustic guitar lead on here and some fine backing vocals. “I used to be a minstrel free with a whole lot of bread in my bag. / I used to feel that my life was real, but the good Lord threw me a snag. / Now I’m gonna be the same as me, no matter how I try. / ’Cause with fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / Fifteen kids and a family on the skids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” The lyrics sound like a bit of drivel, really. “Turned ’round the car and headed for home; I guess I realised my fate. / Ten miles and three quarters more, I pulled up outside the gate. / Twenty more kids were stood inside and that made thirty-five. / ’Cause with an orphanage full of thirty-five kids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive. / An orphanage full of thirty-five kids, / I got to go for a Sunday drive.” So does he go for his drive with or without them? Do we care? The opening verse is repeated, with the last lines altered to accommodate that orphanage and its 35 kids, and an “ooh”.

The Beatles did a song about Maxwell Edison majoring in medicine. The next song here, Edison, is clearly about Thomas, the American inventor (1847 to 1931) who, among other things, brought us the electric light bulb. Again, there is a Beatles-like quality as this song starts with lead guitar and lots of voices going “la-laa …” Then, the song stops to herald a peep-peep alongside bass and organ, all the better to showcase that incredible Bee Gees vocal fusillade. “He made electric lights to read. He gave us light today. / He gave us cylinders to please. / When Edison came to stay. Edison came to stay.” Cylinders? Apparently the first recording devices. So this is a tribute to a scientist – rare, no doubt, in rock history. “Edison set the world on fire. He really made the day. / Station to station; many wires. / Edison came to stay. Edison came to stay.” Then that chorus. “Oh, how, look at us now. We’ve still got a lot to learn. / But it’s someone else’s turn. / Edison’s here to stay. Edison’s here to stay.” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Of course he’s here to stay – his inventions changed the world. Indeed, that’s what the next verse implies. “All of the world can taste his glory. All of the people say. / You be the man to write his story. Edison’s here to stay. / Edison’s here to stay.” Much of this is repeated, with the one variation – “all the world can hear his story”. It is another lovely whimsical piece of magic, enhanced again by lovely strings and what sounded like a xylophone near the end.

There can be few songs, apart from Beatles classics like Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, that sound as intrinsically English as the next track, Melody Fair. It is one of those songs which has the Sixties written all over it. And of course 1969 was the Sixties at its height, before the strange shenanigans of the Seventies. Beautiful cello rolls alongside picked acoustic guitar notes, with strings, double bass, horns and a harp setting the scene for another Beatles-like Bee Gees tour de force. The opening verse is as iconic as any I have covered thus far. “Who is the girl with the crying face looking at millions of signs? / She knows that life is a running race, / Her face shouldn’t show any line.” It’s well known, but many people, I suspect, like me, have not really considered what was being said there. It’s a picture of a sad girl facing a troubled future. The chorus is reassuring. “Melody Fair won’t you comb your hair? You can be beautiful too. / Melody Fair, remember you’re only a woman. / Melody Fair, remember you’re only a girl. Ah ...” I wonder if that isn’t a trifle patronising. “Only” a woman/girl? But so what? It made for a lovely, lyrical few lines, all against a richly textured, almost orchestral background. The next verse is again harshly honest. “Who is the girl at the window pane, watching the rain falling down? / Melody, life isn’t like the rain; its just like a merry go round.” Not sure if that is a positive or negative thing. A roller-coaster may be a better simile. Anyway, this beautiful piece plays itself out with the chorus and opening verse repeated.

But of course there is much, much more to come. Because the melody on Suddenly is just as infectious – thanks to those vocals, of course – than anything that has preceded it. The acoustic guitar is strummed, with drums and horns backing the bluesy melody. Then those fine voices. “How can you tell by looking at me? How can you tell you like what you see? / Suddenly there’s a boy in the rain alone. / Suddenly there’s a girl in the rain alone.” Bass and piano join in as the second verse gets going, giving it a bluesy rock feel, with the harmonies again having a strong Beatles flavour. “How can you tell humans are real? How can you tell you like what you feel? / Suddenly there’s a girl in your heart oh boy. / Suddenly there’s a boy in your heart oh boy. / Ah ...” Simplicity was the key. It didn’t take a truckload of words to make a good song, just well-chosen ones. The song ends with that opening verse repeated.

So surely the next song is less well known? Whisper Whisper starts with acoustic guitar alongside strings and bells. The orchestral quality rises to meet the challenge of strident opening vocals. “Whisper, whisper. What have you got? / I got something that you need a lot. / Stop me and buy one. / You can see better but you better not.” Of course it’s a familiar blues rock – and again it has uncanny echoes of the Beatles, with the lead vocals sounding disturbingly Lennon-like. “Listen mister can you help me? / It’s my sister. Show her how to fly. / Stop me and try one. / You can see ev’rything blowing by.” Perhaps, though, the strings are a bit too schmaltzy, a trap into which Beatles producer George Martin never fell. But there is good electric piano and guitar here. “Whisper whisper. Keep it quiet. / If you like it you can try it too. / Stop me and buy one. / I am illegal that mean so are you.” Now, of course, the penny drops. The clean-cut, high and mighty Bee Gees are selling something illegal that might just help you to fly. “Whisper whisper what have you got? / I got something that you need a lot. / Stop me and buy one. / You can see better but you better not. / Whisper, whisper, whisper, whisper.” Indeed, though just 3:25 minutes, this song, like a good Beatles “experience”, has two distinct parts. After drums and horns prance along, the tempo rises, to be met with: “I am man and you are women. / Who needs marriage? We are humans all. / If I could please you, arouse and ease you, / then it would please you if I should call. / Doesn’t matter what your name is. / I can do a million things to you. / No explanations; sexual patience. / Most of the nation’s doing it too. / No no no no no.” Yes yes yes yes, many might respond. Because the naughty Bee Gees here seem also to be endorsing a bit of free love, man. This is a fine song, which slows towards the end as a drum solo and trombone bring it to a jazzy conclusion.

Okay, so the Beatles had used French in a couple of their songs, so why not the Bee Gees? Lamplight starts with fast-strummed acoustic guitar, piano and base – and a haunting choir of voices singing in French. “Alons, viens encore, cherie. / J’attendrai patiemment sous la lampe dans la vieille avenue.” Thanks to Google’s inbuilt translation facility, I now know that this means “Alons, come back, darling. / I will wait patiently under the lamp in the old Avenue.” Now that Bee Gees voice – is it Barry? – I’ll never work it out, but the solo vocals are launched pulsatingly. “Then I may end. / She had things to buy. / I close my eyes. / Yet I don’t know why. / I gave her money; said she knew someone. / And she said she won’t be long.” Then that, again, iconic chorus. “Lamplight keep on burning while this heart of mine is yearning. / Lamplight keep on burning till this love of yours is mine.” The vocal strength – is it Robin, since he wrote it? – is intense as the song continues, backed by chorus, strings and that churning guitar. “I sat alone with my thoughts and laughed. / Then saw your face in an old photograph. / I didn’t think that I could live without you but what am I to do?” The chorus is repeated before the following, complete with choral backing: “Come home again dear. I have waited year after year / under the lamp in our old avenue. / If all in the world that’s laughing, why should it make us cry?” With strings soaring, the voice squad play us out with a series of melodic, hymn-like “Ahs”.

Gentle and slow, the piano provides backing for the opening of Give Your Best. It is a vocal powerplay. “See the children play the ball. See them play along the hall. / It makes me cry to see them smile. / I see the moon; I see the sky. / I see reflections in my eyes. And there’s no one to share my life. / I need a life to go my way. / So ev’ry night I pray. / Just give me someone for my life. / I feel a clown. People try to play me down. / And there’s one thing I never found. / The sound of love.” It is a vulnerable Bee Gee exposing his inner demons, before big chords herald more heartfelt sentiments: “See the old man walk the lane. See him walk along in pain. / It makes me cry to see them smile. / I watch the moon; I watch the sky. / I see reflections in my eyes. / And there’s no one to share my life.” The tempo rises. “I need a life to go my way. So ev’ry night I pray. / Just give me someone for my life. / I feel a clown. People try to play me down. / And there’s one thing I never found. / The sound of love.” Great string accompaniment alongside that thundering piano drives that along. Then a reflective ending: “The sound of love. / Ev’rybody loves the sound of love. / Ev’rybody loves the sound of love. / Ev’rybody loves the sound of love …” A trombone helps see out the fading song, another classic.

Why is it that every Bee Gees song, almost without exception, is such that you feel it in your soul? It is as if it has always been part of you. I can’t pretend to know how the next song, Give Your Best, goes, but I know I know it. And a glance at the lyrics confirms it, because two voices speaks the opening lines: “It’s a square dance Mr Marshall. It’s a square dance on the floor. / It’s a square dance Mr Perkins. It’s a square dance to be sure, to be sure. / Ev’rybody, grab partners ...” Oh so awfully British, don’t you think? But square-dancing in England! Well, bizarrely, as fiddle and banjo kick in, this ends up a fine little bluegrass track. “I’m just a clown that used to run around. / I used to have a million friends. / I used to start where ev’rybody ends. / But I just give my best to my friends.” And isn’t that a familiar refrain: “I just give my best to my friends”? The Beatles parallels are unmistakable. “I’ve done my shows. Ev’rybody knows. / I nearly sold all my clothes. / One man can give; another has to lend. / So I just give my best to my friends.” Then, spoken, “and so you should”. “And when you think that your life isn’t right. / You know the day isn’t always like night. / You’ve had your peace now it’s time for you to fight. / Just give your best to your friends.” Banjo and fiddle flourish as the song lilts along, backed by laughing, chatting voices in Beatles/Stones mode, but perhaps even better than they achieved. “I’m just a clown that used to run around. / I used to have a million friends. / I used to start where ev’rybody ends. / So I just give my best to my friends.” It is just a great song, beautifully sung. “And when you think that your life isn’t right. / You know the day isn’t always like night. / You’ve had your peace now it’s time for you to fight. / Just give your best to your friends.” And then an unexpected but welcome fiddle solo of the sort we would get to love increasingly during the 1970s, before the song ends, with a bit more raucous laughter behind, and that chorus repeated.

One feels a bit cheated by a Bee Gees song sans singing, but there is no denying that Seven Seas Symphony (4:10 minutes) is a beautiful piece, built around a lovely piano melody. There are sympathetic strings and, of course, some male choral backing.

Strangely, the CD version of this album omits the next instrumental, With All Nations, and instead moves to I Laugh In Your Face, which starts with gentle piano and strings, before one of the three launches into more lovely lyrics. “The circus is coming to see you. / The elephant smiles. / Ev’rybody can hear you say that’s out of style. / My brother is friendly for reasons, if I am the same. / Just for four hundred seasons we all live in rain.” Some of the more psychedelic imagery from the lads. The tempo rises to meet the chorus, with drums and bass joining the fray. “So I laugh in your face. Your only one race. / Yes I laugh in your face and I’m right. / You lie just like the rest. But there’s nobody best. / So I laugh in your face and I’m right.” Things mellow for the next surreal stanza. “I’ll pull out your plug so you’re small. / You’ll slide down the drain. / On the steps of St Peter’s you all look the same.” And then that crazy chorus. With orchestra and backing vocals in support, the opening verse and chorus are repeated to see the song to an end. A lovely orchestral movement with cellos and violins provides a melodic denouement.

I’ve said it before about other great groups. It is the simple use of idiomatic English which is the key to their best song-writing efforts. Take the next track, Never Say Never Again. This has become a standard retort to politicians, like Ian Smith in the then Rhodesia, who do say never. He said black rule would never happen, not in my lifetime not in a thousand years. Or suchlike. It came a few years later. But this, I suspect, is not a political song. So what was it about? Bold acoustic guitar, violins and drums launch another Lennon-like vocal onslaught. “Your lips could never show a smile. / You never tried you just put me in a file. / I never lived inside your hole, child. / I thought you needed me I never had no style.” The chorus flows from this: “Never say never say never again. / Never say never say never again. / You said goodbye; I declared war on Spain. / Never say never say never again.” So not all the lyrics are brilliant: “Your eyes could never show a grin. / You never tried you just put me in a tin. / I never lived inside your hole child. / You know I needed you. And look at the shape I’m in.” I’m not sure what living inside her hole was about, but maybe we shouldn’t go there. The song, not perhaps their greatest, ends with the chorus repeated, and the word “never” repeated till it fades.

Few songs encapsulate the spirit of the late Sixties – purely from a musical/mood point of view – better than the penultimate track, First Of May. Piano and cello set the scene for those famous opening lines. “When I was small, and Christmas trees were tall, / we used to love while others used to play. / Don’t ask me why, but time has passed us by, / some one else moved in from far away.” A hallmark of this song, apart from the sublime vocals, is the use of a skillfully plucked violin, soon after the chorus kicks in. “Now we are tall, and Christmas trees are small, / and you don’t ask the time of day. / But you and I, our love will never die, / but guess we’ll cry come first of May.” The sound gets fuller now, with bass and drums adding thrust. “The apple tree that grew for you and me, / I watched the apples falling one by one. / And I recall the moment of them all, / the day I kissed your cheek and you were mine.” The chorus, amid great orchestral backing, is repeated, before the opening verse is repeated. “When I was small, and Christmas trees were tall, / do do do do do do do do do... / Don’t ask me why, but time has passed us by, / some one else moved in from far away.” The songs fades, having staked its claim as one of the great pop melodies of our time.

Fittingly, since this does at the outset purport to be something of a rock opera, the album ends with The British Opera, an operatic orchestral track evocative of sailing ships. So the last taste you get of the Bee Gees vocals on this album is in a massed choir. Be that as it may, this was a serious contender for one of the albums of the Sixties. Not only does it showcase the Gibb brothers’ superb voices, but also their incredible inventiveness as composers.

Cucumber Castle



Okay, so I had never heard of this album until I started this article. Released in April 1970, the Bee Gees’ fifth album was produced by Barry, Maurice and Robert Stigwood, Robin, as noted earlier, having temporarily fled the coop. All I can glean from Wikipedia is that the album “consists of songs from their television special of the same name”. Not having even had television in SA at the time – it arrived only in 1976 when the apartheid rulers realised its propaganda potential – the TV special also passed us by.

A perusal of the track titles shows very little that is familiar, although the last track, Don’t Forget To Remember Me is obviously well known.

2 Years On



Next up was 2 Years On, another I did not come across. Their sixth studio album, this was released in December 1970, with Robin Gibb having returned to the fold. It too was produced by Stigwood and the brothers. It reached No 32 in the US, says Wikipedia, which doesn’t say how it did in the UK, though it sold 300 000 copies worldwide.

Again, most of the songs are unfamiliar, apart from Lonely Days which I only encountered decades later on a DVD of one of their live concerts in the 1990s or so. That is how we lost track of the Bee Gees – until disco came along and we could not ignore them.

Saturday Night Fever



I have to be honest. Their sound may have been catchy and commercial – perhaps it was precisely because of these reasons – but I never really got into the Bee Gees songs on this album. Indeed, if anything, they got into me. As noted earlier, the pursuit of a bit of skirt took us to places we should normally have avoided – like noisy, smoke-filled, beer-swilling discos, with strobe lights, no conversation and many a nubile young thing just crying out to be laid. I wished! Be that as it may, the mid- to late-1970s saw the disco phenomenon sweep the world. In my high school years we went to “sessions”. These were parties, often attended by hundreds of teenagers, held at church halls and the like, with a live band playing. I remember we often never even went in. At a church in Vincent, East London, crowds of kids would just hang around outside. It was the jol. There was a band, Purple Haze, named after the Hendrix song, which – shock, horror for apartheid SA – featured a young Chinese guy on electric guitar.

I was in my third year at art school in November, 1977, when the original movie soundtrack was released. Wikipedia says it was recorded between 1975 and 1977, with Bill Oakes as music supervisor/producer.

I guess everyone saw the movie starring John Travolta. And the album, says Wikipedia, “was certified 15x Platinum for shipments of over 15 million copies”. It adds that the album “revived the phenomenon of disco in the US and was a national obsession”. As it did around the globe.

So how on earth did the Bee Gees get involved? Well, Wikipedia, noting that it became “the best-selling soundtrack album of all time”, says the Bee Gees “originally wrote and recorded the five original songs for the album” as “part of a regular album”. These were Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever and How Deep Is Your Love (all performed by them) and More Than A Woman (performed in two versions, one by the Bee Gees, the other by Tavares) and If I Can’t Have You (performed by Yvone Elliman). It says initially they had “no idea” they would be making a soundtrack”. Two other previously released Bee Gee Songs, Jive Talking and You Should Be Dancing, along with other “previously released songs from the disco era”, provide the rest of the music for the movie.

Composer David Shire also contributed incidental music on the soundtrack, which won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. And, while I may scoff at it, Wikipedia reminds that it was ranked, in 2003, at No 131 on that Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It topped the US pop and soul album charts, while a 2005 survey of the 100 greatest albums of all time by Britain’s Channel 4 television network placed it at No 80.

It seems the song Jive Talking on the original issue of the album is the original studio version, but that later pressings used one “culled from Here At Last … Bee Gees … Live”, says Wikipedia. Later CD releases revert back to the original – though the song did not occur in the film, with the scene having been deleted.

Sadly, I have managed to find a vinyl copy of the double album at my local second-hand record shop and am forced, as part of this research project, to subject myself to it.

Ah! That’s an exclamation of joy – not at the music, but at the reprieve I’ve been granted. On opening the album cover and checking its contents I found only the album with sides C and D – on which only Jive Talking features among the Bee Gees tracks. So I was spared all those other disco things. Okay, I’m being harsh, but I guess everyone in the world, virtually, has those tunes ingrained in their psyches. Such was their impact that I suspect my teenage sons have heard them even without knowing it.

But I did subject myself to Jive Talking and was relieved when it was over. Initially it sounded like Michael Jackson. And of course this was that sort of era, wasn’t it? This was when things started to unravel in the world of popular music. Irreparably. Repetitious rhythm for the sake of it. Just to get people bobbing up and down on the dance floor. No structure to the songs, except for some high-pitched, tinny synthesizer stuff to add to the frenetic noise. The world was gearing up for the worst of the bland and (c)rap in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the beauty about the Seventies is that there were incredible alternatives out there for discerning music lovers. Why Bob Dylan was still producing good stuff, as were the Who. But it was the New Wave bands I really got into in a big way. Many of these I still have to look at, along with such global rock legends as Bruce Springsteen and Don McLean. Not to mention Bob Marley and the reggae revolution. Even old Elton John who, for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was up there with the greatest. Sadly he too sold out to commercialism and became something of a cult hero, wallowing in his own success. So I have plenty work still to do, but let’s just close off with a couple of the Bee Gees last albums. Of course it must be realised that this album put them right at the top of the global pop world, as noted way earlier. They were made for life.

Staying Alive



Not content with the roaring success of Fever, the Bee Gees coined it again with their contribution to this soundtrack album, released in June 1983. Now, according to Wikipedia, it is no longer disco, but pop/rock. With most of the songs by the Bee Gees, the album reached No 14 in the UK, No 6 in the US and did comparably well elsewhere, selling a total of 4.5 million copies worldwide.

This was the real tight-underpants sound, as I recall it, with Barry responsible for those falsetto atrocities. The hits from this album included the title track, Stayin’ Alive and The Woman In You.

But enough’s enough. The Bee Gees were a wonderful group in the 1960s, and even in the later era when commercialism ruled there was no gainsaying their ability to pen beautiful melodies, and to sing them just as wonderfully.

For me, though, it is those early singles from the late mid-1960s which have a special place in my heart. Truly, here was a family blessed with musical genes. And they certainly put them to very good use.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Kris Kristofferson



NOT many pop stars can boast an academic background. Most dropped out of their studies specifically to follow a career in music. But one who did manage to complete his degree first is country singer and composer Kris Kristofferson.

To my mind, Kristofferson redeemed the country genre, which all too often was associated with leather boots and Stetson hats – and songs which could best be described as soppy sentimental cowboy kitsch.

But country has its roots in the blues, bluegrass and the folk ballads brought to the US by the early English, Scottish and Irish immigrants. Everything depended on the singer’s attitude. And Kristofferson had loads of it.

Kristoffer Kristofferson

Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas, on June 22, 1936 – and christened Kristoffer Kristofferson. He spoke Spanish before he spoke English. His father was an Air Force Major-General. Kristofferson spent his youth moving around the country wherever his father was assigned. He graduated from Pomona College in California where he majored in creative literature and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he read for a masters degree in English literature.

After a stint as an Army pilot, he declined a professor’s post at West Point and moved to Nashville to pursue a writing career – and seek a foothold in the country music scene. It was a long, hard struggle to survive. While writing songs, based on his struggles, he resorted to working as a commercial helicopter pilot and even as a janitor at the Columbia Studios in Nashville. It was here that he met Johnny Cash, with whom he left some of his songs, but, according to Wikipedia, subsequently ignored them. He also witnessed Bob Dylan working on Blonde On Blonde, but did not dare introduce himself.

Interestingly, it was other performers, including Jerry Lee Lewis, who first made him famous by recording his songs. His first album, Kristofferson, released in 1970, was not a great success, but the following year Janis Joplin reached No 1 with her version of Me And Bobby McGee. On the strength of that, the album was re-released as Me And Bobby McGee and became a hit, alongside Jesus Was A Capricorn.

But Border Lord, released in 1973, was again a commercial failure. However, he won several Grammies that year for his songwriting.

Acting became another source of income. His first film was in 1971, with the most successful being “A Star Is Born” with Barbara Streisand, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

If any proof were needed that Kristofferson was considered one of the great composers of his time, it was the decision by Joplin to record Me And Bobby McGee. The song was released posthumously on that pearl of an album, Pearl, in 1971, and went on to become a smash hit. This was our first real introduction to Kristofferson’s music.

The first album by him which we had as teens was The Silver Tongued Devil And I (1971), which had a cover of the ultra-cool Kristofferson dressed in brown. This album was a classic, again immensely rich lyrically.

With Me And Bobby McGee coming out the same year, Kristofferson went through a period of being one of the world’s most popular performers. This album included most of his early songs, which others had covered with such success.

He cemented his popularity with the controversial Jesus Was A Capricorn (1973), in which his song-writing skills, if anything were at their height – despite the album apparently not being a great commercial success.

The title track no doubt had our apartheid-era censors in a tizz, but fortunately it appeared to survive their self-righteous, Calvinistic clutches. In fact, it had a message that the apartheid rulers could well have heeded, about accepting people for who they are. But we’ll get to that later.

Spooky Lady's Sideshow (1973) was the last great solo album by Kristofferson that I really listened to, although sadly I learn from Wikipedia that it too did not meet with great commercial success.

Kris clearly lived a tortured life, as he dealt with the problems of drugs, booze and women. This is reflected in several songs, such as Nobody Wins, in which he says that the “loving was easy, it’s the living that’s hard”. Many songs deal with psychological breakdown, such as Billy Dee, who was “driven towards the darkness by the devils in his veins”. The drunken lifestyle is reflected in Out Of Mind, Out of Sight, which starts: “Buddy tip the bottle back and climb about the bus…”, and goes in to tell of him being “scared to death of dying, so I do my best to live”. Wonderful stuff!

His most anti-war song, Good Christian Soldier, traces the anomaly of a Christian at war: “It’s hard to be a Christian soldier, when you tote a gun and it hurts to have to watch a grown man cry…” Elsewhere he writes how the soldiers (presumably in Vietnam) are “playing cards, writing home, having fun, turning on and learning how to die”. I can attest to this, having spent some time on “The Border” during South Africa’s generally low-intensity bush war against Swapo in northern Namibia. The army is about time-consumption. You sit around, with heaps of time on your hands, and mull over the possibility that you might soon be dead, if all goes awry. How much worse for those in a massive conflagration such as Vietnam? I’ll come back to those key songs later.

Kristofferson was married to Rita Coolidge from 1973 to 1980, during which he cut three albums of duets with her. While Full Moon (1973) and the 1974 album, Breakaway, both with Coolidge, did not feature many of his own compositions, they were still listened to avidly by us. This was the great Kris after all.

The one early Kristofferson album I never got into was Border Lord (1972). It is something I plan to rectify, because in his day, Kris was probably the most exciting new talent to arrive on the pop music scene – and we lapped up his songs. I recall one English teacher at Clifton Park High (now Hudson Park) in East London, Digby Crank, telling my brother, Alistair, that he thought Kris’s songs had great literary merit. Mr Crank suddenly went from zero to hero in our eyes.

But, as the ’70s rolled along, we soon lost interest in Kris, and moved in other directions. However, I shall always treasure those five or six great albums when his song-writing was at its most crisp and incisive.

Sportsman

But let’s get a deeper insight into the man by seeing what Wikipedia can divulge.

First, it is important to remember that, like Leonard Cohen, he was a “late starter” in the pop world, having been born on June 22, 1936.

As noted, his father was a military man, Major General Lars Henry Kristofferson of the US Army Air Corps (later called the US Air Force). His mother was Mary Ann (nee Ashbrook). And yes, my assumption that Lars has a strong Swedish ring to it is confirmed by Wikipedia’s observation that his paternal grandfather was also an officer – in the Swedish Army.

Having followed his military family around, Kris graduated from San Mateo High School, California, before enrolling at Pomona College in 1954 – and immediately made a name for himself, as a sportsman. Wikipedia says he appeared in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces In The Crowd” for his achievements in rugby union, football and track and field. He graduated with a BA summa cum laude in Literature in 1958, noting years later that philosophy professor Frederick Sontag was an early influence.

Happily for him, and us all, he broadened his horizons by earning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England. Cecil John Rhodes, of course, has strong South African connections, not least having served as Prime Minister of the Cape Province before Union in 1910. The university in Grahamstown at which my son has just started is named after him. One trusts the politically correct brigade won’t be tempted to tamper with a name which, as the scholarship Kristofferson won attests, is a globally recognised brand. Anyway, while ensconsed at Merton College, Kris was awarded his blue for boxing, while also starting to write songs. He even recorded for Top Rank Records, says Wikipedia, but as Kris Carson his early music career was unsuccessful.

Soldier

As the Swinging Sixties got under way, in 1960, Kristofferson graduated with a BPhil in English literature, and married old girlfriend Fran Beer. But it was not an academic career he was in for. No, he then joined the US Army, achieving the rank of captain. He became a helicopter pilot and completed Ranger School. At the height of the Cold War, in the early 1960s, he was deployed to West Germany with the 8th Infantry Division. And happily, it was here that he “resumed his music career and formed a band”, says Wikipedia. With his tour of duty over, in 1965 he was offered the post of professor of English Literature at West Point, one of the great military institutions in the world. But, with a lucrative and prestigious career path plotted out for him, he decided to quit the army and “pursue songwriting professionally”. Brave man. But how do you do that?

Well Wikipedia says he sent some of his compositions to a friend’s relative, Marijohn Wilkin, a successful songwriter in Nashville.

So here we have a highly educated man, honourably discharged from the Army, working, as we noted earlier, in odd jobs “while struggling for success in music, burdened with medical expenses resulting from his son’s defective esophagus”. Sadly, Wikipedia notes, “he and his wife soon divorced”.

Tragically, it seems that it is just these sorts of emotional hardships which spur great writers on to write their best work. Let’s see how things worked out for Kristofferson as the Sixties unfolded.

Wikipedia confirms that while sweeping those Columbia Studio floors he met Johnny Cash, but that while initially accepting some of Kris’s songs, in the end Cash opted not to use them. And, in 1966, as Bob Dylan finetuned Blonde on Blonde, the much older Kristofferson (now about 30) watched in awe, but dared not approach him for fear of being fired.

At least he had some skills to fall back on, and so did a stint as a commercial chopper pilot in Lafayette, Louisiana. All the time, during his days off, he was “pitching” his songs to all and sundry. Wikipedia quotes him as saying he can recall writing Help Me Make It Through The Night while “sitting on top of an oil platform”. Others written down in south Louisianna included the iconic Bobby McGee.

In 1966, says Wikipedia, one Dave Dudley had success with the Kristofferson song, Vietnam Blues. But was he pro or anti the war, given his military pedigree? I’ve not heard this song, but let’s check out the lyrics. “I was out on leave at the time just duckin’ the fog nosin’ around like a hungry dog / In that crazy place called Washington DC / I saw a crowd of people on the White House lawn all carrying signs about VietNam / So I went over to see what was goin’ on.” Doesn’t sound auspicious, does it? “It was a strange looking bunch but then I never could understand some people / Oh a fellow came to me with a list in his hand he said we’re gatherin’ names to send / The telegram of sympathy then he handed me a pen / I said I reckon this is goin’ to kids and wives / My friends over there who’re givin’ their lives / He said ah ah buddy this is goin’ to Ho-Chi-Min / I said Ho-Chi who he said Ho-Chi-Min people’s leader North VietNam / Oh I wasn’t really sure I was hearin’ him right / I though I’d better move before I got in a fight / Cause my ears were hurtin’ and my ball started hit my lick / Then I thought of another telegram that I’ve just read / Tellin’ my buddy’s wife that her husband was dead / It wasn’t too long till I was feelin’ downright sick / Another held the sign that said we won’t fight / I thought to myself boy ain’t that right / To leave a lot of our soldiers die instead / I said it’s a shame that every man who ever died up there that far off land / Was dyin’ for that you wouldn’t have to wake up dead / Course he looked at me like I was kinda crazy just another warmonger / Oh I left that place and I went downtown and hit first bar that I’d found / To cool myself off and pacify my brain / You see I was on orders to VietNam little old place just north to Saigon / Had about an hour to catch myself a plane / So all I mean to say is I don’t like dyin’ either but man I ain’t gonna crawl.”

Ouch! Yet I can sympathise with Kristofferson. We endured endless indoctrination in the SA military, and many found it very easy to get sucked into their view of events. But perhaps Kristofferson, now 30 with an extensive university education, should have been a trifle more sensitive. I know it was just a song, probably aimed at conservative country music lovers, who, as Merle Haggard once made all too clear, consider patriotism as meaning my country, right or wrong.

The Highwaymen, with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson

Kristofferson remained intent on pursuing a music career and in 1967, Wikipedia tells us, he signed to Epic Labels, releasing the single Golden Idol/ Killing Time, which “was not successful”. But if not him, then at least others were achieving chart success with his songs. Wikipedia says “within the next few years”, Roy Drusky (Jody And The Kid), Billy Walker (From The Bottle To The Bottom), Ray Stevens (Sunday Morning’ Comin’ Down), Jerry Lee Lewis (Once More With Feeling) and Roger Miller (Me And Bobby McGee, Best Of All Possible Worlds, Darby’s Caste), among others, had hits with his songs. And even Johnny Cash made amends for ditching his songs earlier, giving him an introduction at the Newport Folk Festival that year. Wikipedia says Cash could hardly ignore him after Kristofferson had “unexpectedly landed his helicopter in Cash’s yard and gave him some tapes, including Sunday Morning Coming Down”.

But how to get his own recording success? Next, says Wikipedia, Kris signed with Monument Records, who put out his debut album, Kristofferson, in 1970. Despite including many songs which others had turned into hits, as well as a few new songs, “sales were poor”. But, as noted earlier, it would become a success upon being rereleased as Me & Bobby McGee. Meanwhile, his songs, covered by others, continued to reap success, with For The Good Times by Ray Price winning Song of the Year in 1970 from the Academy of Country Music. The academy’s rival, the Country Music Association, bestowed the same award for Johnny Cash’s version of Sunday Morning Coming Down, says Wikipedia.

With Janis Joplin

As noted earlier, Janis Joplin dated Kristofferson and in 1971 her posthumously released version of Bobby McGee on Pearl became a No 1 hit. But, with others still scoring on the charts with his songs, Kristofferson had another bash at making his own singing mark with his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, released in 1971. Finally, says Wikipedia, “the album was a success and established Kristofferson’s career as a recording artist in his own right”. We weren’t much interested in Kris the actor, but Wikipedia tells us he made his acting debut soon afterwards in The Last Movie, directed by Dennis Hopper. After appearing at the Isle of Wight Festival (surely a rite of passage), he released his third album, Border Lord, which I only recently became fully acquainted with after picking up an old vinyl copy. But, says Wikipedia, “sales were sluggish”. However, that year also saw him pick up a Grammy Award for Help Me Make It Through The Night.

But 1972 would see him really come into his own with Jesus Was A Capricorn. Sales were initially slow, but the successful single, Why Me, stimulated interest.

As noted earlier, there were later albums that caught our attention, like Spooky Lady’s Sideshow, but for the next few years, says Wikipedia, Kristofferson focused on acting. Best known, probably, was his role alongside Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born (1976), for which he won a Golden Globe award for best actor.

But despite his celluloid popularity, his album, Shake Hands with the Devil, says Wikipedia, failed to find the charts.

In 1973, my second last year in high school, he married singer Rita Coolidge and to cement their relationship they released an album, Full Moon, which was “another success buoyed by numerous hits singles and Grammy nominations”. But, says Wikipedia, his fifth album, Spooky Lady’s Sideshow, released in 1974, was a commercial failure, “setting the trend for most of the rest of his career”.

While others continued to record his material with success, Wikipedia says his “amazing yet rough voice and anti-pop sound kept his own audience to a minimum”.

And here’s one I had not heard of. It seems in 1979, as I was about to spend two years as a military conscript in South Africa, Kristofferson joined a high-powered group of musos in, of all places, communist Cuba. The occasion? The March 2-4 Havana Jam festival, which included the likes of Rita Coolidge, Stephen Stills, Billy Swan, Weather Report and Billy Joel. Ernesto Juan Castellano produced a documentary called Havana Jam ’79. But the next year Kristofferson said goodbye to his marriage to Coolidge.

So by now my interest in Kristofferson had waned, while always savouring those pioneering sounds he produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With Dolly Parton

But let’s see what became of yet another global rock icon. Wikipeida says in 1982 he was part of The Winning Hand, with the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, which was a “country success that failed to break into mainstream audiences”. Now married to Lisa Meyers, he concentrated on films. Songwriter, which also starred Nelson, saw Kristofferson nominated for an Academy Award for best original song score, while Music from Songwriter – duets with Nelson – was “a massive country success”, says Wikipeidia.

Look, it was the 1980s and I had gone reporting in Port Elizabeth, and the uprising against apartheid was gathering momentum. So I was otherwise occupied, covering this drama. I did not hear of The Highwaymen, a country supergroup comprising Kris, Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. Wikipedia says their first album, Highwayman, was “a huge success”.

From a guy who, in that early song mentioned above, had decried those who questioned the US involvement in Vietnam, by the mid-1980s, Kristofferson had come full circle. Wikipedia says in 1985, he released Reposssessed, “a politically aware album that was a country success”. The single, They Killed Him, which Dylan also performed, was “a tribute to his heroes, including Martin Luther King jr, Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi".

By the early 1990, says Wikipedia, his solo recording career was slipping, though the Highwaymen retained their success. But there was also cinema to fall back on, and he had various roles during the decade.

Accolades achieved included a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 1985 and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 1977. In 1999, he teamed up with Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Steve Earle and Jackson Browne for The Austin Sessions, which I’d love to hear. A live album, Broken Freedom Song – no doubt arising from the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon – was recorded in San Francisco, says Wikipedia.

The awards continued, with him being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004. He received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006. The same year he released This Old Road, his first album of new songs in 11 years. He was 70 years old. Wikipedia quotes Kristofferson as being “really honoured” to receive CMT’s Johnny Cash Visionary Award in 2007. In July that year he featured on CMT’s Studio 330 Sessions, playing many of his hits. In June 2008, he played in a PBS songwriters series. In 2009, he released a new album of original tracks, Closer to the Bone. Ever humble, that same year on receiving special recognition for his songwriting at the BMI Country Award, Wikipedia quotes him as saying that the “great thing about being a songwriter is you can hear your baby interpreted by so many people that have creative talents vocally that I don’t have”.

As late as December 2009, says Wikipedia, it was revealed that Kris would play Joe in an album, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which is “a collaboration between rock singer John Mellencamp and novelist Stephen King”.

Who’s interested in his personal life? In South Africa, we have a president with, at last count, about three wives, a lover, and 20 children. So Kristofferson has been married three times and has just eight children. And, happily, it seems his last marriage, to Lisa Meyers, has lasted. Together they have five kids, the first Jesse, born in 1983, the last, Blake, in 1994.

But what of those key first few albums which shaped our lives and made him an international country rock star?

Me and Bobby McGee (aka Kristofferson)

Well, as noted earlier, while many other musicians were garnering success with his songs, fame and fortune were not as easily forthcoming for Kristofferson as a performer. By 1969, it seems, he decided to hell with that, I’m gonna put these songs on an album, call it simply Kristofferson, and see what happens.

Wikipedia tells us the album was recorded in 1969 at Monument Recording Studio and produced by Fred Foster. Classified as country and released in 1970 on Monument Records, suddenly the world was faced with the prospect of hearing the composer of all those hit songs performing them himself. Of course, as we now know and as Wikipeida puts it, “the album was initially a commercial failure”. However, they add that it “managed to reach No 10 on the country album charts”. But of course for us it was way more than just another country album. This was one of the great songwriters of the time, a man who combined melody and lyrics sublimely, and had a unique voice which transcended the crooner schmaltz which characterised so much of the genre. Kristofferson was a man for the enlightened youth of the late 1960s and early 1970s, people raised on Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles.

As also noted earlier, it was Janis Joplin’s cover of Me & Bobby McGee in 1971 which helped this generation of hip music lovers to see more clearly what Kristofferson was all about. If one of the great icons of the 1960s, Joplin, could latch onto one of his songs, then surely there was something to them. At least, I’m surmising that is what went through people’s minds. Certainly, the album became a firm favourite throughout the 1970s after its re-release in 1971 as Me & Bobby McGee “immediately following the success of Janis Joplin’s cover of that song, and the success of Kris Kristofferson’s second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I”, notes Wikipedia. It adds that the album “became a hit upon re-release”, and was also issued in 2001 on CD, with four bonus tracks. It reached No 43 on the US album charts.

A quick perusal of the 12 tracks shows what a wealth of material was on offer here. These are some of the all-time Kristofferson classics, and fortunately I was able to pick up a vinyl copy of the album. A South African pressing, it was released in 1974. The cover features a close-up photograph of the bearded Kristofferson, while on the back there is a black-and-white shot of him and four band members sitting on a wooden fence among the bushes somewhere. Kristofferson, in his tight jeans, T-shirt and corduroy jacket – all dark – is again the height of cool. The back cover features a moving tribute from Johnny Cash.

Not all the songs are Kristofferson solo originals – there are a few collaborative efforts, such as the incredible opening effort, Blame It On The Stones, which he wrote with John Wilkin. Unfortunately, neither the album cover nor Wikipedia can enlighten me on who performed with Kristofferson on the album, although there is a short note on the back cover saying that Jerry Kennedy contributed “peerless guitar picking” – surely a hallmark of the album. We also learn, from Wikipedia, that Bergen White did the string arrangements.

So Blame It On The Stones starts with a solid country rock sound, with drums, lead guitar and organ prominent. Kristofferson’s voice is deliberately harsh, almost sneering. At 2:46 minutes it is a short song, but what was it all about? “Mister Marvin Middle Class is really in a stew / Wond’rin’ what the younger generation’s coming to / And the taste of his martini doesn’t please his bitter tongue / Blame it on the Rolling Stones.” Aha. I’d always heard that reference to the Rolling Stones and not realised this was deliberate. I’m not sure if there is a saying in English, “blame it on the stones”, but after this song there surely ought to have been. It might also have included the many other far-out musos I’ve dealt with thus far, each of whom contributed to Mister Marvin Middle Class being in that stew. In a sense, I guess, this is Kristofferson’s take on Dylan’s Mr Jones in Ballad Of A Thin Man. While he doesn’t have Dylan’s almost esoteric approach, what Kristofferson brought to songwriting was a delight in the English language and a playful use of words. That martini cannot please his bitter tongue. The backing vocalists help him out on the chorus: “Blame it on the Stones; blame it on the Stones / You’ll feel so much better, knowing you don’t stand alone / Join the accusation; save the bleeding nation / Get it off your shoulders; blame it on the Stones.” These were the conservatives who saw a nation’s youth subsumed by sex and drugs and rock and roll, and they were worried. Man. Kristofferson’s personality shines through on the next verse as he even includes a little chuckle, ala Dylan. “Mother tells the ladies at the bridge club every day / Of the rising price of tranquilisers she must pay / And she wonders why the children never seem to stay at home / Blame it on the Rolling Stones.” And so the chant, so they know they’re not alone, blaming it all on Jagger and the lads. I’m a great lover of the texture of music. It doesn’t have to be played loudly, with masses of bass. Provided the overall feeling is interesting and excites the right parts of the brain, it’s good. This song has that texture. “Father’s at the office, nightly working all the time / Trying to make the secretary change her little mind / And it bothers him to read about so many broken homes / Blame it on those Rolling Stones.” Touche. The hypocrite neatly encapsulated in a few lines. The song ends with that chorus repeated, with some interesting piano work backing it up.

Who wouldn’t be impressed by the spoken entrĂ©e to the next track, To Beat The Devil, which runs to 4:43 minutes. With the acoustic guitar gently picked behind him, Kristofferson speaks the following words in a deep, rich voice. “A couple of years back, I come across a great and wasted friend of mine in the hallway of a recording studio; and while he was reciting some poetry to me that he’d written, I saw that he was about a step away from dyin’ and I couldn’t help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me. I’m happy to say he’s no longer wasted and he’s got him a good woman. And I’d like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped show me how to beat the devil.” Having seen the biopic on Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, I can only assume this is a reference to him and his wife, June. With the acoustic guitarwork out of the top drawer, he continues speaking as the song gets going. “It was winter time in Nashville, down on music city row. / And I was lookin’ for a place to get myself out of the cold. / To warm the frozen feelin’ that was eatin’ at my soul. / Keep the chilly wind off my guitar.” We loved the next line as teens. “My thirsty wanted whisky; my hungry needed beans, / But it’d been of month of paydays since I’d heard that eagle scream. / So with a stomach full of empty and a pocket full of dreams, / I left my pride and stepped inside a bar.” Finally, assuming these downloaded lyrics are correct, I read that second line about having “heard that eagle scream”. I always heard something like “since either had had equal screen”, which is meaningless. But what is that eagle scream all about? Perhaps it is a reference to a type of whisky. Anyway, the narrative continues: “Actually, I guess you’d could call it a tavern: / Cigarette smoke to the ceiling and sawdust on the floor; / Friendly shadows.” He’s not alone. “I saw that there was just one old man sittin’ at the bar. / And in the mirror I could see him checkin’ me and my guitar. / An’ he turned and said: ‘Come up here boy, and show us what you are.’ / I said: ‘I’m dry.’ He bought me a beer. / He nodded at my guitar and said: ‘It’s a tough life, ain’t it?’ / I just looked at him. He said: ‘You ain’t makin’ any money, are you?’ / I said: ‘You’ve been readin’ my mail.’ / He just smiled and said: ‘Let me see that guitar. / I’ve got something you oughta hear.’ / Then he laid it on me:” I know enough about the Wild West from movies to appreciate the sort of scene being set here. And so finally there’s a bit of singing, as this old man puts his philosophy into song. “ ‘If you waste your time a-talkin’ to the people who don’t listen, / To the things that you are sayin’, who do you think’s gonna hear. / And if you should die explainin’ how the things that they complain about, / Are things they could be changin’, who do you think’s gonna care? / There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind, / Who were crucified for what they tried to show. / And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time. / ’Cos the truth remains that no-one wants to know.” It certainly was an interesting, if somewhat negative thesis, and not one I’d like to unravel after a few too many. But what did Kris make of it? Well he reverts to the spoken voice as the song continues. “Well, the old man was a stranger, but I’d heard his song before, / Back when failure had me locked out on the wrong side of the door. / When no-one stood behind me but my shadow on the floor, / And lonesome was more than a state of mind.” This clearly is strongly autobiographical, considering what we know of his life in the 1960s as a would-be singer-songwriter. “You see, the devil haunts a hungry man, / If you don’t wanna join him, you got to beat him. / I ain’t sayin’ I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing. / Then I stole his song.” It is the sense of timing which makes those lines so powerful. So now it’s Kristofferson, taking the old man’s song, and giving it his stamp. “And you still can hear me singin’ to the people who don’t listen, / To the things that I am sayin’, prayin’ someone’s gonna hear. / And I guess I’ll die explaining how the things that they complain about, / Are things they could be changin’, hopin’ someone’s gonna care. / I was born a lonely singer, and I’m bound to die the same, / But I’ve got to feed the hunger in my soul. / And if I never have a nickle, I won’t ever die ashamed. / ’Cos I don’t believe that no-one wants to know.” In another guise, I think this is the sort of message that Dylan also puts across. Art for art’s sake, I guess you’d call it. Except that Kristofferson is perhaps naively optimistic with his final double-negative. Do people really want to know what the perceptive people – the poets and prophets – are telling them about the world? Not too many do, I’m afraid.

Then that famous third track, which I suppose catapulted Kristofferson to fame on Janis’s back. Me And Bobby McGee was co-written with Fred Foster and runs to 4:23 minutes. To the clang of a few opening guitar chords, Kristofferson, as if sensing that the hip cult raised on rock might still have an anti-country prejudice, says: “If it sounds country man, that’s what it is. It’s a country song.” Then, after a slow, “1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4” and with just his acoustic guitar for backing, he sings those immortal opening lines. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headin’ for the train, / Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans. / Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained; / Took us all the way to New Orleans.” I guess the name Bobby could be either male or female. Here, as I read it, Bobby was his girl, and together they are heading south. A hallmark of the song is the great harmonica and electric guitar which kick in during the next verse. “I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna, / And was blowing sad while Bobby sang the blues. / With them windshield wipers slappin’ time, / And Bobby clappin’ hands, / We finally sang up every song that driver knew.” No surprise that Janis Joplin took to this song, which is a fine example of the blues influence on a good country song. And then that interesting chorus, which is preceded by some interesting chord changes up the register. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing’ left to lose: / Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free. / Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues. / Feeling good was good enough for me; / Good enough for me and Bobby McGee.” It’s about what one needs in life. What is better than feeling good, especially when your girl (was this about Joplin?) sings the blues. And how many of us haven’t bent our minds backwards trying to fathom precisely what the Dylanesque first two lines of the chorus mean? The hippie ethos was that possessions and material things were irrelevant. So freedom was only achievable when you literally had nothing left to lose. And, while nothing is worth nothing, at least it’s free. There is logic in there somewhere, I’m sure. Anyway, this song has an ineluctable lilt, rising in motive force as it progresses and as that lift they bummed takes them ever closer to the city of jazz. “From the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun, / Bobby shared the secrets of my soul. / Standin’ right beside me, Lord, through everything I’ve done, / Every night she kept me from the cold. / Then somewhere near Salinas, Lord, / let her slip away, / Lookin’ for the home I hope she’ll find. / And I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday, / Holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine.” Just consider those lines again, because they are among the finest in the history of rock. To trade all your tomorrows, your entire life, for one yesterday with a lost love – that surely is at the very heart of the blues. Anyway, that memorable chorus is repeated, with harmonica in tandem, before the song winds down with the hallmark: “La da da la la na na na / La da da na na. / La la la da, Me and Bobby McGee. / La la la la la da da da / La la la da da. / La la la da, Me and Bobby McGee.” An absolute classic.

Kristofferson’s uncanny way of juxtaposing paradoxical emotions continues on another of his finest songs, Best Of All Possible Worlds, which runs to 3:01 minutes. This is a fast-paced country rock, with the musicianship superb and Kristofferson’s vocals at their brilliant best. Consider the pace at which this moves. “I was runnin’ thru the summer rain, try’n’ to catch that evenin’ train / And kill the old familiar pain weavin’ thru my tangled brain / When I tipped my bottle back and smacked into a cop I didn’t see / That police man said, ‘Mister Cool, if you ain’t drunk, then you’re a fool.’ / I said, ‘If that’s against the law, then tell me why I never saw / A man locked in that jail of yours who wasn’t neither black or poor as me?’ / Well, that was when someone turned out the lights / And I wound up in jail to spend the night / And dream of all the wine and lonely girls / In this best of all possible worlds.” His use of rhyme and rhythm is superb here. I have also heard that reference to black people being locked up willy-nilly for the first time. But the beauty here lies in the fact that this down and out lad still has dreams of wine and lonely girls, which makes him the eternal optimist. “Well, I woke up next mornin’ feelin’ like my head was gone / And like my thick old tongue was lickin’ something sick and wrong / And I told that man I’d sell my soul for something wet and cold as that old cell. / That kindly jailer grinned at me, all eaten up with sympathy / Then poured himself another beer and came and whispered in my ear, / ‘If booze was just a dime a bottle boy, you couldn’t even buy the smell’ / I said, ‘I knew there was something I liked about this town.’ / But it takes more than that to bring me down, down, down. / ’Cause there’s still a lot of wine and lonely girls / In this best of all possible worlds.” Isn’t that a superb bit of writing? Comparing a frosty to that cold, wet cell – a wonderful touch, followed by that wonderfully sympathetic jailer. And all the time, an electric guitar clicks alongside the vocals. “Well, they finally came and told me they was a gonna set me free / And I’d be leavin’ town if I knew what was good for me / I said, ‘It’s nice to learn that ev’rybody’s so concerned about my health.’ / (They were obsessed with it) / I said, ‘I won’t be leavin’ no more quicker than I can / ’Cause I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand / And I don’t need this town of yours more than I never needed nothin’ else.’ / ’Cause there’s still a lot of drinks that I ain’t drunk / And lots of pretty thoughts that I ain’t thunk / And lord there’s still so many lonely girls / In this best of all possible worlds.” I think there is a quadruple negative in there somewhere. But I just love what is essentially a parody of the gung-ho, macho Wild West image.

Kristofferson has underservedly acquired a reputation for being a country crooner, and it is probably due to cover versions of such great songs as the next track, Help Me Make It Through the Night, again a shorty at just 2:24 minutes. The song starts with some snappy acoustic guitar and bass, with Kristofferson’s vocals impeccable as he lays that lovely melody on you. Acoustic lead guitar and even some slide and organ make for a mellow piece of music marked by marvellous musicianship. But was the song really a schmaltzy piece, or did it have Kristofferson’s trademark literary depth? Let’s look at those lyrics. “Take the ribbon from your hair, / Shake it loose and let it fall, / Layin’ soft upon my skin. / Like the shadows on the wall.” If Dylan had written those lines and couched them in his type of music people would have called it brilliant songwriting. I believe it is. Consider the allure, the sensuousness, of that simple action – a beautiful woman taking a ribbon from her hair, shaking it free and allowing it to fall on your skin. “Come and lay down by my side / ’till the early morning light / All I’m takin’ is your time. / Help me make it through the night.” It is in the nature of men who respect women that they acknowledge that they NEED them – to get through the night, to get through life. And we can get quite desperate for female company. Here the song becomes somewhat more insistent as the chorus kicks in. “I don’t care what’s right or wrong, / I don’t try to understand. / Let the devil take tomorrow. / Lord, tonight I need a friend.” That melody churning along merrily, the song returns to its earlier pace. “Yesterday is dead and gone / And tomorrow’s out of sight. / And it’s sad to be alone. / Help me make it through the night.” He repeats the chorus and that last verse, as if underscoring the fact that this song simply sets down a few timeless truths and nothing more needs to be said on the matter.

Consider that on Side 1 there is still another song to come, and we have already had a wealth of music. The Law Is For Protection Of The People, again short at 2:40, is one of Kristofferson’s greatest pieces of songwriting. Starting with very low bass notes, backed by drums and other rock instruments, the song kicks off at quite a pace. Kris has another story to tell. “Billy Dalton staggered on the sidewalk / Someone said he stumbled and he fell / Six squad cars came screaming to the rescue / Hauled old Billy Dalton off to jail.” We’ve seen it the world over. When real crimes are committed, you can’t find a cop for looking. But for small, often imagined, infringements, the response is massive overkill. Kristofferson’s chorus drips with sarcasm as he contemplates how law enforcement agencies are often the worst offenders. “ ’Cause the law is for protection of the people / Rules are rules and any fool can see / We don’t need no drunks like Billy Dalton / Scarin’ decent folks like you and me, no siree.” Again, the musicianship is superb, with sublime slide guitar, harmonica and female backing vocals complementing lead vocals which are so good one simply takes them for granted. “Charlie Watson wandered like a stranger / Showing he had no means of support / Police man took one look at his pants cuffs / Hustled Charlie Watson off to court.” Now I’m not sure I recall that verse, but it too ends in that ascerbic chorus, with a special reference to old Charlie. “ ’Cause the law is for protection of the people / Rules are rules and any fool can see / We don’t need no bums like Charlie Watson / Scarin’ decent folks like you and me, no siree.” I never really heard the next guy’s name, so it’s good to see it written out here. “Homer Lee Hunnicut was nothing but a hippy / Walking thru this world without a care / Then one day, six strapping brave policeman / Held down Homer Lee and cut his hair.” Let’s see why they did it. “’Cause the law is for protection of the people / Rules are rules and any fool can see / We don’t need no hairy headed hippies / Scarin’ decent folks like you and me, no siree.” Then the final verse, which really puts it all into focus. “So thank your lucky stars you’ve got protection / Walk the line, and never mind the cost / And don’t wonder who them lawmen was protecting / When they nailed the Savior to the cross.” Kristofferson deals with this issue again on Jesus Was A Capricorn, and I think it was a commonly held view in the late 1960s that the conservatives of that era would surely have rejected Jesus’s teachings. Kris sums it up in the final chorus. “ ’Cause the law is for protection of the people / Rules are rules and any fool can see / We don’t need no riddle-speaking prophets / Scarin’ decent folks like you and me, no siree.”

Side 2 starts with a song which typifies Kristofferson’s ability to marry melody and lyric seamlessly. There is a lovely sense of foreboding as Casey’s Last Ride gets under way, the bass guitar and other rock instruments backing up that strummed acoustic guitar. “Casey joins the hollow sound of silent people walking down / The stairway to the subway in the shadows down below; / Following their footsteps through the neon-darkened corridors / Of silent desperation, never speakin’ to a soul. / The poison air he’s breathin’ has the dirty smell of dying’ / Cause it’s never seen the sunshine and it’s never felt the rain. / But Casey minds the arrows and ignores the fatal echoes / Of the clickin’ of the turnstiles and the rattle of his chains.” Phew, that’s quite a lot to digest. What’s it all about? Having lived in London for two years, I am familiar with the prison which the subway, or the Tube, can become to daily commuters. Whilst all of the above writing is good, I especially enjoy his reference to “neon-darkened corridors”. The dark, gloomy corners of impersonal indoor spaces, like those long corridors on the Underground, often seem even more dreary in contrast to the brightly lit areas. But here, having presented this picture, the song softens. “ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘Casey it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!’ / ‘Here’ she said, ‘just a kiss to make a body smile!’ / ‘See’ she said, ‘I’ve put on new stockings just to please you!’ / ‘Lord!’ she said, ‘Casey can you only stay a while?’” So, our protagonist has a woman who offers him some solace amidst the daily grind. But this respite is short-lived. “Casey leaves the underground and stops inside the Golden Crown / For something wet to wipe away the chill that’s on his bone. / Seeing his reflection in the lives of all the lonely men / Who reach for any thing they can to keep from goin’ home. / Standin’ in the corner Casey drinks his pint of bitter / Never glancing in the mirror at the people passing by / Then he stumbles as he’s leaving and he wonders if the reason / Is the beer that’s in his belly, or the tear that’s in his eye.” In fact, reading that, I’d not be surprised if this song was written while Kris was in the UK. His reference to “the underground” is one clue, while another is that he drinks a “pint of bitter”, which is one of the great pleasures of living in England: real, cask-conditioned ale, guaranteed to take the chill off your bones. But the lad is sad, and for some reason reluctant to go home. “ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I suppose you seldom think about me,’ / ‘Now’ she said, ‘now that you’ve a fam’ly of your own’; ‘Still’ she said, ‘it’s so blessed good to feel your body!’ / ‘Lord!’ she said, ‘Casey it’s a shame to be alone!’ Now the cat’s out the bag. This is his lover. What more can one say? Who can account for how we mere mortals deal with the vagaries of the heart? But why was it Casey’s “last ride”?

The next song, Just The Other Side Of Nowhere, (3:39) strikes a different note, with somewhat jaunty acoustic guitar and subtle rock backing. Kristofferson’s voice is again superb. “I’ve come from just the other side of no-where, / To this big time lonesome town. / They got a lotta ice an’ snow here, / Half as cold as all the people I’ve found. / Every way I try to go here, / Seems to bring me down. / I seen about enough to know where I belong.” Lovely stuff – particularly that reference to the icy reception he gets from the locals. The chorus is aspirational. “I’ve got a mind to see the headlights shinin’, / On that old white line between my heart and home. / Sick of spendin’ Sundays, wishin’ they were Mondays, / Sittin’ in a park alone. / So give my best to anyone who’s left who ever done me, / Any lovin’ way but wrong, / Tell them that the pride of just the other side of nowhere’s goin’ home.” That is one meaty chorus to unpack, full of typical Kristoffersonisms. There is a vulnerability to his voice which is possibly the key to its charm. The man doesn’t just sing, he pours his very soul into those vocals, whilst around the voice the musical texture is again rich and interesting. “Takin’ nothing back to show there, / For these dues I have paid, / But the soul I almost sold here, / And the body I’ve been givin’ away. / Fadin’ from the neon nighttime glow here, / Headin’ for the light of day. / Just the other side of nowhere, goin’ home.” So the “big time lonesome town” has taken its toll and he must flee its neon nighttime glow and head for the light of day on his lonely way back home. After that intriguing chorus, the final verse is repeated, rounding off another absolute classic piece of songwriting.

There is a lesson for us all in the next song, Darby’s Castle, which starts with a complex acoustic guitar opening, before the song mutates into a gentle, melodious piece. Organ, subtle drums and solid background vocals provide support for the Kristofferson voice as it unfolds the story. “See the ruin on the hill, where the smoke is hanging still, / Like an echo of an age long forgotten. /There’s a story of a home crushed beneath those blackened stones, / And the roof that fell before the beams were rotten.” The stage is set. “Cecil Darby loved his wife, and he laboured all his life, / To provide her with material possessions. / And he built for her a home of the finest wood and stone. / And the building soon became his sole obsession.” Then that chorus with its portent of doom. “Oh, it took three-hundred days, for the timbers to be raised, / And the silhouette was seen for miles around. / And the gables reached as high as the eagles in the sky, / But it only took one night to bring it down, / When Darby’s castle tumbled to the ground.” What I like about Kristofferson’s writing – a bit like Bruce Springsteen – is that he deals with real-life situations, especially the tricky parts of our lives where love and affection are involved. Poor Darby finds out the hard way. “Though they shared a common bed, there was precious little said, / In the moments that were set aside for sleepin’. / For his busy dreams were filled with the rooms he’d yet to build, / And he never heard young Helen Darby weeping.” Then the shock discovery. “Then one night he heard a sound, as he laid his pencil down, / And he traced it to her door and turned the handle. / And the pale light of the moon through the window of the room, / Split the shadows where two bodies lay entangled.” It’s a clever description, but one which in no way softens the impact. The repeated chorus becomes that much more poignant in the wake of what’s come before.

Some songs seem completely timeless. Of course Kristofferson wrote For The Good Times, and of course it’s one of the great country-rock songs of our time. So why can’t I remember how it goes? Well you do, the moment the melody is unleashed courtesy of bass and strings in a slow, mellow song which, again, borders on the sentimental, yet as usual is salvaged by Kristofferson’s inordinately good taste and literary skill. “Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over. / But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning. / Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together. / There’s no need to watch the bridges that we’re burning.” It’s pretty ordinary till that last, incredible, line. It reminds me of a certain politician in South Africa known for his opportunism. Apparently Amichand Rajbansi actually did say that “we’ll double-cross those bridges when we come to them”. Anyway, here, after they’ve spent time together, but things seem to be over, we get this chorus. “Lay your head upon my pillow. / Hold your warm and tender body close to mine. / Hear the whisper of the raindrops, / Blowin’ soft against the window, / And make believe you love me one more time, / For the good times.” And that’s what I mean about social realism. Lives are messy, relationships fail, fall, falter, get restored, falter again. All we can do is try to muddle along. Indeed, that’s precisely what he now says. “I’ll get along; you’ll find another, / And I’ll be here if you should find you ever need me. / Don’t say a word about tomorrow or forever, / There’ll be time enough for sadness when you leave me.” The chorus, another succinct piece of writing, is repeated. This is concise writing, with each word weighed carefully before use. Small wonder Kristofferson is considered such a good songwriter. Compare this writing to some of the turgid offerings produced over the past 50 years, and you realise this is a uniquely talented writer.

Haiti has been in the news again recently, following the tragic earthquake there. But it is a nation which seems to have been plagued by dictators. Riccardo Orizio brought out a powerful book a few years back called, Talk of the Devil – Encounters with Seven Dictators. One of them was Baby Doc – Jean-Claude Duvalier, who succeeded his father, Francois (Papa Doc), following his death, as Haiti’s supreme ruler in 1971. At just 19, he was the world’s youngest president. And as part of his essay, Orizio quotes a verse from the next track on this album, Duvalier’s Dream. Reading Orizio’s book, I gather Baby Doc went through a messy divorce from his wife, Michele Bennett, who had “held the purse strings even during their years in Port-au-Prince”. While I’m not going to go into all this, it would seem though that Kristofferson was writing about Papa Doc, since this song dates back to the late 1960s. Anyway, it seems Papa Doc also had his woman problems. Strings, bass and drums make for a slow country-rock sound. “Duvalier was a bitter man who cursed the morning sun / That brought a new betrayal every day. / He shunned the world of mortals and the sound of human tongues / And blessed the night that chased their sight away. / A disillusioned dreamer who would never love again / Who’d tried of it and found that it was rotten. / Preferring perfect strangers to the company of friends / Because strangers are so easily forgotten.” Then the chorus: “Oh, it’s hard to keep believing when you know you’ve been decieved. / To face a lie and dare to try again, / but there’s nothing like a woman / with a spell of make believe / to make a new believer of a man.” Then some lovely alliteration. “Duvalier took the fickle turns of fortune in his stride / Expecting next to nothing out of life. / Till fortune found a girl who fanned a flame he thought had died / Whose burning beauty cut him like a knife. / She touched him through the senses that his mind could not control. / Then smiling stepped aside and watched him fall. / Betrayed by his own body and the hunger in his soul / Duvalier was a dreamer after all.” That haunting chorus is repeated. I don’t know if this refers to Papa Doc’s life, but it is again a fine character study.

Who isn’t familiar with arguably Kristofferson’s most famous composition, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, which runs to 4:34 minutes? It is the classic hangover tale, and something we could easily relate to once we acquired a taste for beer and what else beside during our high school years. The song uses simple, subtle acoustic guitar, bass, drums and tambourine. “Well I woke up Sunday morning, / With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. / And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, / So I had one more for dessert. / Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes, / And found my cleanest dirty shirt. / An’ I shaved my face and combed my hair, / An’ stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.” Eish! Which is a delightful South African exclamation. Would that I could’ve had hangovers where my head didn’t hurt. Certainly the old “regmaker”, as the Afrikaners call the hair of the dog, is not recommended, but this guy clearly needed it. “I’d smoked my brain the night before, / On cigarettes and songs I’d been pickin’. / But I lit my first and watched a small kid, / Cussin’ at a can that he was kicking. / Then I crossed the empty street, / ’n caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken. / And it took me back to somethin’, / That I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way.” What? Like family barbecues and a sense of belonging somewhere? Personally, I have experienced such dislocation several times in my life, and don’t recommend it. Then cometh that immortal chorus. “On the Sunday morning sidewalk, / Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned. / ’Cos there’s something in a Sunday, / Makes a body feel alone. / And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’, / Half as lonesome as the sound, / Of the sleepin’ city sidewalks: / Sunday mornin’ comin’ down.” That lonesome feeling continues in the next verse. “In the park I saw a daddy, / With a laughin’ little girl who he was swingin’. / And I stopped beside a Sunday school, / And listened to the song they were singin’. / Then I headed back for home, / And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin’. / And it echoed through the canyons, / Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.” Naturally, a bell does chime at the appropriate time in that verse, as the song concludes with the chorus repeated, and then plays out with some melancholy humming. “Do do do do do do do do, / Do do do do do do do, / Do do do do do do do do, / Do do do do do do do.”

And so ends one of the great debut albums of all time – one that was far too long in arriving. There are a handful of albums that I have dealt with in this project that literally teem with quality songwriting and songs, and this is one of them.

The Silver Tongued Devil and I

As noted earlier, this is the album which really sold me on Kristofferson. His second album, it was produced by Fred Foster and released in 1971 on Monument Records.

Incredibly, given that Kristofferson was such a great songwriter, Wikipedia has only the bare bones about this album. It notes that among those cited in the famous spoken introduction to The Pilgrim, Chapter 22, are Johnny Cash and Dennis Hopper, who later performed that song on The Johnny Cash Show. Furthermore, Epitaph, we are told, is about Janis Joplin, who had just died. And The Pilgrim was even immortalised in a film, Taxi Driver, from 1976. Wikipedia says Travis (Robert De Niro) buys the album for Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) after she quotes from the song to describe him as “a prophet, he’s a pusher … partly truth and partly fiction … a walking contradiction”.

What is noticeable is the large contingent of top musicians who backed him on this album, including three guitarists and three bass players, among them Billy Swan (also mentioned in that spoken intro). Drums, keyboards, dobro, percussion and Charlie McCoy on harmonica/vibes/trumpet are also included. And I was correct in identifying the inimitable voice of Joan Baez, who accompanies him on The Taker, although on the cover she is only credited as The Lady. Billy Swan, Donnie Fritts and Rita Coolidge are the other backing vocalists. The album charted at No 4 on the US country albums chart and No 21 among the pop albums, while the single, Loving Her Was Easier reached No 4 and No 26 respectively.

The album cover was again inspirational to young teenagers seeking their own identities. Here, the ultra-cool Kris is dressed in dark brown denim jacket, and dark (almost black) jeans and shirt. He stands with thumbs tucked into the belt of his jeans, a cigarette in his right hand. Clean-shaven, his hair is long and dishevelled. Cleverly, they have created a softer version of the same image and placed it behind and slightly to the left of the original, perhaps symbolising this other persona that the title track seems to be about. On the back, dressed in similar clothes, he is almost silhouetted in a black-and-white photograph while sitting on rocks at the seashore.

So what was so good about this album, and how could it possibly compete with that hit-laden first album? Well the opening track, also the title track, sets the tone for some incredible songwriting. The Silver Tongued Devil And I starts with some jaunty piano, along with various other country rock instruments. There is great bass work and is that the sound of a steel guitar or a dobro, which Wikipedia tells us is a “resonator guitar” like the one on the cover of Dire Straits’s Brothers In Arms. Anyway, this fine music sets the melody for another piece of Kristofferson lyric magic. “I took myself down to the Tally Ho Tavern, / To buy me a bottle of beer. / And I sat me down by a tender young maiden, / Who’s eyes were as dark as her hair. / And as I was searching from bottle to bottle, / For something un-foolish to say. / That silver-tongued devil just slipped from the shadows, / And smiling, stole her away.” So who was this “devil”? Well the protagonist doesn’t take things lying down. As the pace slows, Kristofferson sings: “I said: ‘Hey, little girl, don’t you know he’s the devil. / ‘He’s everything that I ain’t. / ‘Hiding intentions of evil, / ‘Under the smile of a saint.” I’m seeing those lines for the first time. I’d heard “I’d no intentions of evil”, which of course made no sense. Now, suddenly, it all gels. The Kris character continues: “ ‘All he’s good for is getting in trouble, / ‘And shiftin’ his share of the blame. / ‘And some people swear he’s my double: / ‘And some even say we’re the same.’” By now the tempo has increased markedly. “ ‘But the silver-tongued devil’s got nothing to lose, / ‘I’ll only live ’til I die. / ‘We take our own chances and pay our own dues, / ‘The silver tongued devil and I.’ As I suspected, of course the two are one and the same. This is his “dark side”, quite happy to take advantage of a “tender young maiden”. The next verse goes: “Like all the fair maidens who’ve laid down beside him, / She knew in her heart that he’d lied. / Nothin’ that I could have said could have saved her, / No matter how hard that she tried. / ’Cos she’ll offer her charms to the darkness and danger, / Of somethin’ that she’s never known. / And open her arms at the smile of a stranger, / Who’ll love her and leave her alone.” Does this mean she’s equally culpable? Of course as teenage boys we loved the idea that a guy could literally charm the pants off a chick. Let’s see how the chorus goes this time round. “And you know, he’s the devil. / He’s everything that I ain’t. / Hiding intentions of evil, / Under the smile of a saint.” It continues as it did the first time, except that there is a nice moment of silence after the words, “pay our own dues”, when he chuckles, “Ah ha ha ha”, before concluding with the line, “The silver-tongued devil and I”.

From this image of a womaniser par excellence, the next song, Jody And The Kid, presents a very different picture. Slow, gentle acoustic guitar provides the cushioning for the opening lines: “She would meet me in the mornin’ on my way down to the river, / Waiting patient by the China Berry tree; / With her feet already dusty from the pathway to the levee, / And her little blue jeans rolled up to her knees.” The stage is set, and now the melody picks up pace, with the full country-rock sound, including strings in the chorus and some fine harmonica further on. “I’d pay her no attention as she tagged along beside me, / Trying hard to copy ev’rything I did; / But I couldn’t keep from smiling when I’d hear somebody saying: / ‘Look a-yonder; there goes Jody and the kid.’” The relationship seems to be between an older boy and a little girl. “After we grew older, we could still be seen together, / As we walked along the levee holding hands; / For as surely as the seasons, she was changin’ to a woman, / And I’d lived enough to call myself a man. / And she often lay beside me, in the coolness of the evening, / ’Til the morning sun was shining on my bed; / And at times, when she was sleeping, / I would smile when I’d remember, / How they used to call us ‘Jody and the kid’.” I remember, as a youth, taking very seriously the line that he’d “lived enough to call myself a man”, because at that stage in life it is no laughing matter. What, indeed, constitutes being “a man”. But back to that song. “Now, the world’s a little older, and the years have changed the river, / ’Cos there’s houses where they didn’t used to be; / And on Sundays I go walking down the pathway to the levee, / With another little girl who follows me. / And it makes the old folks smile to see her tag along beside me, / Doing little things the way her Mamma did. / But it gets a little lonesome, when I hear somebody saying: / ‘Look yonder; there goes Jody and the kid’.” Call it sentimental, but as I noted earlier, Kristofferson loves to write about real issues – and having a daughter that reminds everyone of your wife when she was young is about the cycle of life itself. This song also seems tinged with tragedy, because why is he lonesome? The only conclusion one can draw is that he has lost the Mamma of that child.

Story songs. Just like Bob Dylan, Kristofferson loved to tell a narrative tale, and the next track, Billy Dee, is just that. Fast-paced, with the bass guitar backing feisty acoustic guitar, the lyrics are again pure magic. I mean consider the implication of these opening lines. “Billy Dee was seventeen when he turned twenty-one / Fooling with some foolish things he could’ve left alone / But he had to try to satisfy a thirst he couldn’t name / Driven towards the darkness by the devil in his veins.” So he grew up too quickly, and dabbled where he shouldn’t. The pace builds. “All around the honky tonks, searching for a sign / Getting’ by on getting’ high on women, words and wine / Some folks called him crazy, Lord, and others called him free / But we just called us lucky for the love of Billy Dee.” Clearly a charmer, he seemed to be the proverbial life and soul of the party. “Busy goin’ his own way and speakin’ his own words / Facin’ and forgettin’ every warnin’ that he heard / Makin’ friends and takin’ any crazy chance he could / Getting’ busted for the bad times and believin’ in the good.” It’s great songwriting. But one knows tragedy is in the wings. “Billy took a beatin’ from a world he meant no harm / The score was written in the scars upon his arm / Some felt he was payin’ for the life he tried to lead / But all we felt was sorry for our good friend Billy Dee.” Kristofferson’s voice takes on a low, confessional tone, as he continues. “It may be his soul was bigger than a body’s oughta be / Singin’ songs and bringin’ laughter to the likes of you and me / Cause the world he saw was sadder than the one he hoped to find / But it wasn’t near as lonesome as the one he left behind.” Again, brilliant writing! Then the denouement. “Yesterday they found him on the floor of his hotel / Reachin’ toward the needle, Lord, that drove him down to hell / Some folks called it suicide, others blamed speed / But we all called it crucified when Billy Dee O.D.’d.” And again, that’s the first time I’ve seen that last line. While the reference to the needle implied drugs, it is only now I discover that he O.D.’d, or over-dosed. It makes one wonder if this, like a couple of Neil Young songs, refers to a specific case that Kristofferson was familiar with, possibly a close friend. Clearly he was a musician.

Remember that early single he wrote for someone in the mid-1960s, condemning the anti-Vietnam war protesters? Well in the fourth track on this album, Good Christian Soldier, which was written by Bobby Bare and Billy Joe Shaver – he expresses sentiments that speak of a very different perspective on war. Acoustic guitar and that slide/steel/dobro sound kick this off at a medium tempo. “Not so long ago in Oklahoma the son of an Okie preacher knelt to pray / He said Lord I wanna be a Christian soldier just like you / And fight to build a new and better day.” Ah, the young man who would fight and die for his country, and for God himself. As the song is fleshed out by other instruments, the distinctive Kris voice continues. “Now many years and miles from Oklahoma / That same young Okie boy still kneels to pray / But he don’t pray to be no Christian soldier anymore / He just prays to make it through another day.” With solid backing vocals kicking in, the chorus lays bare the plight of the conscript. “ ’Cause it’s hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun / And it hurts to have to watch a grown man cry / But we’re playin’ cards, writin’ home, havin’ lots of fun / Telling jokes and learning how to die.” And that is what soldiering is all about. Lots of boredom, with the strong chance that at the end of it you die. There is a spoken section at this point. “Now the things I’ve come to know seem so confusin’ / It’s getting’ hard to tell what’s wrong from right.” Then he sings: “I can’t separate the winners from the losers anymore / And I’m thinking of just giving up the fight.” The chorus is repeated, but this time ends with “Turning on and learning how to die.” No longer are they telling jokes, now they’re hitting the drugs, while all the time death seems their likely destination. Now I realise why we dug this album so much. It had a lot of political clout, especially this song, given that we were facing our own conscription demons in South Africa.

But let’s see how the side concludes. Breakdown (A Long Way From Home) has a lighter air, with sprightly acoustic guitar, piano and strings launching the melody. Then that somewhat gravelly voice. “The clubs are all closed and the ladies are leaving / There’s nobody nobody knows on the street / A few stranded souls standing cold at the station / And nowhere to go but to bed and to sleep.” Again, the clever use of a double negative serves to enhance the sense of disconnectedness. The full sound of strings, backed by piano, launches that famous chorus. “Lord would you look at you now that you’re here / Ain’t you proud of your peers and the long way you’ve come / All alone all the way on your own who’s to say / That you’ve thrown it away for a song / Boy you’ve sure come a long way from home.” Word wizardry. The song continues: “So it’s so long, so many so far behind you / Fairweather friends that you no longer know / You still got the same lonely songs to remind you / Of someone you seemed to be so long ago.” The song concludes with that chorus repeated, whilst female backing vocals and some lovely harmonica work add to the texture. These lyrics, like Dylan’s, have many layers and will, in time, be recognised, I believe, for the nuggets of genius that they are.

Side 2 opens with what, going by the title, must surely be a simple love song. Or not? Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) starts with acoustic guitar and violin, while Kristofferson’s voice rambles forward in typically laid-back style. “I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the skies. / Achin’ with the feelin’ of the freedom of an eagle when she flies. (Some lovely flute comes in about here) / Turnin’ on the world the way she smiled upon my soul as I lay dying. / Healin’ as the colours in the sunshine and the shadows of her eyes.” So what’s that about? I’m not at all sure, but it’s beautifully written. “Wakin’ in the mornin’ to the feelin’ of her fingers on my skin. / Wipin’ out the traces of the people and the places that I’ve been. / Teachin’ me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying. / Talkin’ of tomorrow and the money, love and time we had to spend.” This is surely about pure existentialism. How does having a woman in your life affect your view both of the past and the future? Clearly, from the one-line chorus, she was a tonic. “Lovin’ her was easier than anything I’ll ever do again.” There is a change of mood: “Comin’ close together with a feelin’ that I’ve never known before, in my time. / She ain’t ashamed to be a woman, or afraid to be a friend. / I don’t know the answer to the easy way she opened every door in my mind. / But dreamin’ was as easy as believin’ it was never gonna end.” This is the sort of creative writing which just sparkles with both meaning and a sheer delight in the use of words. Again the verse ends with the one-line chorus and a few la-la-laas.

The next track, The Taker, was written by both Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein, and is the one which features the voice of Joan Baez. Big bass and horns give this a grand opening, as fast-paced acoustic lead guitar adds to the mix. Here the melody drives the song forward. “He’s a giver he’ll give her the kind of attention that she’s never known / He’s a teacher he’ll teach her to open the doors that she can’t on her own / He’s a lover he’ll love her in ways that she never has been loved before / He’s a getter he’ll get her by getting’ her into the world she’s been hungerin’ for.” Again, it is the brilliant use of a simple yet highly original lyric construction which lies at the heart of this song’s success. “He’s a charmer he’ll charm her with money and manners that I never learned / He’s a leader he’ll lead her across pretty bridges he’s plannin’ to burn / He’s a talker he’ll talk her right off of her feet but he won’t talk for long / Cause he’s a doer he’ll do her the way that I never damned if he won’t do her wrong.” There is a full vocal backing on the chorus, before Baez takes a leading roll. “Cause he’s a taker he’ll take her to places and make her / Fly higher than she’s ever dared to / He’ll take his time before takin’ advantage takin’ her easy and slow / And after he’s taken the body and soul that she gives him / He’ll take her for granted / Then he’ll take off and leave her taking all of her pride as she goes / Yes he’s a taker...” And so this devious womaniser’s plot is exposed, with Baez having brought her unique talents to bear on another brilliant Kristofferson original. With great staccato-like piano, the song comes to a nicely constructed ending.

Predictably, the next song, When I Loved Her, is slow and laid back. It starts with Kristofferson speaking: “One, two, three, four”, before gentle acoustic guitar lays down the melody. “Well, she didn’t look as pretty as some others I have known, / And she wasn’t good at conversation when we were alone. / But she had a way of making me believe that I belonged. / And it felt like coming home when I found her.” The full country sound has now kicked in, with some bluesy harmonica adding to the mix. There is a wonderful croaky male voice that joins Kris on the chorus. “Cause she brightened up the day like the early morning sun / And she made what I was doing seem worthwhile. / It’s the closest thing to living that I guess I’ve ever known. / And it made me want to smile when I loved her.” This is an unalloyed love song. “’Cause she seemed to be so proud of me, just walking, holding hands, / And she didn’t think that money was the measure of a man. / And we seemed to fit together when I held her in my arms. / And it left me feeling warm when I loved her.” It may seem schmaltzy, but Kris carries it off with aplomb. And again that intelligent use of words shines through, like the triple alliteration in money not being the measure of man. There is more fine writing in the last verse: “I know some of us were born to cast our fortunes to the wind, / And I guess I’m bound to travel down a road that never ends. / But I know I’ll never look upon the likes of her again. / And I’ll never understand why I lost her.” The chorus sums up his intense sense of loss.

Then the song that really captured our attention. Because here was Kristofferson talking, about people who helped shape his life, and his song. The Pilgrim, Chapter 33, starts with gently picked acoustic guitar, before Kris starts talking in that rich, deep voice of his. Try as I may, I have been unable to find the exact words spoken by him. From memory it goes something like: “I started out writing about Paul Seaward … ended up writing about … Johnny Cash, Billy Swan, Jerry Jeff Walker ... Rambling Jack Elliott had a lot to do with it.” Anyway, what that list of country music icons has to do with the song, I hope to discover from the lyrics themselves. “See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans, / Wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile / Once he had a future full of money, love, and dreams, / Which he spent like they was goin’ outa style / And he keeps right on a’changin’ for the better or the worse, / Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found / Never knowin’ if believin’ is a blessin’ or a curse, / Or if the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.” This, surely, is a tale about all those country singers who followed similar flight paths, walking a fine line between success and self-destruction. Then that famous chorus: “He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, / Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.” Again, superb songwriting. And there is good solid male backing on that chorus. But Kristofferson expands on the subject. “He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars, / And he’s traded in tomorrow for today / Runnin’ from his devils, Lord, and reachin’ for the stars, / And losin’ all he’s loved along the way / But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse, / And all he ever gets is older and around / From the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse, / The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.” The chorus ends with the addition of the line: “There’s a lotta wrong directions on that lonely way back home.”

I am grateful (again) to Wikipedia for the insight into the somewhat sombre final track on this ablum, Epitaph (Black And Blue), which was written by Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts and is apparently about Janis Joplin, who, it will be recalled, really helped launch Kristofferson’s career with her version of Me And Bobby McGee. This song is a remarkable slow bluesy piece dominated by what sounds like an electric piano. Slowly and deliberately, Kristofferson sings this plaintive tribute. “Her close friends have gathered. / Lord, ain’t it a shame / Grieving together / Sharing the blame. / But when she was dying / Lord, we let her down. / There’s no use cryin’ / It can’t help her now.” This must have come as a great shock to the rock world, along with the deaths of Hendrix and Jim Morrison. This song, then, in a sense mourns the passing of the age of innocence that was the 1960s. “The party’s all over / Drink up and go home. / It’s too late to love her / And leave her alone.” The emotion in his voice is palpable. “Just say she was someone / Lord, so far from home / Whose life was so lonesome / She died all alone / Who dreamed pretty dreams / That never came true / Lord, why was she born / So black and blue? / Oh, why was she born / So black and blue?” That is some powerful writing. Battered from within by her own tormented soul, it was small wonder that Janis Joplin sang the blues like no other woman, black or white, has done before or since. And Kristofferson’s tribute is a fitting, heart-felt one. It is also one of his finest pieces of writing.

How much can you fit onto one vinyl album? In this case, a couple of lifetimes’ worth, at least.

Border Lord

I must concede, at the outset, that Border Lord was not an integral part of my upbringing, although I was familiar with the cover, a competent pink, white and black watercolour of Kristofferson by Arnold Arnhan. But I did manage to pick up a vinyl copy of the album quite recently, and having just given it a spin I realise that a substantial number of tracks were indeed very much among the stuff we listened to.

Wikipedia tells us this, his third album, was produced again by Fred Foster and released on the Monument Records label in February 1972. And that’s it, apart from a list of the musicians, which is also on the album cover, beneath a black and white photograph of Kris and some fellow musicians on a stage bedecked by arty posters. The cover also carries a short note from Kristofferson, who says: “We put a lot of road between this album and the last one, back and forth across the US of A and Canada, hitting most of the high spots and all the lows. Cruising pretty close to crazy, but somehow keeping it together enough to keep from crossing that border. We made some friends and left some enemies along the way, and I guess we’ll continue to. It all adds up to miles and memories, and, like Satchel Paige said, ‘Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you’.” So here the border of the title seems to be alluded to, and it is the border between somehow keeping it together and going crazy. But who was the lord?

To get an idea of what the music quality is like, you need only check out the 16 or so musicians who accompany Kristofferson, among them Rita Coolidge on vocals, Pete Drake on steel guitar, several other top guitarists, Charlie McCoy again on keyboards and harmonica, a couple of bass players, keyboard players, drummers, a percussionist and Tommy Jackson on fiddle.

While there is not the same nostalgia factor listening to this album as the other early ones, I found the songwriting and musicality of the same high standard. This is still vintage Kristofferson, make no mistake.

The opening track, Josie, starts typically with acoustic guitar, drums and bass. A gentle country rock, with a taste of electric lead guitar and organ later on, along with backing vocals on the choruses, it is again the lyrics, sung in that unique voice, which steal the show. “I’ve been chasing after Josie since the day I could run / Even though I didn’t know it at the time / And I followed her from Texas ’til she found me undone / Just a jump ahead of what I left behind.” Great stuff. “She was proud of her young body as a body could be / On her way to be a woman of the world / And I still can see her smiling as she gave it to me / Lookin’ like a lonesome little girl.” Ah, the pleasures of the conquest! And so to the chorus, which I realised I had heard many times before. “Josie, is it true that you’ve grown harder than your years / Sellin’ them your sadness on the street / How much did you lose between the laughter and the tears / Getting’ back the bitter for the sweet.” So it seems she too has fallen on hard times, possibly selling her body on the street? “Well, she loved me back to livin’ at a time I was lost / With the closest thing to love I’ve ever known / And she led me through some bridges I was burnin’ to cross / Then she went and burned some bridges of her own.” Another Kristofferson relationship wrangle, expertly unpacked, with the bridge again used as a metaphor. “Now the road’s a little colder every time that I leave / For another empty place I’ve never been / And I don’t suppose it’s likely that she’s lookin’ for me / But someday I may just chase her down again.” There is some interesting steel guitar here, with the chorus bringing things to a conclusion.

Steve Stills wrote a song about the cost of freedom. What was Kristofferson about on the next track, The Burden Of Freedom? The song starts with gentle acoustic guitar and quiet bass. There is some subtle organ in their somewhere, along with female backing vocals on the chorus and understated electric guitar. “I stand on the stairway, my back to the dungeon / The doorway to freedom so close to my hand / Voices behind me still bitterly damn me /For seeking salvation they don’t understand.” Then the chorus, which should cast some light on what’s going down here. “Lord, help me to shoulder the burden of freedom / And give me the courage to be what I can / And when I am wounded by those who condemn me / Lord, help me forgive them, they don’t understand.” I’m still somewhat in the dark. “Their lonely frustration, descending to laughter / Erases the footprints I leave in the sand / And I’m free to travel where no one can follow / In search of the kingdom they don’t understand.” There is a subtle change in the chorus next time round, with a woman’s forgiveness being sought. “Lord, help me to shoulder the burden of freedom / And give me the courage to be what I can / And when I have wounded the last one who loved me / God, help her forgive me, I don’t understand.”

The title of the next song, Stagger Mountain Tragedy, seemed familiar, and when I heard the first line, I realised it was. What sounds like a banjo is soon joined by a fiddle as this song gets going in almost bluegrass mode. “ I was born on stagger mountain in the sunshine and the snow / And leavin’ was the first mistake I made; / But I hungered for the shadows in the valley down below / And the girl that danced the tune the devil played. / Her smile was like the blindin’ light of sunshine on the snow / And the flashin’ of her hair was black as sin. / And her body set the smokes of hell a-boilin’ in my skull / When the fiddle of the devil made her spin.” So this is one mean femme fatale. Drums add impetus to the fiddle, while backing vocals flesh out the chorus. “Morning sunshine (sunshine) high on the mountain, / Where the air is pure and cold; / But there’s darkness in the shadows / In the canyons of my soul.” So where is this headed? “The lantern cast a shadow like a demon on the wall / And the naked sweat was breathin’ on her skin; / Then the room was spinning closer as her clothes began to fall / And the eagle started screamin’ in my brain; / Then I saw the laughin’ dagger and I heard the devil scream / And her bleeding heart was beating in my hand. / Then the darkness blew away and I was standin’ by a tree / With a hanging rope a-danglin’ from a limb.” That sounds like one nasty nightmare – a symbol perhaps for the perils of carnality.

The title track, Border Lord, Kristofferson wrote with Stephen Bruton, Donnie Fritts and Terry Paul. It starts with slow, expertly picked acoustic guitar. A slow, bluesy track, incisive drums, harmonica and steel guitar add to the tight sound. “Darkness had us covered when we split from Minnesota in the morning / In the rain / Black as I was feeling and the street was slick and shiny as a snake / Each of us was a-humming to a half forgotten echo / Hangin’ over in the brain / Tappin’ time and thinking of the time we never had the time to take / Losing to the rising cost of living high and loving hard / And leavin’ every yesterday behind / Learning every bridge you cross, is burning down before you’re off and running / Like the devil just in time.” A couple of subjects are starting to crop up too regularly in Kristofferson’s writing, bridges and devils among them. But let’s get to that chorus. “Breakin’ any ties before they bind you / Taking any comfort you can find / Running like you’re running out of time / Take it all-take it easy-till it’s over-understanding / When you’re headin’ for the border lord / You’re bound to cross the line / Good lookin’ women every time you stumble / Waitin’ there to catch you when you fall / Getting’ to you bad enough to let ’em / Keep you backin’ up till just before your back’s against the wall.”

The last song on the side is Somebody Nobody Knows, which again starts with slow acoustic guitar and bass. His vocals come in very low and gravelly. “Alone in a barroom / a young girl is sittin’ / and smilin’ at nothing at all. / And she smiles now and then / at the eyes of the men / in the mirror that hangs on the wall.” Bars seem another common setting for his writing. “She’s waitin’ for someone and knowin’ there’s no one / who cares if she comes or she goes; / just a soul in the shadows / the world never sees, / she’s somebody nobody knows.” A lonesome lass looking for a lad, perhaps. The chorus runs: “Someone no one’s ever known / smiling where no one can hear, / somebody’s dying alone / in a city where nobody cares.” It’s a bleak world out there, and this mood is compounded in the next verse. “Down in the gutter an old man had fallen / like somethin’ the world threw away. / And the late crowd was leavin’ / and nobody even / took time to look down where he lay.” A heartless place, too. “The old man was cryin’ and helplessly tryin’ / to wipe off the stains from his clothes; / just a soul in the shadows / that life left behind, / he’s somebody nobody knows.” The chorus is repeated as this sombre song ends.

Okay, so Dylan wrote “little girl lost, she takes herself so seriously”, or suchlike. But the first track on Side Two is called Little Girl Lost and it has a fastish rock sound, with lead guitar, drums and bass gradually slowing somewhat as the vocals begin. “See the little girl lost: walking through this world alone / She ain’t looking for a lover, she’s just looking for a home.” This, too, seems a regular Kristofferson theme. “If you want more than sympathy then look for something else / Cause she’s not true to anyone, not even to herself / She’ll have sixteen smiling strangers who are handing her a line / While she’s drawing dirty pictures on the black side of your mind / And that body she’ll let anybody hold, but the devil’s got her soul.” Oh dear. It seems Kris is falling for a fantastic young body, but the old devil’s has her soul – which probably means she’s no simple conquest. The chorus suggests there is a way to her heart. “But if you take her, take her easy / Treat her gentle, she used to love me.” Then: “See the little girl lost, pleading silently for help / Knowing no one understands her, she don’t understand herself.” I’m beginning to think this isn’t Kris’s greatest hour, or couple of minutes anyway. “She’ll feed your hungry ego till you think you’re quite a man / But you better count your fingers when she turns loose of your hand / Cause you’re just a game she’s playing any way that she can win / And you ain’t about to touch her any deeper than her skin / In that body anybody can control, but the devil’s got her soul.” The song ends with that short chorus. A redeeming feature here is some great Dire Straits-like electric lead guitar.

The next song, Smokey Put The Sweat On Me, borders, lord, on commercial pop. A quick-fire rock sound with electric guitar drums and bass, female vocals and harmonica are evident in the choruses. “ I’ve known some women in every state / From New York city to the Golden gate / I’ve lived with some and buddy I’ve loved ’em all, yes I did / But no one woman had a claim on me / ’Cause I still had a lotta world to see / And I sometimes stagger, but Sugar, I seldom fall.” And so to the chorus with it’s catchy last couple of lines. “ Then like a hungry man I went to Louisiana / Where the lovin’ and the livin’ was good / Without a care to hide and just as satisfied as I could be / A lotta women and wine and not a tie to bind me / And behaving just as cool as I could / Till a long-legged, sweet-walkin’, raven-haired and Cajun-lookin’ / Devil put the sweat on me / They call her Smokey, she’s a little bit of evil / Smokey, right as wrong can be / Smokey, she could shake the very devil / Smokey put the sweat on me / Oh,Smokey put the sweat on me.” No comment. “Oh, my pulse is a-beatin’ to the clickety-clack / Of this one-way ride that’s gonna take me back / And my body’s just a breathin’ in the Mississippi river smell / Well my feet wasn’t ready yet for settling down / But my soul kept tellin’ me to turn around / And the longer I tried to fight the harder I fell.” The lengthy chorus is somewhat altered the second time. “And like a hungry man I’m going to Louisiana / Where the lovin’ and the livin’ is good / I’ll get a brand new bride and be as satisfied as I can be / And I won’t even mind the world I’m leavin’ behind / Because I never really thought that I could / Till that long-legged, sweet walkin’, raven-haired and Cajun-lookin’ / Devil put the sweat on me …” And so the song ends with that sweat on me mantra. Again, though, the femme fatale idea, which is overused, if you ask me.

The next song, When She’s Wrong, opens with what sounds like an organ. There is electric guitar, bass and drums and it’s something of a slow blues. “Go on and take her, it ain’t no surprise boy / I knew that someday it had to come / Just let me offer a word to the wise, boy / Oh, take a good look at what you’ve won.” Again, the theme seems to be one of wariness about this sought-after woman. “Then turn around, boy, and try to forget her / She’s gonna hurt you, before she’s gone / ’cause, when she’s good, lord, there ain’t nothing better / But, when she’s wrong, she sure can be wrong.” He definitely got stuck in a bit of rut on this album. “She’ll bring you sunshine so good that it’s frightening / Oh, but soon as the sun shines, start lookin’ for rain / You’ll hear the thunder, before you see the lightening / As soon as it’s over, start lookin’ for pain.” Finally: “And you won’t be sorry that you ever met her / But you’ll be thankful she don’t last long / ’cause when she’s good, lord, there ain’t nothing better / But when she’s wrong, she sure can be wrong.”

Next up is the oddly titled Getting’ By, High And Strange, which is a quick-paced song initially set up with bass and acoustic guitars. Country-style electric guitar and good backing vocals combine to make this a fine country song. “New York City was a stitch in time when I stood all I could of LA / Patchin’ up the pieces of my tangled mind diggin’ somethin’ different every day yeah / Soon as I was better I was movin’ on getting’ it together getting’ good and gone / And by (getting’ by) high (good and high) and strange (gonna get some strange).” It’s a cumbersome construction, but somehow it works. “New ain’t nothin’ but a state of mind / Keeps a man from missin’ what he left behind / I’ll take anything that I can find anyhow anywhere anyway anytime / I’ll keep livin’ till the day I die as long as I can get it up for one more try / Getting’ by (getting’ by) high (good and high) and strange (gonna get some strange).” Somewhere in there he slips in a boyish chuckle. There is also a seriously Irish slice of logic about “livin’ till the day I die”.

The album ends with Kiss The World Goodbye, another slow, acoustic guitar-led piece, which soon picks up the electric instruments, drums, piano et al. “I never had no regrets, boys; / Not for nothing I’ve done. / I owed the devil some debts, boys, / Paid them all up but one. / And I don’t even regret the living / That I’ll be leaving behind. / I’ve gotten weary of searching / For something I couldn’t find.” This seems to border on the suicidal. “I’m going down to the shade / By the river one more time, / And feel the breeze on my face before I die. / I’m gonna leave whatever’s left of my luck to the losers, / Then bend me down and kiss the world goodbye.” It reminds me of the Cream song, Born Under A Bad Sign, where if it wasn’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all. “Come to lucky-in-lovin’ / I never had no complaints. / They never said I was evil, / But then, I wasn’t no saint. / I’m just a river that rolled forever / And never got to the sea. / I ain’t blaming nobody; / I had it coming to me.” With that rather maudlin chorus repeated, this song perhaps sums up an album which really does, in a way, show Kristofferson on the border of losing it. Happily he would regain his mojo on the next one.

Jesus was a Capricorn

This album, for me, was, for a time, the coolest thing around. As noted earlier, the cover contains photographs which show Kris on his haunches beside a lovely lady (Rita Coolidge?) with her long black hair in ponytails, beads around her neck, cowboy hat, shades and supertight bell-bottom jeans with embroidery at the bottom and high-heeled dark boots. Kris himself wears a blue T-shirt, a pale olive green waistcoaty thing, faded jeans and nondescript shoes. Fag in hand, he too grins broadly. This image of cool cats on the road is continued with a series of black-and-white snaps on the back of Kris and the band. But the piece de resistance is the large black-and-white photograph inside the gatefold cover which shows Kris, on stage, taking a slug of something from a bottle (probably not Coke), while his acoustic guitar hangs by his hip. Beside him is, presumably, ponytailed Rita, with the other band members and backing vocalists all smiling and clearly having fun.

But let’s check what the online oracle has to say about the album. As with the others, Wikipedia totally underplays Kristofferson’s importance. All we learn is that it is his fourth studio album, was produced again by Fred Foster and was released by Monument Records in 1972. It also notes that Why Me reached No 1 on the Country singles charts – and that the cover does indeed feature Rita Coolidge, “his soon-to-be wife”.

The backing group is again packed with talent and features two drummers, about 10 guitarists (not all at once, of course), two bass players, a slide dobro player and steel guitarist, five pianists and a strings section which includes Bach (Byron T Bach, that is).

But while the cover may have been a hit with us youth – remember Kris was about 20 years older than me – it was the music, and especially the opening and title track, that obviously was the real focus of attention. At a time when, especially in South Africa, even to speak the name Jesus could be dodgy – with claims of blasphemy likely – this song was clearly controversial. Our hypocritical, avowedly puritanical Calvinistic apartheid rulers, had already roundly condemned Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. But what was this song all about? The format is much like most of his others, starting with acoustic guitar and bass, with some powerful drumming, fine piano on the chorus and acoustic guitar lead, not to mention that slide dobro adding to the mix. Kristofferson is his laid-back self as the lyrics unfold. “Jesus was a Capricorn / He ate organic food / He believed in love and peace / And never wore no shoes.” At the time, of course, this was basically describing the look and lifestyle of a typical hippie. “Long hair, beard and sandals / And a funky bunch of friends / Reckon they’d just nail him up / If he came down again.” There are echoes, here, of that earlier song, The Law Is For Protection Of The People. Here, the chorus again explains why the authorities would take action against a Jesus revisiting. “ ’Cause everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on / Who they can feel better than at any time they please / Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on / If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.” And, folks, that’s really the first time I’ve made head or tail of that chorus. Because it is actually clumsily constructed yet, given Kristofferson’s great writing ability, it somehow works. “Eggheads cussing rednecks cussing / Hippies for their hair / Others laugh at straights who laugh at / Freaks who laugh at squares / Some folks hate the Whites / Who hate the Blacks / who hate the Klan / Most of us hate anything that / We don’t understand.” Now that offered plenty of food for thought, especially for young white boys growing up in apartheid South Africa. However, apart from the chorus being repeated, that was that. It was a short song, just 2:28 minutes long, but what a cracker! But there was just one question mark. The song is subtitled, “Owed To John Prine”, and I couldn’t help wondering why. So I asked Wikipedia, and it transpires that Prine is a country/ folk singer/songwriter of some renown who I had not heard of. Wikipedia notes that his eponymous debut album was released in 1971. “He and friend Steve Goodman had each been active in the Chicago folk scene before being ‘discovered’ by Kris Kristofferson (Kristofferson remarked that Prine wrote songs so good that ‘we’ll have to break his thumbs’).” So somehow or other, Jesus Was A Capricorn was “owed” to Prine, whatever that implies.

Next up was Nobody Wins, which is a really progressive sounding country rock song, with slow, moody electric piano, wah-wah electric guitar and inspired bass. Kristofferson’s vocals again are the perfect fit, while the backing vocals again boost the chorus. Notice, again, how he moves words around to suit the melody and meter of the song. Instead of “It doesn’t matter anymore”, the song, of course, starts like this: “Any more it doesn’t matter / Who’s right or wrong / We’ve been injuring each other / For much too long / And it’s too late to try to save / What might have been / It’s over / Nobody wins.” We’ve most of us been there. A relationship fails, according to the divorce court, due largely to “mutual incompatibility”. No one’s to blame, but sometimes, in fact, both parties win, because they can then move on. Let’s see where this one went. “Make believin in forever / Is just a lie / And it seems a little sadder / Each time we try / ’Cause it’s a shame to make / The same mistakes again / And again / It’s over. / Nobody wins.” The song gets a trifle heavier, with that electric guitar upping the ante. “We’ve gone too far too long / Too far apart / The lovin’ was easy / It’s the livin’ that’s hard / And there’s no need to stay and see / The way it ends / It’s over. / Nobody wins.” I like those lines about the living being hard after the easy loving. That’s when reality kicks in, following those heady months and years of being “in love”. Ouch! Eina! It’s easy for me to say, yeah, just move on, but of course at the time you’re hurting real bad and really do feel that nobody wins – apart, that is, if one of the parties has been cheating on the other and swans off with a new partner…

Love, or its ramifications, remains a central theme in Kristofferson’s writing. In the next track, It Sure Was (Love), guitar, piano and drums – and Rita dueting on vocals – set the scene. “They said, ‘What do you think you would do / If she told you that she’d been untrue? / I’d say, ‘I won’t say I won’t be sorry, no. / It sure was love while it lasted.’” I’ve often felt Kristofferson seems to creep into his shell somewhat when accompanied by a female singer, but this song really works superbly. “They said, ‘How will you feel deep inside / When the love you believed in has died?’ / I ain’t sayin’ it won’t hurt me / It sure was love while it lasted.’” I think it’s about here that Kris takes over the lead vocals. “I’ll be livin off of the good times / That you’ve given me to face / I have had my share of the sunshine / I can stand a little rain.” Then the two sing together again. “So we don’t give a damn what they say / We’ve got something they can’t take away / ’Cause whatever comes tomorrow / It sure was love while it lasted / It sure was good while it lasted / It sure was love while it lasted.” This, of course, was a precursor to a couple of strong albums the pair would do over the next few years.

The Wikipedia tracklisting seems wrong at this point. They list Sugar Man at No 4, but on the vinyl album it is Enough For You, which is a slow, bluesy piece played on piano, bass and strings. The emotional power of Kristofferson’s vocals, alongside subtle electric guitar, sets this one apart. I also picked up some good steel guitar and acoustic lead guitar. “I’ve lived enough to know that love’s not everything you need / God knows I know there are still so many things you wanna be / I’ve seen enough to understand the pain you’re goin’ through / It’s just the shame to know I’m not enough for you.” Again, Kristofferson explores territory many a great bluesman has written about with tears falling across his guitar. “It hurts to see the hurt beneath your laughter and your lies / And try in vain to feel the painful secret locked behind your eyes / And I can’t even blame you for the things you’re turnin’ to / It’s just the shame to know I’m not enough for you.” Why do men put themselves in such positions? Why not, damn it! “I’ve given you the best of every thing I have to give / Now there’s nothing left for me to leave you but my will to live / I hope some day somebody somewhere loves you like I do / It’s just the shame to know I’m not enough for you.” Expect some serious drinking to follow such an admission.

Then a curious thing happens on this album. Someone else starts to sing. Larry Gatlin wrote Help Me and I see he is listed among the vocalists on the album cover. So clearly this is his song, which Kristofferson joins him on. Gentle acoustic guitar and bass launch Gatlin on his way. “Lord, help me walk / Another mile, just one more mile; / I’m tired of walkin’ all alone.” This is unashamedly Christian, a bit like Why Me, later on on this album. “Lord, help me smile / Another smile, just one more smile; / You know I just can’t make it on my own.” The song flows smoothly into the well-peopled chorus: “I never thought I needed help before; / I thought that I could get by by myself. / Now I know I just can’t take it any more. / With a humble heart, on bended knee, / I’m beggin’ You, please, Help Me.” The unique quality of Kristofferson’s voice is accentuated as he takes over the lead vocals for the next verse, its gruffness in stark contrast to the smooth Gatlin sound that precedes it. “Come down from Your golden throne to me, to lowly me; / I need to feel the touch of Your tender hand. / Remove the chains of darkness / Let me see, Lord let me see; / Just where I fit into your master plan.” With the strings and some plucky lead guitar boosting the melody, the chorus is repeated with great gusto.

Side 2 starts with a real belter, Jesse Younger. Heavy drums and bass and some wah-wah electric guitar give this a strong country-rock feel, but all the time the acoustic guitar keeps the song grounded. Kristofferson’s vocals are as assertive as ever. “Little Jesse Younger was a well respected lad / Doin’ all he could do to please his mommy and his dad / But he never planned to be the man they said that he’d become / Somehow or another now his little baby brother / Is his father’s and his mother’s only son.” So what became of the poor young lad? “Everyday the neighbours say that it’s a dirty shame the way / We spat upon his family and scandalised their name / And his parents never really ever said he’d been his own / Somehow or another now his little baby brother / Is his father’s and his mother’s only son.” This is an edgier Kristofferson sound, with the piano and lead guitar particularly strong on the chorus: “Oh Jesse Younger you’re a devil not a man / Can you dare to treat your parents so unkind / You have selfishly refused to live your life the way they planned / And you started goin’ your own way and speaking your own mind.” Of course that is dripping with irony. How dare a young man speak his own mind? “Jesse Younger’s parents wonder where it all went wrong / Now that Jesse’s name has turned to ashes on their tongues / But he chose to starve and try to carve a future of his own / And he got his druthers because now his younger brother / Is his father’s and his mother's only son.” I’ve often struggled with the words to that last verse, and the initial site I used had it completely wrong. A subsequent one seemed okay, but I still was unsure about that word, druthers. However, a wee Web search reveals that this is a very American shortening of the term “would rathers”, which itself is an Americanism, but it sort of make sense in the context of the song.

Give It Time To Be Tender, no Give ME Time etc. This next song, co-written by Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts, is another slow, moody piece built around piano and some lovely understated, snaking bass. Rita Coolidge is again prominent as a vocal accompanist. “I feel the hunger you feel in your touch / Burnin’ my body and soul / And it’s freightnin’ just wantin’ somebody so much / So close to losin’ control.” There is some cracking electric lead guitar as Coolidge joins in on the chorus. “But darlin’, don’t make me surrender too soon / I’m so afraid of the fall / Please give it time to be tender / And pretend that it won’t hurt at all.” I recall Coolidge goes solo, beautifully, about here. “Slowly, be gentle / Each step of the way / I’ve never been loved before.” Then Kristofferson rejoins the fray. “Let me believe / You won’t turn away / After I’ve opened the door / But darlin’, don’t make me surrender too soon / I’m so afraid of the fall / Please give it time to be tender / And pretend it won’t hurt at all / Please give it time to be tender / And pretend it won’t hurt at all.” I may have got the solo sequencing wrong, but the fact is this song is a vocal tour de force, and the electric guitar really adds a sharp edge.

Then time for some more wordplay on the next song, Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight, which he co-wrote with Stephen Bruton. Since we were seriously into “the jol” at this stage, the injunction at the start of this track to knock back a bit of booze was all the incentive we needed to do just that. A chorus of voices launches the attack. “Buddy, tip your bottle back / Climb aboard the bus / Join your brothers in the band. / If you ain’t bombed in Birmingham then you ain’t one of us / We don’t really give a damn.” Now, with acoustic guitar and bass backing him, Kristofferson lays it on us. “London is a hundred miles away from where we’re at / And a thousand years behind / Splitting from a sorry gig that left us feeling flat / Out of sight and out of mind.” The song gathers momentum as it evokes the life of rockers on the road. “Cruising through the countryside we’ll never see again / Ain’t it lonesome out tonight / We’ve been on this road now since I can’t remember when / Out of mind and out of sight.” The next verse is pitched a tone higher. “Well I’ve been everywhere and I’ve seen everything there is / But I never saw the light / Scared to death of dying so I do my best to live / Out of mind and out of sight.” Ah yes, one of the great Kristoffersonisms – scared to death of dying so he does his best to live. The fatalism in the song was a sure-fire incentive to get plastered. Then some more double negatives. “Knowing no one nowhere’s gonna miss us when we’re gone / Let’s keep drinking till we’re blind / Everybody’s sleeping and I’m stuck inside a song / Out of sight and out of mind (and out of line).” I love that image of him being “stuck inside a song”. The song concludes with: “Someday when it’s over and it’s time to settle down / And we’ve left it all behind / We can sit and wonder how we ever got around / Out of sight and out of mind / Out of sight and out of mind.” In a sense that song encapsulated the mood of where we, as disillusioned youth faced with a country in crisis, felt at the time. We really did often end up drinking “till we’re blind”.

Fortunately, we had outgrown drugs by then, and probably wisely since I suspect Sugar Man, the next song, is all about their deleterious effects. A slow, bluesy song with steady bass and wavering electric guitar notes, Kristofferson’s ability to inject lashings of emotion is fully evident here. “There are shadows on the sidewalks / Of the city streets at night, / And the alleyways and ugly things / Are hidden from the light. / And somewhere, son, my baby’s / Gonna sell her soul again, / For a custom-tailored lady-killer / They call Sugar Man.” The melody and general song construction is nothing short of superb, whilst the howling slide guitar adds to the country blues feel. “I searched the backstreet barrooms, / And every cheap hotel, / Asking for my baby; they all knew her well. / Well, they said, ‘She’s out there working / For the wages of her sin, / And if you want to find your baby, Baby, / Look for Sugar Man.’” The wages of her sin indeed. At what cost such a lifestyle? Kristofferson speaks the next line, his voice sad and somber. “Well, tonight I found her / (sings) On the sorry side of town / Lying cold upon the bed / Where she had laid her body down. / I picked up the needle that had fallen from her hand / And stuck it through the money she had made for Sugar Man.” This song is truly a wonderful piece of writing and arrangement. It ends with that powerful, somewhat altered, chorus. “There are shadows on the sidewalks / Of the city streets at night / And the alleyways and ugly things / Are hidden from the light. / But the sun’s gonna shine tomorrow / On some dirty garbage cans, / And a custom-tailored lady-killer / They called Sugar Man.

With so many songs about how readily we mortals fall from grace, it is perhaps fitting that the last track looks in awe at a God who would love us despite our failings. Electric piano launches Why Me, and is soon joined by bass and drums. Kristofferson speaks the opening three words, before again pouring his soul into his delivery: “Why me Lord / What have I ever done / to deserve even one / of the pleasures I’ve known.” The music stops momentarily, as he again asks a question. “Tell me Lord / What did I ever do / That was worth loving you / or the kindness you’ve shown.” Then, as the chords shift the mood vertically, the chorus: “Lord help me Jesus I’ve wasted it so help me Jesus I know what I am / Now that I know that I’ve needed you so help me Jesus my soul’s in your hand.” A hallmark of the album are the backing vocals, which gives choruses like this such force. And the lead guitar is again sublime, both bluesy and jazzy, alongside a whirling organ. Kristofferson then again takes stock. “Try me Lord / If you think there’s a way / I can try to repay / all I’ve taken from you / Maybe Lord / I can show someone else / what I’ve been through myself / On my way back to you.” The song ends on a powerful, plaintive note. “Lord help me Jesus... / Lord help me Jesus... / My soul’s in your hand.”

And there it is, one of the great albums of an era of great albums. And what makes it so good is Kristofferson’s belief in his unique qualities as a singer and songwriter. He stuck by his vision and carried it through to produce this great body of work.

Full Moon

Kristofferson married Rita Coolidge in 1972, and together they released three duet albums. Full Moon, produced by David Anderle and released on A&M Records in September 1973, was the first of them, says Wikipedia.

This album was also very much a part of my upbringing, but sadly I no longer have a copy. Wikipedia notes that, unlike Kristofferson’s solo albums, this features several covers. A glance at the track listing reveals that, in fact, there are two joint Kris/Coolidge songs – It’s All Over (All Over Again) and I’m Down (But I Keep Falling), and two Kristofferson wrote alone: From the Bottle To The Bottom and Song I’d Like To Sing. The rest are by other composers, including Hard To Be Friends (Larry Murray), I Never Had It So Good (Roger Nichols, Paul Williams), Take Time To Love (Donnie Fritts, Tony Joe White), Tennessee Blues (Bobby Charles), Part Of Your Life (A and MA Rich), I Heard the Bluedbirds Sing (Hod Pharis), After The Fact (Stephen Bruton) and Loving Arms (Tom Jans).

Sadly, I can’t recall many of those songs, though I know this was a splendid album. But purely as a matter of interest, let’s look at the lyrics of From The Bottle To The Bottom, which clearly was a theme close to Kristofferson’s heart. “You ask me if I’m happy now / That’s good as any joke I’ve heard / It seems that since I’ve seen you last / I done forgot the meaning of the word / If happiness is empty rooms / And drinkin’ in the afternoon / Well I suppose I’m happy as a clam / But if it’s got a thing to do / With smilin’ or forgettin’ you / Well I don’t guess that I could say I am.” You have to love his sarcastic definition of happiness – empty rooms and drinking in the afternoon – which makes him happy as a clam. The chorus takes you to where his hurting heart lies. “Did you ever see a down and outer waking up alone / Without a blanket on to keep him from the dew / When the water from the weeds had soaked the papers / He’d been puttin’ in his shoes to keep the ground from comin’ through / And his future feels as empty as the pocket in his pants / Because he’s never seen a single dream come true / That’s the way that I’ve been feelin’ since the day I started falling / From the bottle to the bottom stool by stool / Learnin’ hard to live with losin’ you.” Again, it’s clever writing. It takes a lateral thinker to present this image of a hobo who’s never seen a single dream come true and then relate it to how he’s feeling as he hits the bottle and falls from many a bar stool. There is almost a Dylan-like anger at this woman. “You wonder if I’m better off / With freedom now to do the things I choose / With all my times my own and I got nothin’ left but sleepin’ time to lose / There’s no one here to carry on / If I stay out the whole night long or give a tinker’s damn if I don’t call / I’m livin’ like I wanted to / And doin’ things I wanna do / And nothin’ means a thing to me at all.” So he presents the idyllic bachelor’s lifestyle in which he is “free to do the things I choose”, but of course in the last line he confesses that, despite all this freedom, life has become meaningless. The song ends with that lengthy, brilliant, chorus repeated, no doubt with Rita’s voice enriching the experience.

I’ve checked out the lyrics of the other Kristofferson solo composition and, while again a clever piece of writing, it perhaps does not have the gravitas of this track. The bottom line is I’d love to hear this album again. But later on we’ll give another Rita/Kris duet album a listen, so all is not lost.

Spooky Lady’s Sideshow

This was probably the last Kristofferson solo album we – the Bentley boys and sister Jenny – got into in a big way in our youth. At least I know I did, because here Kristofferson was possibly at his most impressive, his devil-may-care attitude permeating the album and summed up, perhaps, in that clever cover art which combines a colour picture of Kris (in that same old sleeveless jacket), smiling broadly while clutching a mug (of coffee?). The background seems to have been painted, including the poster advertising Kris and his band’s show. The back cover, cleverly, is in black and white, and includes the remainder of his body – namely a right arm resting on a table, cigarette between two fingers and thumb plectrum in place. The cover includes possibly fictitious cut-outs from various music critics, along with a comprehensive list of the musicians and engineers involved in making the album.

But let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about the album. Well, firstly this, his fifth solo album, was produced by David Anderle, who had produced Fool Moon. It was released – in May 1974 – on the Monument Records label. I’ve not been very interested in Kristofferson’s acting career, but Wikipedia does note that the album was recorded shortly after his appearance in the film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And, surprise, surprise, Wikipedia says the album “mostly consists of songs about decline due to alcohol and drug abuse”. It adds that this “theme of decline” proved unintentionally prophetic as it was his first album not to see commercial success “on a large scale”.

I have an old vinyl copy of the album, but a few of the tracks are dodgy. Let’s give it a shaky spin, anyway.

Phew! I had forgotten just what a great album this is. It is as if everything Kristofferson did before was building up to these 12 tracks. And I think I know exactly why it was not the commercial success of its predecessors. The simple fact is that, while Wikipedia classifies this again as “country” music, Kristofferson had actually moved on. No, while this may have some of the trappings of country, here we find Kristofferson making an unashamedly rock album. Everything about the production and arrangements points to a harder-edged rock sound, including the use of electric lead guitar and organ, along with a brilliant rhythm section comprising Sammy Creason on drums, Les Skiers on bass and Bobbye Hall on percussion. Whilst I didn’t spot it, there is even a sitar on here, played by Jerry McGee (any relation to Bobby?), who also plays sublime acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica and dobro. Mike Utley’s keyboards – notably piano and organ – are another key element. There are two sax players and two trombonists. Curiously, according to the album cover, Kristofferson plays “5 string and 11 string guitars”. I didn’t know such things existed. Rita Coolidge is again among the backing vocalists.

Oh, and as is to be expected, the songwriting here is probably Kristofferson’s finest. Not only are the melodies as pleasing as ever, but his lyric-writing teems with the special literary qualities which set him apart. Oh and that old album sounded okay on my 27-year-old Philips music centre. Indeed, listening to this, surface noises notwithstanding, I have to agree with those who assert that we are indeed losing something on CD. There is a warmth here, even when played softly, that I don’t think you get on CD.

Anyways, as Red Kowalski used to say on the Springbok Radio series Taxi, the album opens with, well, a song called Same Old Song. Acoustic guitar, piano and drums give Kris his platform. “I was just a young man / Working steady in a good time band / Pickin’ every single little lick I could / Just to please the man / Harlan sang the lead for half / And we split up the rest / Hangin’ on through the heavy times / And hopin’ for the best.” The wah-wah-type electric lead guitar really lifts this song, with the bass guitar providing an inspired complementary riff alongside real rock organ. Kristofferson’s voice takes on a tougher timbre for the next verse. “And I can’t recall the names of all / Them places that we played in / All them squirrely party girls / And pills we used to pop / Hardly ever sleepin’ in / Those cheap motels we stayed in / Hopin’ we could take it till we’d make it to the top.” Isn’t that a wonderful, one-verse encapsulation of the would-be rock star? The chorus, packed with backing vocalists, puts it into sharper perspective. “And them nights, get a little bit brighter / And them bars just a little bit better / And the sweet, just a little bit sweeter / But them blues, well it’s still the same old song.” Remember that by now Kristofferson is pushing 40. He’s more than paid his dues. “Now we’re stars and shining on / Them prime time TV shows / Every stranger knows our name / And every little where we go / Findin’ out the bottom ain’t so different / From the top / Just a few more friends that you’ll be losin’ / When you drop.” So, while he may have “made it”, he realises failure is always an imminent possibility. “And I’ve left some of my soul on / Every sweaty sheet that I could sleep on / Getting’ just as close to any body as I could / I don’t regret a single bed I’ve laid my body down on / Ever since the first I had / The worst I had was good.” This brilliant song, its musical qualities outstanding, ends with the chorus.

Slow-strummed acoustic guitar, backed by bass notes, launches the next track, Broken Freedom Song, which, with piano and acoustic guitar lead, alongside drums and percussion, has a subtle, almost muted quality. The organ again adds an interesting rock-orientated dimension, while those backing vocals help put oomph into the chorus. But again it is Kris’s strong vocals, and incredibly inventive lyrics, which are the pivot around which all else turns. “Got a song about a soldier / Ridin’ somewhere on a train / Empty sleeve pinned to his shoulder / And some pills to ease the pain.” It may seem a simple ploy, but instead of saying he’s lost an arm, Kristofferson describes that empty sleeve pinned to his shoulder. Clever. The song is tinged with anger. “Started drinkin in El Paso / He was drunk by San Antone / Tellin’ strangers who were sleepin’ / How he hated goin’ home.” Then that chorus. “Just a simple song of freedom / He was never fightin’ for / No one’s listenin’ till you need ’em / Ain’t no fun to sing that song no more.” Then, from disillusioned soldier, he switches focus. “Got a song about a sister / Waitin’ lonesome by the phone / For some man who never missed her / Ever since he come and gone.” Fine, you might say. Relationships do fizzle out. But read on. “And it’s harder for a woman / With a baby on the way / That’s the price of bein’ human / When you’re poor enough to pay.” Again, a slice of brilliance in that last line – because inevitably it is the poor who end up paying. The chorus is altered. “So she listens to the freedom / In the silence at her door / No one’s missin’ till you need ’em (brilliant!) / Ain’t no fun to sing that song no more.” Then, given Kristofferson’s strong spiritual side, he again switches focus. “Got a song about a saviour / Lookin’ lonesome and afraid / At a city full of strangers / And a cross he never made.” That, again, is a masterstroke. Because Jesus was given his cross. He even had to carry it. And his crucifixion and resurrection fulfilled the prophesies, did they not? “And he’s sadder than he’s wiser / And a longer way from home / And he wonders why his father / Left him bleeding and alone.” The final chorus reads: “Just a broken song of freedom / And the closing of a door / No one’s missin’ till you need ’em / Ain’t no fun to sing that song no more.”

This is one of those albums where, after just two songs, you start to wonder how the guy can keep up the standard. Well the good news is, he does.

Big chords, beautifully strummed on the acoustic guitar, with bold bass backing, launch the next song, Shandy (The Perfect Disguise). Again understated electric lead guitar gives the song a warmth and richness that is complemented by adroit piano work and superb vocals. “Shandy was somebody’s daughter, drivin’ to something insane / They busted her crossin’ the border, swift as a sniff of cocaine / All she could pay was attention, so all they could take was her time / Proving an ounce of possession, ain’t worth a piece of your mind.” The drug-bust hell-hole, captured in a chorus: “’Cause nightmares are somebody’s daydreams, daydreams are somebody’s lies / Lies ain’t no harder than telling the truth, truth is the perfect disguise.” Brilliant! Even if I can’t quite figure it all out. But what next? “Locked in the gold-handled bathroom, Martin was changing his mind / Shedding his humble pretensions, one careful toke at a time / And wiping the mask off a man in the mirror who really was Billy the Kid / Smiling at somebody dying, for something that he never did.” The chorus is followed by the final verse. “Soon as he sat down beside her, shining like Saturday night / Shandy was his for the saving, sweet as she looked in the light / And maybe they moved from the bar to the bedroom, maybe just stood there instead / Martin woke up wet and screaming, dreaming of blood on the bed.” Not surprising, after that shock, we return to a chorus which starts, “Cause nightmares are...” All in all, another Kristofferson gem.

Track 4, Star-Spangled Bummer (Whores Die Hard), is another superb piece which borders on the blues, given the great harmonica, piano and electric lead guitar alongside the acoustic guitar undertow. Indeed, the song opens with aggressively strummed chords on the acoustic guitar, followed by pregnant pauses, into which Kristofferson whisper-sings the opening lines. “Ring anvil for the deal / We dealt us by mistake / Our angel made of steel / Is big enough to break / Cause the rust is at his heel / And I swear I seen him shakin’ / But who’ll be here to bring this body home.” I love the sound of that opening gambit, even if its meaning is not entirely clear. The rhythm of the melody kicks in about here. “The cabaret was crowded / As her bed on payday night / Sammy hit a soldier / And the fools begun to fight / We scattered like the shadows / In the early morning light / But she remained to bring the body home.” Given the title is a play on the US flag’s monicker, one wonders how Old Glory fits into this bit of mayhem. “For longer than it seemed / She loved some honest man / Who chased her wildest dreams / And rode her like the wind / And they forged the bloody chains / For some wounds too deep for mendin’ / But she was there to bring the body home.” What, I wonder, is a barker? Well, as the word suggests, my dictionary says it’s a tout. “The barker stood there smilin’ / As he beckoned us inside / To see the shining creature that had / Grown too big to hide / Look here, he said, he’s harmless / And we wished he wasn’t lyin’ / ’Cause few remained to bring the body home.” The song concludes with that wonderful anvil ringing out in the chorus.

What intrigues me about this album is how each song is so distinct. There is not a track here which isn’t memorable, including the fifth, Lights Of Magdala, which was written by Larry Murray. Again, it is a simple picked acoustic guitar which lays down the melody, to be joined by bass and subtle electric guitar as Kristofferson’s vocals kick in. “Oh, the lights of Magdala flicker / Dimly on the shore / Holy sailor sailing on the sea / Patiently waiting she walked quietly / To the door / Another lonely night in Galilee.” A swirling rhythm, abetted by the organ, gives the chorus clout. “Magdalene, don’t wrap your dreams in sorrow / Save them for tomorrow if it comes / When we’ll meet within the circle / Round the sun / Oh, if heaven were a lady don’t you / Know you’d been the one.” It seems from Wikipedia, and there is clearly some uncertainty, that Magdala is widely held to have been the home of Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus. Is this song about her? “Through the streets of Jerusalem / You followed him once more / Holy sailors come home from the sea / Someone somewhere’s calling him / To a golden distant shore / Far from the lonely nights in Galilee.” Whatever the meaning, it must be noted that this song features some of the finest bass, lead guitar and drums on the album on a fairly lengthy instrumental section. That’s something you wouldn’t get on the earlier “country” albums.

Side 1 concludes with I May Smoke Too Much, a song which we really lapped up as naughty teens, because it basically seemed to give grudging approval for a somewhat dissolute lifestyle. All the rock instruments launch this at a saunter, with Kris’s vocals again spot on. But the feature here, of course, is a jaunty brass section, with the trombone particularly prominent. As usual, the lyrics drip with ironic self-deprecation. “Once my future was shiny as the / Seat of my pants are today / Then old mother luck and all her / Daughters started duckin’ me / When I finally got tired of just sittin’ there / Watching my life slip away / I said I better start takin’ all the living / That’s a-comin’ to me.” So, like so many of us have done at one time or other, he found solace in the barroom. The chorus is a masterpiece. “Now I love too much, fight too much / Stay out late at night too much / But you bet your butt I’m going to / Live before I die / And I may smoke too much, drink too much / Every blessed thing too much / It’s a low-down life, but it ain’t gonna pass me by.” As the brass section hypes this one up, a piano tinkles away tantalizingly. “I don’t care if the world don’t ever hear / The sound of my name / And old mother luck and all her daughters / Keep a-duckin’ me / As long as that cat that I gotta look at when / I shave ain’t ashamed / There ain’t no Jody in the world / I’d ever rather be.” Good to see he’s kept his self-esteem. The song ends with that fine chorus repeated.

Side 2 starts with some low notes on bass and piano, alongside Kris’s deep, dark voice, on One For The Money. The melody, as usual, is infectious. “I’ve seen you standing there stunned in the spotlight / I’ve seen the sweat streak the pain on your face / ’Cause you’re caught like a clown in a circle of strangers (great alliteration!) / Who do you screw to get out of this place.” The full rock band, with lovely understated electric lead guitar, launches the flowing chorus. “It’s one for the money / And too far to go / Three fingers of whiskey / Just for the soul / That lady you’re pleasin’ / Is hungry and cold / Don’t look in her eyes / You’ll see what you sold.” Again, it is a story of moral and social decline. “Too many bodies in too many bars / Too many feelings are fallin’ behind / ’Cause you’re easy to fool when you’re lost in the stars / Shoot out that spotlight before you go blind.” That is some mean songwriting. The Kristofferson sound has become progressive and sophisticated, while at the same time retaining his boyish irreverence. That brilliant one-too-three chorus is repeated as this song is brought to an end.

The old vinyl was a bit damaged on Late Again (Gettin’ Over You), but I still heard enough to appreciate the almost jazz-rock nature of the song, with the mood set from the outset by feisty piano and electric guitar. “Woke up late again this morning / ’Cause I was late again last night / In the mood that I was born in / And my skin was feelin’ tight / I took a short cut to the city / Had myself a drink or two / I got over feeling shaky / But I’m still not over you.” So he wakes up shaking like a new-born baby, has a hair of the dog and then ponders what went wrong with his girl. Astute drumming, virtuoso bass playing and some progressive sounding organ give this song a lovely blues-jazz-country-rock feel, as the chorus unwinds. “God, I might as well forget you / You ain’t never comin’ true / Seems like ever since I met you / I’ve been getting’ over you.” It is unclear here whether he is speaking to God our using his name as a remonstrative outlet. “I don’t crave no conversation / I don’t need no sympathy / All I want is my old lady / That old lady wantin’ me / So take me any way you want me / I’ll take you any way I can / I don’t want your sack of candy / Just some sweetness now and then.” In an altered chorus he continues his introspection. “I got to get myself together / With someone who wants some too / Maybe I can learn to love her / While I’m a-getting’ over you.”

Led Zeppelin are famous for Stairway To Heaven, but the next track here is Stairway To The Bottom, and again we’re dealing in a bluesy sort of way, with Kris’s continuing fall from grace. And blues is the word here, with slide guitar and piano providing a richly textured surface on which he paints his lyrics. Needless to say the melody is such that the song simply flows along almost ineluctably. “Well you’ve started again / With the wife of a friend / On another night you hope you won’t recall / And the wine that you’re drinkin’ / Doesn’t keep you from thinkin’ / Of the bitter taste that lingers in your soul / As you listen to your lies / Once again you realize / That she doesn’t mean a thing to you at all / And I watch you climb that stairway / To the bottom / Every evening in that mirror on the wall.” Kristofferson, probably more than any songwriter, explores the psychological incentives of the heavy drinker. Drinking to forget, or to stop thinking about something – but as noted here, it doesn’t work if the “bitter taste” of what is troubling you “lingers in your soul”. All along, that slide guitar and staccato piano keep a steady, somewhat muted, rhythm going. “You take pride in deceiving / One who tried hard believin’ in you / Even after all the lies you told / But each lie that you’ve spoken / And each vow that you’ve broken / Was a new nail in the coffin of your soul / If you think someone’s cryin’ / For the love that is dyin’ / With the trust that you betray each time you fall / Look around you on that stairway to the bottom / No one’s watchin’ but that mirror on the wall.” You can almost picture the scene, in a smoky room, as the last two lines are repeated. “Look around you on that stairway to the bottom / No one’s watchin’ but that mirror on the wall.”

Rescue Mission, which Kristofferson co-wrote with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth and Saymour Cassell, was one of my favourite tracks on this album. It runs for 5:21 minutes and has the sort of hard-arsed aggression which for some reason appealed. Much of the attraction stems from the resounding opening chords on the acoustic guitar and accompanying drums and percussion. And instead of this being a duet with a female singer, it is Bob Neuwirth who joins in what amounts to a bit of lads-only battle-glory song. The captain touched his swagger stick / Up to his golden eye / And boogied through the vestibule / While bidding us goodbye / The enemy surrounds us / And our spirits almost gone / The Devil take the cavalry / That sold us for a song.” The sense of drama increases as an organ joins in. Neuwirth is still at the vocal helm: “There’s Chi-Chi’s on the starboard, lads / And Chi-Chi’s in the stern / And hashish in the hookah pipes / And bonny grass to burn / Our mission is a secret / But we’re fool enough to try / We’ll sail the bloody ocean, boys / Or drink the bastard dry.” Kristofferson joins the fray on the next verse. “ ‘If I’d’ve been a carpenter,’ the swarthy sergeant said / ‘I’d never seen this ugly thing / That hangs above my head / The hell with all your heroes / And the wounds they hope to show / I’m just a simple soldier, son / With one more year to go.’” Neuwirth takes the reins again. “The albatross was tiring / And the cook was in a stew / The filthy little cabin boy / Was whizzing in my shoe / The captain’s wife was aging / And the first mate heard her scream / When Tommy slipped tabasco in the / Captain’s Vaseline.” I’d hate to think what caused her to scream. Nice pun there about the cook being in a stew, too. Kristofferson resumes the vocals: “ ‘Our time will soon be gone,’ he said / ‘It’s all we’ve left to lose / We’ve shot our ammunition / And we’re all but out of booze / So here’s to Irma Donegal / Here’s to Nellie Blye / And here’s to my old friend,’ he said / And kissed his ass goodbye.” Neuwirth fires back: “ ‘Give off! give off! You sorry lot. / Give off!,’ the Captain cried / ‘we’ve lost our bloody anchor / And we’re driftin’ with the tide / The swollen surf is pounding / Like a thousand cannons roar / And I shake the hand of any man / Who guides us into shore.’” Both singers alternate or sing jointly as the song reaches a denouement. “ ‘We’re saved! We’re saved!’ / The soldiers said / ‘We’re saved!,’ the sailors cried / And soldiers climbed aboard / While sailors leapt from either side / Some swabbies hit the minefield and / The rifles got the rest / And somewhere there’s a schooner / Sinkin’ slowly in the west.” Lovely stuff.

On the penultimate track, Smile At Me Again, it is a wonky wah-wah guitar that accompanies the bass on a slowish number that again is beautifully understated. “Monday caught me early / Comin’ down by surprise / Waiting for a signal light to change / Breathing something bitter / That was burnin’ my eyes / Thinkin’ I’d go drink myself / Back home on the range.” It’s another tale of torment, mitigated by softening alliterative sounds. “Shot down and sinking fast on Sunset Strip / Holding on to something in my head / Everything gets heavy when you’re / Losin’ your grip / Nothin’ looks as empty as a motel bed.” There is a lovely languid quality here as the backing vocalists join in the chorus. “Lord, I’m still a stranger / In this God-forsaken land / Farther from my future and my friends / I’m gonna take enough / To wake me up and make me one / Last one night stand / Then take me home to something’s / Gonna smile at me again.” With an organ filling out the background, chirpy electric lead guitar keeps the song bright and vital. “Break my connections / When I shake me loose / Give my old equipment to the band / Let my friend the devil / Pay the rest of my dues / Take me home to something’s / Gonna smile at me again.” With virtuoso piano joining in, a lovely instrumental section sees the song on its way.

The album ends on a high, bluesy, note, in the form of Rock And Roll Time, which Kristofferson co-write with McGuinn and Neuwirth. Brilliant slide alongside the acoustic guitar, with bluesy bass and piano set up the store. “Do I look like a loser? / Do I stand in your way? / A threat to your future / You planned yesterday / Well, I fought for my freedom / Some called it a crime / Convicted of running / On rock and roll time.” This is a nice concept, and something I suppose most of us did growing up. We really did run on rock and roll time – or at least rock time, the roll had already faded, in my mind, by the time Chuck Berry, Little Richard and, I guess, Elvis, had had their first hurrah and the Beatles and Stones had evolved their styles. But here, almost nostalgically, Kristofferson hankers for the escape that music offers as, backed by fine voices on the chorus, he sings: “I said rock and roll time / Please take me away / To the whiskey and wine / Of some better day / And if sometimes it seems / I’m falling behind / Remember I’m running / On rock and roll time.” Again, with the piano prominent, this song is a musical masterpiece, up there with the best in the game. “I’m judged in your airports / Each time that I fly / I’ve been locked in your jailhouse / Oh, but I’m getting by / Just hoping that heaven / Is happy and high / And everyone’s running / On rock and roll time.” The rocker as outcast … but don’t you love his wish that heaven itself will be “happy and high”. And we all know what high he’s thinking of. This great blues-rock song ends with that classic Kristofferson chorus repeated.

It’s hard to believe this album passes virtually under the radar when in my mind it is one of the great works of the 1970s. Kristofferson’s songwriting never fails to entertain, and offers ongoing food for thought.

Breakaway

Probably the last Kris Kristofferson album we really got into was Breakaway, in which he again shares the vocal spoils with his then wife, Rita Coolidge.

Released in December 1974, Wikipedia tells us it was produced by Fred Foster, who was behind the earlier Kristofferson albums, and was again put out by Monument Records.

The second of their three duet albums, Wikipedia again notes that it features several cover versions. It also offered Kristofferson a chance to record two of his own songs which had previously provided hits for other artists, namely I’ve Got To Have You and I’d Rather Be Sorry.

While Wikipedia offers scant information, they do give the full personnel list – and it is interesting that Kristofferson is only listed as vocalist, with no mention of his playing the guitar. The musicians are many, including a fiddle player, keyboardist, several people on horns and on drums, several others on guitar, steel guitar, Moog synthesiser, percussion, keyboards, strings and background vocals. Among them is Charlie McCoy on harmonica and melodica.

So with all that musical power, did this album pack a punch? Let’s give the original vinyl disc a spin and decide.

Well the album certainly has power – but it was more sexually charged than anything else. There is no getting away from the fact – underscored by the images on the cover – that here were two beautiful people with beautiful voices who no doubt, for a time, had a rip-roaring sex life. So when they wrap their voices around each other – that rich baritone and Rita’s syrup-smooth alto – you can’t escape the fact that there is a subliminal frisson between the two which can lead only to the bedroom – or wherever else they decided to turn those emotions into action.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The album, to my mind, while beautiful almost to a fault, borders on the schmaltzy. It is in the nature of duets, I’m afraid. Gone is the devil-may-care attitude which marks so much of Kristofferson’s finest work. Instead, and it had to come, he has been domesticated. Sure it’s the same old voice – but he can no longer afford to sound off as he did previously about getting drunk and disorderly. Now everything he sings is tempered by Coolidge’s softening touch. Of course there will be many women who’d appreciate this more, but for me it’s just not the sound I came to associate with Kristofferson. That said, the musicians on this album help produce songs of the absolute highest quality – and there is also a nice variety of styles, from pure country, through bluegrass to straight rock.

The album starts with Billy Swan’s song – his swan song? – Lover Please, which features a lot of brass and the first taste of electric lead guitar which works superbly throughout the album. This is pretty traditional country rock, with the two lead singers alternating, while joining forces in the chorus.

The second track, We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds, is by Melba Montgomery and starts slowly, with Rita’s crystal-clear voice somehow overshadowing that of Kris when he later joins in. On Larry Murray’s Dakota, it is the fiddle of Buddy Spicher which sets this apart. There is also some nice blues harmonica and even a bit of honky-tonk piano.

What’cha Gonna Do?, by Donnie Fritts and Jon Reid, sees Kristofferson’s vocals back up there. And when Rita sings her verses, it is crisp and clear. Again, one couldn’t help thinking that this was the aural expression of the horizontal intention.

Robert and Richard Sherman wrote The Things I Might Have Been, another musically superb showcase of these vocal talents. The side ends with Kristofferson’s own composition, Slow Down. Here there is a refreshing bit of aggro in his opening gambit: “I said slow down …”, with Rita and others echoing his lines.

Larry Gatlin’s Rain provides a delightful opening track on Side 2. It is nice to hear acoustic guitars once again prominent in this understated gem which features some of the finest harmonising you are likely to hear.

Then, on Floyd Gib Gilbeau’s Sweet Susannah, that fiddle of Buddy Spicher really sets up a vibrant bluegrass-type sound. I love the opening French chorus, before both lead vocalists surge effortlessly into the verses.

Kris’s composition, I’ve Got To Have You, features some sublime solo singing by Rita, backed by slow, bluesy piano and strings. There are some particularly pleasant piano bass notes when Kristofferson brings his powerful voice to bear.

The sexual, sorry I can’t get away from this, but the sexual chemistry between the two seems to reach its apotheosis on another Kristofferson song, I’d Rather Be Sorry, which while easy to dismiss as more country schmaltz, is so beautiful and charged with that overt romantic love, that it just blows you away. Add some of the finest lead guitarwork and you have a piece of magic.

The album ends with some great Kristofferson vocals on Crippled Crow, a Donna Weiss composition. “Beggar standing on the corner …” It was that man Chuck Berry, on a live version of My Ding-aling, who spoke of how the guys in the audience had to sing one part of the song and the girls another, with the girls “putting their part around the guys’ part”. In these songs there is no need for such salacious commentary, but the chemistry, evident in their vocal interaction as well as a series of pictures of Kris and Rita on the front and back covers of the album, leave one with little choice but to believe they were one of the sexiest couples around.

Small wonder that Kristofferson, who no doubt often loved and lost, could write so tellingly about matters of the heart, and how men broken by failed relationships so often try to drown their sorrows.

We, as teenagers, were, I believe, blessed to have grown up under the “spell” of Kris Kristofferson who, as I think I mentioned earlier, even our high school English teacher praised for his songwriting ability.

But of course we sort of moved on, after 1974, as other rock forces outweighed whatever Kris was doing.

Older now

A cursory look at Wikipedia’s Kristofferson discography shows he kept on churning out albums, virtually one a year, through the rest of the 1970s. He slowed down about in the 1980s, with four albums, with the same number in the 1990s.

In the first decade of the 21st century he had another three out. Add to this his ongoing role as an actor and he clearly was a prolific and productive artist in a long and, for a time in the early 1970s, incredibly illustrious, career.


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