It's not news that mass-market success is a mixed blessing for the serious artist, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of the singer/songwriter.
In addition to paying tribute to Kris Kristofferson, this album attempts to restore the edginess that characterized the man and his work before cover versions by everyone from Johnny Cash to Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley to Al Green became part of the audio wallpaper of Western Civilization. Don't Let the Bastards Get You Down
delivers renditions of 17 Kristofferson tunes by artists who certainly haven't lost their own edginess and are, as the liner notes put it, "untainted by the memories of 'A Star Is Born' [a famously awful 1976 remake of the Hollywood classic, in which Kristofferson co-starred with Barbra Streisand]."
One of those tunes is "The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)," performed here by Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub. Depending on your point of view, it's either unflinching autobiography or self-congratulatory ode to personal flakitude. Or maybe both. Its 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 walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/ Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home" may inspire either admiration or the uncontrollable urge to whack Kristofferson upside the head, but it's an indispensable road map to his work, and certainly the unifying thread of this collection.
When Kristofferson burst on the scene in the late '60s/early '70s as a long-haired, hard-drinking, ex-Army ex-Rhodes scholar making his living as a record-studio janitor, a country music world still years away from coming to terms with Willie and Waylon didn't know what to make of him. And even as Joplin had her biggest and last hit with "Me and Bobby McGee," Cash scored with "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" and The King covered "For the Good Times" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night," Kristofferson was pretty much reveling in annoying the forces of respectability wherever he met them. It's not hard to see how "Jesus Was a Capricorn" would play among the Southern Baptists in the Nixon Era, particularly given Kristofferson's penchant for casting himself as misunderstood messiah ("'Cause everybody's got to have somebody to look down on/ Who they can feel better than at anytime they please/ Someone doin' somethin' dirty, decent folks can frown on/ If you can't find nobody else, then help yourself to me"), and equally easy to see the singer's delight in the disapproval.
Taking nearly all its songs from this period (the exceptions being "Lights of Magdala," by Larry Murphy, covered by Kristofferson in 1974 and given a haunting rendition here by Hannah Marcus and Mark Kozelek, and the '80s-vintage "The Hawk," performed by Tom Verlaine), this collection runs the full gamut from soul-stirring to shit-disturbing, with frequent forays into the maudlin and the purely smart-ass. The artists, for the most part, do a fine job of making the songs their own while channeling Kristofferson with remarkable effectiveness soulfulness, self-indulgence and all.
And, while the album as a whole evokes a lively sense of everything that's great and everything that's crazy-making about Kristofferson (the particulars will vary by listener, but the paradoxes are inescapable), there are some real standout tracks. Verlaine's voice and instrumentals on "The Hawk" are stunning; Oranger's all-instrumental version of "Casey's Last Ride" is simultaneously poignant, bouncy and recognizable as a Kristofferson tune if you heard it in Kazakhstan. Chuck Prophet can't do much about cringeworthy lines like "She ain't ashamed to be a woman or afraid to be a friend" or "Teaching me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying," but his gravelly-voiced delivery of "Loving Her Was Easier" has all the miles-of-bad-road qualities one could ask. Kelly Hogan offers up a sweetly spiritual "Why Me," while Northern Lights ("The Law Is for Protection of the People") and Mover ("Jesus Was a Capricorn") deliver their persecuted-hippie anthems with unholy and infectious glee.
If you're coming to Kristofferson's work for the first time and would like to know more, look no further than Derk Richardson's recent interview
in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
And if you want to know what his music sounded like before it became the soundtrack of the shopping malls, check out Don't Let the Bastards Get You Down.