Interview by Rosa Jordan
The Progressive, September 1991
from Vietnam and Wounded Knee
Burned a flag he knew had been dishonored
Someone burned his house down
Wife and kids locked up inside...
A slightly drunk young man, perhaps more familiar with Kristofferson the actor than Kristofferson the songwriter, mutters, “What is this shit?”
What it is is your standard Kristofferson show. This particular week in early spring, amid the frenzy of national self-congratulation after the Persian Gulf war, he just happens to be playing Orange and San Diego counties, two of California’s more military-saturated areas.
For twenty-five years, Kris Kristofferson has been performing his own music in a surprising mix of appearances at state fairs and trendy urban clubs. Since 1972, when he did his first concert benefitting Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, every show has included politically progressive songs and commentary, and his many benefits have helped the causes of Native Americans, human rights, peace, and environmental preservation.
At the concern in Anaheim, Kristofferson tells the standing-room-only crowd, “I want you to know I’m an Army brat; I was a captain in the Army and my brother was a jet pilot in the Navy. (Cheers). So I support our troops; I identify with them. (More cheers). But I sure as hell don’t identify with the bastards who sent them over there.”
The crowd’s emotions suddenly become mixed, disharmonic. Someone makes an obscene noise. Kristofferson keeps on talking. “At least 100,000 civilians were killed, 70,000 of them children. And they’re expecting another 100,000 to die of disease as a result of our bombing. If this is a cause for celebration, I think we ought to look into our hearts.”
Thirty-five people asked for their money back. One young man is so angry he begins to cry. When Kris hears about it, he says, “Well, people don’t like to be told they shouldn’t feel good.”
While many on the right find Kristofferson offensive as a songwriter, many on the left have, in recent years, labeled him politically intolerable as an actor. Few are aware of his role in the soon-to-be-released film Sandino, made in Nicaragua by exiled Chilean director Miguel Littin. Better remembered is his role five years ago in the TV miniseries Amerika, a paranoid fantasy about a Soviet invasion of the United States in which Kristofferson played the anticommunist leader of the US resistance. If there was a connection between Kristofferson’s progressive political agenda and his role in Amerika, most of us missed it.
I met Kristofferson at a Gulf War protest, awaiting arrest for participating in a symbolic spill of blood and ashes. But the police took only Valerie Sklarevsky, the woman who had actually made the mess, and actor Martin Sheen. Kristofferson stayed a while longer, saying little.
I wondered whether there might be a consistency to his actions and political philosophy not visible to the casual eye. Otherwise, how has he kept going, especially when under attack from Left and Right alike? How has he avoided the burnout so many activists suffer, rendering us, at times, too cynical to carry on? And how did he–how does anybody–get from the US Army captain who volunteered for Vietnam to this man on his knees in public opposition to the blood being spilled in the Persian Gulf and Central America?
Q: You grew up in Texas, where the phrase, “serving your country” usually means only one thing: joining the military. How did you come to understand that being part of America’s war machine isn’t the only way to be patriotic?
Kris Kristofferson: I can’t believe how slow I was to learn, I guess because I grew up in a military background. One grandfather was a colonel in the Army, had his eye put out with a spear in the Phillippine insurrection. The other one, before he came to this country, was in the Swedish army. My father was a major-general in the Air Force, served in World War II and Korea. The military was for me and my brother, you know, just a fact of life. When I graduated I got my comission in the Army but got deferred to go over to Oxford [as a Rhodes scholar]. Afterwards, I was a helicopter pilot in Germany. I volunteered for jump school and ranger school and flight school, everything available. I really enjoyed flying and firing at targets and things like that.
In 1965, I volunteered for Vietnam–and was turned down. They told me I was going to be assigned to West Point to teach English. I decided to get out and go to Nashville instead. I guess at the time I was looking for something that would put some kind of meaning in my life. That’s why I had volunteered to go to Vietnam; at least something was happening there that was real. I didn’t know anything except what I read in Stars & Stripes or got through military channels, and I believed we were fighting for freedom over there. I thought about it a lot. Matter of fact, the first song I got recorded in Nashville was a talking blues thing I’d written after running into a bunch of aniwar demonstrators in Washington, D.C. It was a right-wing pro-military thing called “Vietnam Blues.”
The other day I showed my wife Lisa the song and she said, “Kris, if somebody can come all the way from where you were then to where you are now, there’s hope for anybody.”
I wasn’t part of the antiwar movement. It wasn’t until, I’d say, probably 1967, that I started looking at it. I was working in the Gulf of Mexico flying helicopters in the offshore oil rigs, and all these pilots were coming back from Vietnam. They had this program where a nineteen-year-old kid with a high school education could go to warrant-officer school and directly to Vietnam. They were telling stories about what was going on in Vietnam that were chilling: taking people up in choppers and interrogating them, then throwing them out. One boy told me about kicking the hands of this man who was holding on to the skids, holding on for his life. I got to thinking that if you could make nineteen-year-old kids do that, you could make them do anything.
Also, a lot of the people I’d served with in Germany ended up going to Vietnam. They started coming back and saying this was the most screwed-up war. Some of these guys were career officers, and I started hearing stories from them–good officers who were sickened by it, who got out of the Army, who I’d never have thought would give up their careers, talking about killing civilians and things like that. The the My Lai massacre was made public, and slowly information became available.
It wasn’t like something suddenly changed my mind. As you start being exposed to things like this, the more you examine it, the worse it is, and the more you find out about things like the Phoenix Project, where we killed between 30,000 and 60,000 civilians, and you find out the CIA in Laos killed 100,000 civilians, and that we were involved in the drug trade. It’s a steady process–sort of having scales cleaned off your eyes–to the point that you have to get used to a whole new perception of what it is that your country stands for. For a kid who grew up in Brownsville, Texas, God was on our side and our country stood for justice. It was very disturbing.
Growing up, I was never aware of the fact that only white males who owned property were covered in the Constitution and could vote, and the whole country was built on genocide, the murder of natives. I’ve often thought that the more I read, the more I realized that our government may never have stood for the things I believe in. But they made a mistake. Somewhere along the line they taught me that’s what we stood for, and now I demand it.
It’s hard for me to nail down, but I think it’s like the priests who get radicalized by their experience. I was brought into close contact [with the situation in Central America] by a woman from El Salvador who was helping me raise my daughter when I was a single father after I got divorcd. This woman had a family she was supporting back home that was devastated by the death squads. While she was working for me, they were looking for her brother, who was a college student and therefore, according to the government we support, a Communist. They took his sister’s three-month-old baby and broke its legs and killed the baby right in front of her. The more I learned about what we were doing down there, the more horrible it seemed.
Q: Do you think this kind of close contact is the only way people can become aware of the truth?
Kristofferson: Well, I don’t know. I have seen results among people, just in the small audiences I have, because of ideas I put into their heads – people who have gone from being totally unaware of our policies in Central American to becoming involved in the grassroots network organizations and writing letters to editors and going out and talking to other people.
Q: Who is your audience?
Kristofferson: It’s always been pretty broad. My first performances weren’t in Nashville; they were here in Los Angeles and in New York. I really wasn’t a country performer in the traditional sense, more like Bob Dylan, so I couldn’t get any work until I went outside Nashville and found audiences in these hip clubs. So I have them as well as country listeners.
Q: What about the more conservative elements of those audiences? Do they follow you politically?
Kristofferson: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I don’t have the following I had back in the 1970s. Since then I haven’t had as much attention as a recording artist as I have as a movie actor. But we still sell, and I do the political stuff, always. We play it everywhere–Texas, the South, everywhere. The most opposition I ever had was in Atlanta when Oliver North was on trial and the Iran-Contra hearings were turning out to be nothing but a commercial for the Contras. I mentioned in this concert in Atlanta that it was important to look at who these “freedom fighters” were that North was talking about supporting, and look at how their targets weren’t soldiers but were schools and health facilities and agricultural cooperatives. And they got really pissed off. Out of a couple of thousand people, about three hundred asked for their money back.”
Not everybody agrees with what I’m saying, but my shows are set up so, from beginning to end, the feeling is a belief in the human spirit. I don’t think you could come and argue with the principles. By the end of the show, the crowds always seem to be on their feet.
A couple of years ago, right after I had sung down in Nicaragua at the anniversary of the revolution, they ran some pictures in the paper up here about me singing for the Sandinistas. And there was some opposition at state fairs where I was playing, with some veterans’ groups objecting to my appearance. I went in ahead of my band and met with these groups. I said if anybody should understand abut the principle of free speech, they should–you know, the people who had fought to defend it. So they all agreed not to picket me.
People have said to me, “I didn’t like that song that started off about killing babies in the name of freedom.” But I’ve also had people say afterwards, “I didn’t know this about Nicaragua or El Salvador, but I’m going to examine it.” I’ve heard this in some real conservative areas. Mind you, we play for smaller crowds than the big pop stars. Sometimes we play fairs and we get good crowds. They come in with tickets that are fairly inexpensive, with their families. You’d think these would be the most conservative, but we get some of the best reactions there. It’s very encouraging.
Q: What about flak from the Left? Tell me about Amerika.
Kristofferson: Amerika was probably the toughest career decision I ever made in my life. And it’s still a toss-up whether it was the right thing to do. I got the script from my agent and I turned it down twice. But the director, Donald Rye, wanted me. They had a $45 million budget and I knew the film was going to be made, but probably with somebody with different sensibilities from mine. The character would come out more a Rambo type, somebody who would have no problem with all the ugly things he’d be saying about Russia and the United Nations. So it was a question as to whether I could go in and, working with Donald Rye and the others, effect any change in it. I prayed over it and I decided it was my duty to do it.
There was supposed to be a guy who could rally the people together under the opposition government. I objected to so much that was in the script because it reinforced stereotypes that we ere hearing so often then, during the Reagan administration; there was all this “Evil Empire” bullshit propaganda going down, the same thing that’s happening today about Iraq.
So Donald and I, we sort of had this agreement to disagree, and there were a lot of changes. From my character there was never one negative reference to Russia, which was a considerable change from the original script. Also, the original script had made the United Nations out to be a forum for America-haters, a tool for the Soviets. My feeling was that if the United States is supposed to stand for international law and justice and respect the sovereignty of nations, then it has to support the United Nations. Virtually every negative reference to the UN was taken out, and this was with Donald’s agreement. Donald was really not pushing a right-wing agenda; he wanted to make an entertaining film and didn’t want to get political.
Q: So how was Amerika received?
Kristofferson: I knew I was going to come under criticism from the Left and the Right, and I did. From both directions. I remember I was with Martin Sheen at an anti-nuclear demonstration in Los Vegas and people were coming up to me all the time saying, “You can’t atone for your performing in Amerika by doing this.” And at the same time, lunatics from the far Right were saying I had intentionally sabotaged Amerika, because when it came out I was in Russia at a peace conference. Later when I was in Nicaragua at Daniel Ortega’s invitation to sing at the anniversary of the revolution, people kept coming up to me saying, “How could you have done Amerika?” Not Nicaraguans, but Americans. None of them had even seen it! But back to what it did for me. Well, for one thing, it helped me focus my political ideas. At that time I was trying to find a way to be active about policy in Central America and didn’t have a clue where to start.
Q: Where have you gone with that?
Kritofferson: I’ve done a number of human rights benefits and made several trips to Nicaragua. I made a film down there called Sandino, directed by Miguel Littin. It was very interesting, making a film about Sandino fighting against the Marines at the same time the Sandanistas were fighting against American mercenaries.
Q: You visited Eugene Hasenfus [the American crew member whose plane was downed while flying supplies to the Contras] when he was in prison down there.
Kristofferson: Yes. It was on the last day we were there. They asked me if I wanted to meet him and I thought, well, he’s an American, maybe I could give him some hope. What I took him was a book, Omar Cabeza’s Fire from the Mountain. I figured we had some things in common because when I was in flight school they were recruiting people for the same organization he was working for, Air America. I told him, “But for a couple of twists that happened along in my life, I could be in the same position you’re in.” He was just a guy who believed what they told him. They had told him he was fighting for his country, he was, you know, fighting Communism. I had volunteered to go to Vietnam to do the same thing.
We talked for a long time. It was such a surreal experience, like one of those 1960s drug flashbacks. I had just started sobering up, and a friend of mine in AA told me that if you don’t believe in God, ask for something impossible and stand back. He told me this when my oldest daughter was in a motorcycle accident; she was unconscious and it looked as if she was paralized. I was in Europe on a concert tour at the time, and all the way back I was making deals with God: please, no paralysis, no brain damage. I walked into the room and she was tied down to the table, she couldn’t even recognize me. I wasn’t there fifteen seconds and the doctor said, “Look!” Her leg had moved.
Anyway, I told Gene Hasenfus this story, and I had no idea why I was telling it to him. As I was speaking the words, I was thinking, “Kris, you’re a fool! What he’s going to ask for is to get out, and they’re not going to let him out.” I had talked to all these people the night before, and the hard-liners wanted to see him get thirty years. So I thought, what am I doing? Building this guy’s faith up to have it shattered?
Later, on the way to the airport, I told a Nicaraguan friend that Hasenfus looked like a person I had once seen in prison in Arabia who was about to crack. It was terrible, I told her. Here was a country that had accomplished so much with prison reforms that people from all over the world were coming to study their system, to have this guy break up in prison. You know, they’d be accused of torture and everything. I said it was a shame we couldn’t get him out. Anyway, we caught the plane, and when we got home, on the answering machine was a message from this Nicaraguan friend saying, “Thank you for your help. He’s out.” I don’t know if it bolstered his faith, but it bolstered mine.”
Q: In concert, you perform a lot of songs from your recent album, Third World Warrior, and I’ve seen audiences respond very positively. Yet the album, which only came out last year, is no longer available. Is this because the lyrics are so political?
Kristofferson: All I can tell you is that [PolyGram Records] printed a minimum number of copies and dropped me off the label. And there weren’t many reviews. One reviewer at USA Today did write that it was good to see something out of a country songwriter that wasn’t right-wing hogwash. I think maybe a lot of reviewers are not mental giants; they don’t know how to deal with an album like that. I was just gratified that other musicians I respect like it and say it’s good music.
Q: You’ve been politically active for twenty years. How do you keep going? What saves you from burnout?
Kristofferson: I was just thinking when I was coming over here, some days I feel like an activist and I want to get my harmonica and guitar and sing to the whole world, and some days I don’t. Today I didn’t. I didn’t know how I was going to say a word to you. For about three days now I’ve had a tough time looking at the news. So...I don’t know.
[There is a long silence, except for the click of the tape, recording nothing.] Talking to other people helps. Reading helps. And heroes People you want to honor, not exactly trying to emulate them, but by living according to the same principles they did. Sandino, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Vanessa Redgrave, willing to jeopardize her career. There are a lot of people who inspire you. My family helps; my wife thinks the same way I do. And friends.
Also, you’ve got to think of the consequences if nobody does talk. You’ve got people driving this machine who are going to drive it right off the cliff. If you care anything about the planet and the people on it, you’ve got to keep out there.
I think it’s important to continue to be vocal. Sometimes it seems like nobody’s listening, but people are listening What it eventually gets down to, though, is just living with yourself. If you don’t live by the principles you believe in, then you become this hollow person.