Kris Kristofferson’s Feeling Mortal: An appreciation

I would like to invite you to listen to Kris Kristofferson’s album Feeling Mortal. I struggle to write anything useful about it, but it means a lot to me.

I hear it as a concept album, not about death, but about seeking.

Kris Kristofferson is a country music legend in his 70s. By honoring and embracing this specificity so honestly, the album reveals more universe themes.

I want to describe the music, the voice, and the words as having all been condensed to their bare essentials. The album combines the relaxed feel of musicians with nothing to prove with the delicate flourishes, the subtle harmonies, and the precise inflections that are only possible in the studio.

I invite you to notice the words that open the album.

Wide awake and feeling mortal
At this moment in the dream
That old man there in the mirror
And my shaky self-esteem

Feeling Mortal, embraces death, but as a backdrop to highlight much more.

I invite you to notice how quickly and economically the tone is set, within a song that stands alone.

…a sense of life as dream, but also being wide awake and embracing it, whatever it is. looking into the mirror, and examining a shaky self esteem.

Pretty speeches still unspoken
Perfect circles in the sand
Rules and promises I’ve broken
That I still don’t understand

I invite you to recall this theme of openness as we explore the rest of the album.

Mamma Steward moves us into a personal story. One which expands this theme of vision and acceptance.

And the things she said reminded me
Of things I’d grown too blind to see
And feelings that I’d hidden deep inside
And when she said goodbye and kissed me
I was thankful she couldn’t see
The sudden tears I couldn’t hide

And also lauds a character who is at once at peace with life as it is, but also and grateful for miracles.

But the miracle of medicine
And good old time religion
Removed the veil of darkness from her eyes
They said she praised the Lord
And thanked the doctor
And didn’t even seem at all surprised

At this point I want to acknowledge that I am veering dangerously close to just printing the lyrics and wishing I could put the music in as well. The album rewards listening, but defy’s my ability to comment usefully on it.

Yet I feel drawn to try.

Because life is a song for the dying to sing
And it’s got to have feeling to mean anything

I love this line, from Bread for the Body. It does not say something new, but nobody ever does. The best most can hope for is to say something old in a new way. This does something even better, it says something true, extremely well.

Notice the inflection on… fear my eyes. Notice how well the band swings.

If the narrator in Bread for the Body is looking back on life with a new sense of perceptive and new life lessons, the narrator of You Don’t Tell Me What To Do, inhabits a these lessons.

So the highway is where I believe I belong
Losing myself in the soul of a song
And the fight for the right to be righteously wrong
It’s a story that’s sad but it’s true

Notice the tone here. It is assertive, and may have faults, but it is not aggressive.

With Stairway to The Bottom, the album pivots slightly. This is an old song, from one of Kris Kristofferson other great underrated albums (Spooky Lady’s Sideshow). Indeed many of the themes in the album are extensions of a careers worth of artistry.

The narrator in You Don’t Tell Me What to Do was honest but unrepentant about his faults and bad behavior in the previous track. Now we see the other side of that equation, as the narrator follows a number of country tropes, but is forced to face their consequences in the mirror.

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

It shares with Just Suppose the tradition of great county songs: a chorus refrain that reflects something new on each turn as the song progresses.

And I expect you to expect me to feel guilty
For not giving back the love you threw away
But just suppose you really love her now like I do
What do you suppose you’d do if you were me

It could be singing directly at the narrator of the previous track. It has sympathy (Yes I guess you feel ashamed and I can’t really say I blame you/ I suppose I’d feel the same if I were you) but ultimately remains unwilling to back down.

We are now also in the realm of love songs, a new theme to which the album returns after a detour into Castaway.

One day as I was sailing on the Caribbean Sea
I spied a little fishing vessel drifting aimlessly
Her sails were torn and tattered
And her wheel was spinning free
I told myself that little boat sure looks a lot like me

On many days my favorite track on the album. I relate to it deeply. To quote myself: “The best most can hope for is to say something old in a new way. This does something even better, it says somthing true, extremely well.”

For my eyes grew accustomed to looking at you
And my arms found a body they hungered to hold
And the rest of my senses surrendered to you
But my heart was the last one to know

And in My Heart Was the Last One to Know, these themes come together, a realization too late that in matters of the heart, the eyes are sometimes not enough.

Because of the difficulty of writing about music, I have avoided it. But sounds matter. They make or break an album. Notice in The One You Choose, that not only does our narrative culminate in a confession of love…

Maybe what you see is what you got and what you wanted
Take me at my word that it’s the best that I can be
I will go down trying hard to teach you how to trust me
And I’ll love you ‘til it happens darling or eternity

… it incorporates some simple but masterful licks and honest vocals.

And to pay it all off, we pull back from personal songs to a look at how to live in the context of all that the album has taken us through:

And I know he ain’t afraid of where he’s going
And I’m sure he ain’t ashamed of where he’s been
He has paid a little piece of his soul
For every seed that he’s been sowing
And he made his own mistakes, and love, and friends
Ain’t that what matters in the end

 

See also: Pilgrims Progress
Let the Walls Come Down

Playing favorites: Cameron Crowe, redeeming Elizabehtown and trying my hand at film criticism

Q: What is your favorite film?

A: An unhelpful question. “Favorite” is vague enough to be meaningless and my answer is likely to change based on a variety of social contexts – none of which come into play when questioning myself.

Q: What’s a film that reveals something about you that you value?

A: Slightly better. Although my answer will still be random, at least we’ve eliminated Braveheart.

Q: Fine. What’s the movie you’ve had the most radical change of heart about?

A: Well now see Bravehearts back in the mix…

In this way we eventually approach Elizabethtown.  The linked trailer does justice to my first viewing. I almost walked out of the theater, casually dismissing the film as an unremarkable pat romance with some uninteresting family drama and a too long scavenger hunt at the end.

History has not been kind, and the general consensus seems agree with that interpretation.

Then I read Roger Ebert’s 3-star review, and I found an extra detail that caused me to reconsider. You see, at the start of the film, the protagonist is fired from the shoe company. This is the great professional failure that sets everything into motion (oh yeah- spoilers ahead for Elizabethtown & Almost Famous). Ebert writes:

“In the first cut of the film, there was a great deal more of the journey, followed by a pointless epilogue in which the Spasmodica shoe turns out to be a hit after all, because with every step you take, it whistles.” (emphasis mine).

It was this absurd detail – the idea that his great failure had been turned into success through some Jiminy Cricket like insane optimism.

Upon reading that I was suddenly able to see the movie not just as a long dirge with some manic pixie girl thrown in, but as a metaphor. Once I stepped back an inch everything else fell into place.

The scenes worked on there own just fine, but their power came from wielding larger concepts around with them.

Concepts about death. About love. About the meaning of life and parenthood and optimism and truly knowing someone else.

This highlights a few things:

1) I’m not so bright.

2) Context is everything. I could have gotten this context from knowing Crowe’s work.

Or from the opening of the film which signals it like a bat signal if you’re looking for it. Or maybe if I’d had a better breakfast that morning – who knows.

I do not mean to imply that detail about the whistling shoes should have been left in. Rather that viewing the film requires that we bring something of ourselves to the experience and what I bring can be unpredictable and may say more about me than the film.

3) Really good art can inspire interesting commentary even if the commentary isn’t particularly approving. Try searching for reviews of L. Cohen’s Old Ideas.

Once I saw the film with these larger themes in mind – it became a masterpiece.

The love plot became a layered balancing act of meaningful dialogue that commented both on the history of “meet cutes” as well as counter-balancing the foreboding sense of death, failure, suicide and regret.

Her manic pixie girl status wasn’t just a cheat or lazy writing, it was a conceit that opened doors.

Once I wasn’t watching just another romantic comedy, but engaging it as a something of substance it opened up and rewarded me for it.

Allow me to use an example from a better regarded Cameron Crowe film (since it has a youtube clip available – and because I’m slightly intimidated by Elizabethtown).

Sample Scene: Here

Here the “talent” of the band is getting back on the tour bus after a night of ill-advised partying. When they last left, it was unclear if he would return, or if the band was done for.

More importantly, the lead singer of the band, has made it clear that the rest of the band simply does not like him. The core of the tension is unresolved. This theme is hammered home throughout the movie. Time and time again when crisis hits – when you’d expect them to pull together and find a deep love for each other – they come up dry. They come up with selfishness and bitterness.

So why does the band stay together? Is it money/fame (partially yes). But then why do we care about them?

This scene argues compellingly that the answer is: music.

Sure they are all failures as human beings and friends.

But then there is the music. A theme (one of many) echoed throughout the film, from the rock critic to the too-wise band-aid. It is the heart of the film. It’s where the film begins, and ends.

Or maybe the movie is about a rock critic trying to maintain his distance so he can write about the music. Or maybe it’s about his love of the girl who puts her head on his shoulder, but is not with him.

It’s all there. The whole film is in that scene.

It also gets him out of the party, back on the bus and keeps things moving along pretty quick.

Or maybe it’s all in that song choice. It has the right kind of fame and feel to be sung on a bus. Not a bus I might be on, but a bus full of rock stars reaching for a way to show some appropriate manly sensitivity.

Not just a song that was famous around this time, but like the film, a song of this time. All enchanced if you bring certain cultural knowledge to bear on the moment, but works well on it’s own.

And of course it says a lot about the band-aid as well.

What I’m saying is, if you think Almost Famous has layers, give Elizabethtown a second viewing.

Or maybe it’s that I’m usually a lazy viewer and I woke up this one time.

More on this when I get the courage to break down Elizabethtown in detail. And if you beg, I’ll talk your ear off about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney died a few months ago. Today I came across the column of his that made me fall in love with him. I loved that created a solid, entertaining column about his love of wood. I came to his work with irony in mind. I wanted his job. To simply absorb life’s details and report them without pretension.

In retrospect that column was not his best work perhaps. For his best you really need to grab a copy of one of his books. Even then what he was after was something that doesn’t link well. It was not flashy or attention grabbing.

But in his own way, like Roger Ebert and Miss Manners he was so good for so long that he came to define a genre, and the quality of his work hovered on being taken for granted. The joking was usually in good fun, but if you look his work with fresh eyes it holds up on its own.