I'd fogged my dreams the night before with politics and tales that I'd been swapping, so I poured my first and woke my brain to a Wednesday that was already what it would remain--dusky, rusty, overcast and rainy, with leaves dropping from leaden skies.
In short, it was perfect.
If you haven't found yourself on the losing end of close and corrupt elections for too many years in a row, you won't understand the immense sweet sighs from so many on Wednesday morning. Such collective relief wafted me through a day of phone calls, spotty work, and into an evening run down roads edged in leaves that picked up the rust in barn roofs, the deep amber of grasses on cold and lonely hills. Every way you turned were scenes of raw, sweet loneliness—“bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet-birds sang,” in the words of Shakespeare.
In short, it was perfect.
God is good, I said to Jeanne, my running partner, and as kind of a joke I began reciting the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures… he restoreth my soul….” Just so, I thought, and it was no longer a joke. That sense of something restored wafted me all the way home and into clean clothes and, by 7:50 p.m., into the mystical embrace of the Tennessee Theatre, an ancient, Rococo movie palace… recently restored. There, I watched, listened and cheered as Kris Kristofferson performed. His performance was transcendent.
He's been a friend to me--a freethinking, outspoken, politically despairing, yet spiritual and poetic friend, though we've never met. Still, he's as real as a rusted barn latch. I love the man and his songs, because I credit him as much as any artist of any description with changing my life and outlook. I was 16 when I bought his first album, and I wore out the grooves of that old record and many others until his songs became part of who I am.
Still, I wasn't prepared to be so moved. Mostly I just wanted to spend some time in the presence of a hero, just to pay tribute. After all, others sang his songs better. Janis Joplin on “Me and Bobby McGee,” Johnny Cash on “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Ray Price on “For the Good Times,” Sammi Smith on “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” These are masterworks.
And I'd been in Knoxville 35 years earlier when a young singer named John Prine stole the show from Kris and his five-piece band. I guess I'd been conditioned not to expect a great concert. But I was wrong. When Kris walked onstage Wednesday, accompanied only by himself on guitar and harmonica, he stole his own show, re-staked his claim to old songs, while serving up a treasury of new and obscure gems.
Yes, he was white-haired, hoarse and sometimes forgot to swap out harmonicas to stay on key. But when he wrapped that threadbare voice of his around those lyrics, it was like opening old burlap to reveal gold nuggets. It brought luster to both.
Nobody writes sweet loneliness like Kristofferson. “Casey's Last Ride,” “Loving Her Was Easier,” “Jody and the Kid,” “Darby's Castle,” “The Other Side of Nowhere.”
As fans rose and clapped, rose and yelled devotion and thanks and flirtations, Kris sang the loneliness, the edginess and bitter-tinged bliss of existence. He uttered enough political protest, both in songs and off-hand remarks to remind us why “freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose” unless you use it to keep the world honest and pass along some truth and beauty, though he might see that spin on his great lyric as overstated.
And maybe it's an exaggeration to say Wednesday's election vindicated those who spoke out against the war in Iraq even before it began, but some of us felt that way. Maybe it would be wrong to see it as our country rejecting torture and loss of civil liberties, or as a nation's repudiation of nuclear weapons, global warming, social injustice, politics of personal destruction, death to old forests and songbirds. But for many it was. Take my friend, Joe Neill, a tall drink of water, who put conservation easements on a good portion of his family farm just to keep it real and natural for as long as he could provide such stewardship. It was good to see him Wednesday, celebrating, introducing me to family and friends who'd come to the concert with him.
I have no illusions that we've entered a perfect new era, when all evils will fall away. There was too much of the old darkness reaching out for darkness in the president's choice of a former CIA chief to replace Donald Rumsfeld. Too much compromise and sell-out in hearing Sen. Harry Reid say that sending radioactive fuel to India would be a top priority of the coming Democratic majority. But it would be miserly and dishonest to let such notions kill the joy of a rainy, overcast and perfect day. Kris captured something of the spirit when he sang “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” When he came to those lines, “Yesterday is dead and gone,” he added in a gruff undertone, “thank goodness.” And when he sang “and tomorrow's out of sight” he said it again, “thank goodness.”
And we knew just what he meant.