Country legend has faced memory loss and the death of old friends, and has also found peace – just don’t try to tell him what to do
Oh, my god, the son of a bitch is back,” announces Lisa Kristofferson as she stands in the kitchen of her Los Flores Canyon home in Malibu. The son of a bitch, who is next to her, is more commonly known as Kris Kristofferson. He has been her husband for the past 36 years. He also happens to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time (covered by Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and some 500 others), not to mention an iconic actor in his own right (from A Star Is Born to the Blade movies).
Three decades ago, “the son of a bitch is back” may have been the rallying cry of Kristofferson’s girlfriends or wives after he went off on a drinking or cheating bender. But today, just weeks away from Kristofferson’s 80th birthday, it means something different entirely.
It means that the rugged, fiercely independent spark of consciousness that is Kris Kristofferson, which has been fading for the past few years due to memory loss, is brightening again – to everyone’s surprise.
For years, doctors had been telling Kristofferson that his increasingly debilitating memory loss was due to either Alzheimer’s or to dementia brought on by blows to the head from the boxing, football and rugby of his teens and early twenties. Some days, Kristofferson couldn’t even remember what he was doing from one moment to the next.
It became so bad that Kristofferson started writing a song about it. “I see an empty chair/Someone was sitting there,” it began. “I’ve got a feeling it was me/And I see a glass of wine/I’m pretty sure it’s mine.”
But then, like the chair and the wine, he forgot about the song. And it lay unfinished like many others he’s begun these past few years. In this case, his daughter Kelly completed the song, which remains unrecorded.
Then, earlier this year, a doctor decided to test Kristofferson for Lyme disease. The test came back positive. His wife believes he picked it up from a tick as he crawled around the forest floor in Vermont for six weeks while filming the movie Disappearances.
“He was taking all these medications for things he doesn’t have, and they all have side effects,” she says. She is wearing one of her husband’s tour merchandise shirts. After he gave up his Alzheimer’s and depression pills and went through three weeks of Lyme-disease treatment, Lisa was shocked. “All of a sudden he was back,” she says. There are still bad days, but “some days he’s perfectly normal and it’s easy to forget that he is even battling anything.”
“Yeah,” he replies, unconvincingly, when asked.
So you were never scared about losing your past? Kristofferson stares straight ahead, into a sweeping ocean vista, his sky-blue eyes shining brightly under a brow that thrusts out like a rock ledge. “What good would it do?” he says with a shrug.
Seventeen years ago, Kristofferson had bypass surgery. As he was being wheeled into the operating room, the doctor told Kris and Lisa that this would be a good place to say goodbye. “I hope it’s not goodbye,” Lisa said.
His response: “So what if it is?”
This blunt, fatalistic streak is something Kristofferson has carried with him for most of his life like a birthmark. It’s one reason directors like Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah have cast him in their films.
“I really have no anxiety about controlling my own life,” Kristofferson says, taking a seat at the head of a wood dining table. “Somehow I just slipped into it and it’s worked. It’s not up to me – or you. I feel very lucky that [life]’s lasted so long because I’ve done so many things that could have knocked me out of it. But somehow I just always have the feeling that He knows what He’s doing. It’s been good so far, and it’ll probably continue to be.”
He pauses. “Now as soon as I said that, of course…” He looks upward as if a lightning bolt is on its way down to strike him.