by Gary North
Sometimes we set inappropriate targets for ourselves. We work like dogs, only to find that our self-imposed targets not only never applied to us, we're ahead of the game because we missed the mark. That's the good news. Or maybe we're behind in the game. That's the bad news.
As school children, we want to be the most popular, not because of anything we have done, but because of who we are. Yet we barely know who we are, because we have not done much. We seek personal validation from our peers, who have no more sense than we do. Most high school students are not popular. So, we aren't likely to achieve our goal. But what if we do? What if it turns out that it just wasn't worth it? What if the price was too high for the benefits received? Bad news. But at least we find out early. We graduate.
High school reunions are a way for people to try to figure out if the ancient winners turned out to be worth imitating. Everyone who attends is trying to appear to be successful. Nobody can tell much about people's comparative success at a high school reunion, but we all like to think that we're happy that we didn't turn out like the ones we wanted to be like, way back when. Meanwhile, those who were the winners want to prove that they're still winners after all these years.
For the men, the most common unit of comparison is hair: thickness counts. For the women, it's weight: thinness counts.
As we get older, the stakes get higher. We seek validation for what we've done, not for who we are. Our performance standards become grander. The higher our standards are, the more likely we will miss the mark.
As in high school, we still tend to judge our own performance by others' performance. We call this "keeping up with the Joneses." But what if the Joneses really aren't worth keeping up with? Or, more likely, what if only a few aspects of the Joneses' careers are worth keeping up with? And what if we just can't keep up? How frustrated will we be?
I started asking myself these questions 45 years ago. It took me a while to find acceptable answers.
I want to share my answers with you. They may save you some trouble.
AIMING TOO HIGH
Almost exactly 45 years ago, I was sitting in Honnold Library, the shared library of the Claremont Colleges. I was a freshman at Pomona College. It was a very good institution academically — probably one of the two best 4-year liberal arts colleges on the West Coast. I was not exactly out of my league, but I was not at the top of the heap, and I knew I wouldn't be. The competition was too stiff.
I was reading an article in a year-old copy of the campus newspaper. Why I was reading it, I have no recollection. But I remember that article better than I remember anything else I read that long ago. It was an article about a man who had graduated a year earlier. When I read it, I thought to myself, "That's the man I wish I could be." What he had achieved is still etched into my memory.
In his junior year summer, he had attended the mandatory summer program for R.O.T.C. students, where prospective Army officers from the entire West Coast were brought together to compete. I was in the R.O.T.C., and I dreaded that future event. He had achieved first place academically and first place physically. This was unheard of.
He had been all-league in rugby in his senior year. He was also first string on the football team. In his senior year, he had entered a creative writing contest sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly. He had submitted four short stories. He had won first place, third place, and two honorable mentions. At the end of the year, he won a Rhodes Scholarship, and departed for Oxford.
I looked at that list of accomplishments, knowing that I could never come close. But, I thought to myself, I wish I could. I wished that I had the ability to do what he had done. At age 17, I more or less adopted his college performance as my measuring rod.
This was unwise. I adopted a standard that I knew I would not come close to meeting. This was a recipe for frustration.
He had an odd name. I knew I would remember it: Kris Kristofferson.
I lost track of him for a decade. Then, around 1969 or 1970, I began hearing about him through the country music grapevine, which had West Coast runners. He had become a major song writer in Nashville. I thought, "He has really made it now!"
I had been getting articles published in The Freeman and other journals. I was getting by financially in grad school: fellowships, part-time teaching, and writing. But it was obvious I was falling behind Kristofferson. Still.
Or was I? Word had also gotten out that he had a major drinking problem. I can remember my friend Bob Warford, the bluegrass banjo and electric guitar side musician, saying that people were worried that he would drink himself to death.
He very nearly did.
DETOURS ON EASY STREET
He went into the military after he left Oxford. He was following in his father's footsteps, who had been a major general in the Air Force, and who later ran Aramco's air operation in Saudi Arabia. At one point, West Point offered him a teaching position, but he resigned his commission and headed for Nashville to write country music.
Think about this. He was from a military family. He was an intellectual. He had been offered what most Army officers with academic skills dream of: a teaching position at West Point. He would have been a major within a year. By age 30, he would have reached his goal. But it was no longer his goal.
He scrounged around with odd jobs through the rest of the 1960s: janitor, bartender, oil rig helicopter pilot. His first marriage broke up. But he kept writing songs. Finally, they started to hit. Roger Miller recorded "Me and Bobby McGee." Johnny Cash recorded "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Then he got to open for Linda Ronstadt in 1970, which re-booted his long-dead career as a solo performer.
Soon after came major movie roles, and he had a lot of success. The money was rolling in. It was also rolling out. All the time, he drank.
He finally quit drinking after he made A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand in 1976. He was too much like the character in the film. But he did not stop taking drugs for another five years.
He has had ups and downs as a film star, a performer, and a song writer. He has had more success than most men ever dream of. He has also wasted more money than most men ever get a chance to waste. While hit songs can bring in royalties for a long time, the stream of income from a top-40 hit drops off in short order.
Pop songs are a form of poetry, and they sell better than poems do, but they are not great literature. He did not write the great American novel. Maybe he could have.
In the 1970s, he was a hot property. In the 1980s, he almost disappeared. I can remember going to a concert in the mid-'80s. He sang his old songs and played guitar. It was in Tyler, Texas at the seldom-used downtown movie theater — not the venue of stardom, I can assure you.
In 1996, his film career re-ignited in Lone Star. He has been getting better roles since then.
All the time, I have watched from afar and wondered: "Do I still wish that I had been given his talent?" My tentative answer: "Probably not, because with talent comes responsibility. It's all I can do to handle my existing responsibility." We must specialize in life, and this includes specializing in responsibility, from which there is no escape. Jesus said:
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:48b).
Or, as the old phrase has it, stick with the devils you know. This means sticking to your knitting.
STICKING TO HIS KNITTING
Kristofferson was personally sidetracked by his drinking and drugs. He says so. But his career wasn't for over a decade.
What impressed me most when I heard his post-military career story was this: he was convinced that he had a peculiar talent, writing country songs. His were not the usual country songs. There wasn't a honky tonk woman in any of them.
When he arrived in Nashville, country music was on the fringes of popular music. It was still regional. It was also culturally lower class. It was redneck.
When your father is a retired major general and runs Aramco's planes, when you blew away the competition in a national creative writing contest as a college student, when you went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and when you turned down an appointment to West Point's faculty, being a janitor at a recording studio is not a typical career path.
He did not quit. He kept writing songs. He eventually dug his way out of the hole.
After he became famous as a country music writer, his mother disowned him. She told him not to come around again. That Johnny Cash fellow — he was a drug user! And those songs. Nobody over 14 listened to that sort of music, she said. So much for validation.
He became a movie star, then faded from public view, and then became a steadily employed character actor. In 1998, when he was 62, he was interviewed by Jack Matthews, who asked this:
JM: People tend to put "Rhodes scholar" in front of your name as if it were a jaw-dropping modifier for a country songwriter. Do you look back on yourself as an overachiever or underachiever?
KK: I've always felt like an overachiever. Back when football was important to me in college, I made first string because I had the desire. I always knew I wasn't good enough to be out there, but I was. I think I've gone through a lot of my performing the same way, knowing I didn't really deserve to be on the same stage with Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], and Johnny [Cash], but I was there. And at least once in every film, I'm convinced that I'm uniquely unequipped to do the job, that I should never do another one. But I get over it.
From the day that I sat in the library reading about his college performance, I thought "overachiever." No matter how much talent he had, which was a lot, he was maximizing it. Other reports on him have said that he always suffered from stage fright as a live performer. Nevertheless, he stood up in front of a crowd, with only a guitar to hide behind, and sang. His voice was not very good — not as bad as Bob Dylan's, surely, but not good. His songs were remarkable. There were a bunch of them. He hid behind his words. They carried him.
He made a decision early in his career to pursue what he thought was his special calling. He had been a creative writer from the beginning.
JM: Let's talk about your destiny to be a writer. When did that urge hit you?
KK: It was what I was aiming at ever since high school when I started writing stories.
Writers who stop writing become unenviable specimens of humanity. There is an inner urge to write, and stifling it is risky. So, he pushed a mop and wrote more songs.
I don't know if he was a great janitor. I suspect he was. Overachievers can't just shut it off at will. But he did not remain a janitor. Opportunities opened up.
WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY
I have a theory. If you stand at the door and knock long enough, a window across the street will go up. That's your opportunity. You had better be ready to climb through that window, fast. That was Kristofferson's experience.
JM: You ended up in Nashville trying to sell country songs.
KK: Yeah, after I got out of the army, I went to Nashville and fell in love with the songwriting scene. I wrote prolifically for about five years, but it takes a while for people to take you seriously down there. They had two thousand registered songwriters in Nashville. They called us bugs.
JM: Meanwhile, were you getting some of those life experiences?
KK: I tried to get as many varied experiences as I could, different jobs that didn't take any kind of brains: gandy dancer, forest firefighter, bartender. I got a job working in the Gulf of Mexico on an oil rig.
JM: And what changed?
KK: If there was one thing that happened, it was me getting fired from that job in the Gulf. I left there on April 15, 1969, and I went back to Nashville, thinking I'd be sent to jail — I had a lot of child-support obligations.
It was income tax day. He had just been fired. He had unfilled obligations: child-support. His apartment had just been burgled. He had gotten nowhere with his songs.
But I called up a songwriter friend and told him I'd lost my job. He said, "Great, Johnny Cash is doing a new TV show down here, so we can just pitch songs to him." And that's what we did. During the first month, I had four songs on. Roger Miller did "Me and Bobby McGee," Ray Price came out with "For the Good Times," Johnny recorded "Sunday Morning Coming Down" on the show, and Sammi Smith cut "Help Me Make It Through the Night."
This was unexpected, to say the least. It was incredible. It was utterly unforeseeable. Out of nowhere came the opportunity. Cash had a summer show scheduled. I remember that show. Millions of viewers do. It opened each week with Cash, dressed in black, with his back to the camera. He would turn and say, "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash." Hokey, but it worked. It worked all summer. Summer shows are rarely hosted by headliners like Cash. It drew a huge audience.
Musical variety shows eat up a lot of music. Cash wanted new material for his guest performers. Kristofferson had a pile of unused material. It would not remain unused for long.
Boom! Kristofferson was the man of the hour. Then came the 1970 singing job, opening for Ronstadt. Then came a movie offer: Cisco Pike (1972) with Gene ("he's always working") Hackman. It was a lead role. His was the face on the movie poster.
How did this happen? We can't know with any confidence. Unexpected breakthroughs like this are the norm in show business. The problem is, no one can predict them.
I think he must have thought at some point: "What if I hadn't been fired?" What had seemed at the time like the worst-case scenario was the turning point in his career's downward spiral.
I remember Roosevelt "Rosie" Greer, the mid-1960s defensive lineman in the L.A. Rams' "Fearsome Foursome." He suffered a career-ending injury. Then he started getting movie and TV roles. Someone asked him in an interview: "What would have happened to your career if you had not been injured?" I remember his answer: "I don't like to think about it." His injury had opened the window. He now has a Christian ministry, and he became briefly famous as O. J. Simpson's post-arrest spiritual counselor.
Kristofferson always had enormous talent. He also had a sense of calling: to pursue the most important thing he could do in which he would be most difficult to replace. If that meant pushing a broom or working on an oil rig, so be it. He kept writing his songs. So, when Johnny Cash had air time to fill, there was Kristofferson with a pile of fresh material. His talent made them great songs commercially. His perseverance made them available. Talent wasn't enough.
He paid a heavy price initially to pursue his calling, not the least of which was the loss of prestige: a janitor. Then, overnight — or over summer — he became a sought-after professional songwriter, then a performer, then a celebrity, then a movie star.
Then the good times stopped rolling.
FALL AND RISE
His acting career in the 1980s took a nose dive. It began with Heaven's Gate (1980), in which he was the star, which was probably the most expensive flop in Hollywood history. It was 4 hours long in its initial theater release, down from the director's original version of 5.4 hours. It was cut again, and it lost a fortune. In the history of film financial disasters, only Cleopatra (1963) and Waterworld (1995) rival it. The director, Michael Cimino, sank without a trace. The company that produced it, United Artists (the old Mary Pickford-Douglas Fairbanks studio), got sold to MGM.
Kristofferson's movie career had already been faltering. This movie pushed it over the edge. His next film, Rollover, had "low budget" written all over it, beginning with the titles, despite Jane Fonda as co-star. It was about an inflationary breakdown of the world's monetary system due to the skyrocketing price of oil and gold. It was released a year after gold's price had collapsed, when the country was in a recession. Oops.
His second marriage broke up.
He had quit drinking at the height of his success, in 1976. But he had not stopped taking drugs. In the early 1980s, he did. He had been in denial, he said later. He had imagined that the booze and the drugs were the source of his talent. He later told film critic Roger Ebert: "Getting high was supposed to be a method of opening the doors of perception for me, and what it was doing was shutting them."
The doors of perception had been poet William Blake's theory of perception: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite." Kristofferson had been a careful student of Blake in college and graduate school. He began trying to plug into the infinite by using mind-altering drugs. It was a mistake.
He was not alone in this mistake. Aldous Huxley had been an advocate of psychedelic drugs as a way to clean off the doors of perception. He even wrote a book defending the use of drugs with this title: The Doors of Perception. He died on November 22, 1963 — the same day that another famous literary figure died: C. S. Lewis. A week before he died, under the influence of a sedative, Huxley spoke into a tape recorder operated by his wife.
. . . When one thinks one's got beyond oneself, one hasn't. . . . I began with this marvelous sense of this cosmic gift, and then ended up with a rueful sense that one can be deceived. . . . It was an insight, but at the same time the most dangerous of errors . . . inasmuch as one was worshipping oneself. (R. C. Zaener, Zen, Drugs and Mysticism , p. 108.)
The most famous victim of this misperception was Jim Morrison, who died a heroin addict at the age of 27. He had named his group "The Doors," in honor of the Blake/Huxley phrase.
By the time Kristofferson quit taking drugs, his career had topped out. Becoming a has-been is painful. He paid a heavy price, and he paid it after he straightened up and flew right. He was still getting parts in movies, but in 1988, he accepted a role in Big Top Pee-wee, a Pee-wee Herman film for children. If you remember Pee-wee Herman, I don't need to comment on the artistic merit of the film. If you don't remember him, nothing I could say could possibly describe him. This was not Oscar material.
For 15 years, 1981—96, Kristofferson earned a decent living doing TV movies and movies that should have been TV movies, but he had become a "Where are they now?" figure. He had gone through three stages of the movie star's cycle:
Who's Kris Kristofferson?
Get me Kris Kristofferson!
Get me a Kris Kristofferson type.
Who's Kris Kristofferson?
He did have success with the Cash-Jennings-Nelson-Kristofferson "Highwaymen" albums in the mid-'80s. But this success did not open up a major concert tour career for him. (Nelson suffered a similar career effect.)
In the second half of the '90s, his movie career bounced back. He played character roles, often villains. He makes a great villain.
His musical career has bounced back in the last few years.
MY MOMENT OF TRUTH
I recall seeing him in Fire Down Below (1997), where he played a villain to Steven Seagal's hero. I was in a motel somewhere. That was my first Steven Seagal movie — also my last. I saw Kristofferson on the screen, and I thought, "Wow! He looks 60 years old." Then it hit me. He really was 60 years old. He was probably 63 when I saw it. This meant that I was pushing 60 myself. That was my first real shock of recognition regarding old age. I had skipped my mid-life crisis: too many publishing deadlines. But if Kris K. was looking long in the tooth, I could not be far behind.
If he still writes poetry or songs, I have not heard. Maybe the well ran dry. This can happen to creative writers. (LRC writers, of course, go on endlessly.) But he kept acting — kept at his craft — and eventually he bounced back.
Today, he is 68 years old. He is still making movies.
There is a lesson here.
In terms of fame, Kristofferson would have been the wrong career role model for me. Careers like his cannot be manufactured. They just happen. But he became my standard of performance before he had fame — or the addictions.
What impressed me in 1959 impresses me still: he is an overachiever. I recommend this. Whatever skill you have, polish it. Whatever vision you have, pursue it with a fervor. You may not be able to pursue it full-time. Kristofferson didn't in his days of pushing brooms and flying helicopters to and from oil rigs. But he kept at his song writing, and eventually it paid off. If it had never paid off, he still should have kept at it. For a man with a creative skill but no skill at marketing, he is responsible for improving his creative skill.
He had the necessary talent, but all of that talent would not have produced a memorable though sporadic career if he had not kept at it. The marketing took care of itself. He got fired when Johnny Cash got hired. These two events would not have been connected if Kristofferson had not stuck to his knitting.
Everyone has a talent. Your goal should be to achieve more than what most people would achieve if they had your talent. This is what it means to be an overachiever.
With talent comes responsibility. That is the scary factor. A high percentage of people with great talent don't want the added responsibility. They fail. This opens up opportunities for the rest of us.
It does no good to long to possess the other person's talent. His talent is his responsibility; your talent is your responsibility. We specialize in responsibility. Taking on the other guy's responsibility is asking for trouble. What counts is how well you put your talents to productive use — serving others, maybe for money, but not necessarily.
Be ready to accept responsibility. Influence flows to those who are willing to take responsibility. And who knows? You may even make some money.
November 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com