MODESTO — When Kris Kristofferson was struggling to become a songwriter, while making ends meet with a job as a janitor in Nashville and as a helicopter pilot ferrying oil platform crews in the Gulf of Mexico, the owner of Monument Records came to him and said, "I've got a song title for you 'Me and Bobby McKee.' Here's the hook Bobby is a she."
"I thought, dear God, I can't write a song like that," Kristofferson said Sunday from his home in Hawaii. His previous songs mainly came out of his own experiences. But "while I was flying along the pipeline there, I let the song go over and over my head."
The result, with a slight change in the last name (McGee), first was recorded by Roger Miller and then became a megahit after Janis Joplin recorded it days before her death in 1970. Other people who have covered it read like a Who's Who of rock, pop and country music, including Kenny Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Grateful Dead, Loretta Lynn, Olivia Newton-John, Joan Baez, Pink, Jennifer Love Hewitt and, of course, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, who teamed with Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in 1985 as The Highwaymen.
Kristofferson, who also wrote such hits as "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "Loving Her Was Easier," called "Bobby McGee" his favorite.
"It definitely changed the way people looked at me," Kristofferson said. "It was the first thing that got everybody's attention."
Kristofferson will bring the song to the Gallo Center for the Arts on Jan. 18. It's a return engagement for the performer, who was part of the center's inaugural-season lineup in 2007. This concert, a benefit for Royal Family Kids Camp, will include a variety of tunes from his four-plus decades of songwriting, including selections from his most recent album, "Feeling Mortal."
Don't expect a slick production with a backup band and fancy lighting. These days, the 76-year-old singer is all about simplicity and authenticity just Kristofferson's gravelly voice, his guitar and harmonica, and perhaps his banjo-playing daughter, Kelly, who may join him on stage for a few numbers.
In a phone interview with The Bee, Kristofferson took a break from the Washington-Seattle NFL playoff game to talk about his music, his mortality and the biggest lesson he's learned about love:
Q: You've generously donated your time to do this show, which will help abused and neglected kids go to a summer camp. Why did you agree to do it?
A: The person who asked me was my best friend, Bucky Kahler. We played football together since sixth grade when we were living in San Mateo, then we went through high school together. He was the quarterback; I was the left end and linebacker. His son (Jeff Kahler, a Modesto veterinarian and Bee columnist) has this thing for Royal Family Kids Camp, so I hope we get a good crowd. I'm getting old, so I'm starting to forget things, but I can still remember my songs.
Q: Your new album, "Feeling Mortal," is coming out this month. Will you perform any of those songs while you're here?
A: Sure. I really play a mix of the old and the new, everything that I feel like I want to share. I've been working at (songwriting) all my life. I wrote my first song when I was 11 years old. It's called "I Hate Your Ugly Face" (laughs). It isn't much of a song.
Q: Will you sing it here?A: Maybe (laughs again). I enjoy performing my songs.
Q: Are you feeling a little mortal these days?
A: Oh, God, who wouldn't? I'm 76. All of a sudden, you realize this ride doesn't go forever. But I can't remember a time in my life when I've felt better about where I've been and what I'm doing. I have to hand it to my wife (Lisa). We've been together for 30 years and had five kids together. It's a good life.
(He pauses to think.) I'm afraid that I'm not any good at ending sentences now, because my memory at the end is different than at the front. I've seen all these people who had concussions in football and boxing like I did, who have problems when they get to be about my age, so I wouldn't be surprised. I played football in high school, football and boxing in college, and boxing after college. It's nothing that's keeping me from working or enjoying my wife and kids, though, so I feel very fortunate.
Q: Speaking of mortality, what do you think happens after you die? Do you believe in God?
A: I believe definitely there's an artist behind it somewhere, because the universe is too beautiful to be an accident. There's somebody or something out there that created this thing. I don't think of heaven in terms I can describe. All I know is that we all live and we all die and there's some kind of creative force behind all of this.
Q: You grew up in a military family and flew Army helicopters, yet ended up using the other side of your brain as a creative songwriter. How did that happen?
A: It's just the way my whole life has been. That's what I'm so grateful for. I got my knuckles dirty and got to dig ditches and work as a laborer when I was only 16, and was able to keep playing football when I'm too little and too small. I weighed 150 pounds, but I was out there and competitive and had no idea how I was so blessed. To go from there to winning creative-writing contests in Atlantic Monthly and going over to England as a Rhodes scholar. Then to work as a Ranger helicopter pilot. I'm amazed that I had the nerve to go away from the West Point assignment (he was headed to teach English there when he decided to live in Nashville instead). I would have had a comfortable life program for me, and I went to be a janitor in Nashville at Columbia studio for two years, and I never regret it.
Q: You've been married three times and hooked up with some beautiful, powerful women over the years Janis Joplin, Barbra Streisand, Joan Baez. What's the most important thing you've learned about love?
A: I learned not to cheat on your wife. I think you've got to put all your love in one direction and be faithful to that. It's proved to me just in the 30 years or so that I finally learned to behave that way that it's wonderful. I have eight children and they all love each other and laugh all the time together. My wife is really the positive force who pulled it all together while I watch TV (laughs).
Q: In a strange twist of timing, a Highwaymen tribute band will be performing the same week you're here. Was that a good time in your life?
A: That's very cool. Being part of that was the best time in my life. Each of those guys was an unapproachable hero when I met them (Cash, Jennings, Nelson). They were the serious songwriting musicians that we all looked up to. And then here I was. I always felt like the janitor. I'm sure a lot of people thought of that, too.
Q: You've done it all acting, singing, songwriting. Do you have a favorite?
A: I don't think of it that way. I just feel so lucky in ways that pleased me and please the other people, too. It's a real blessing. I never know when I'm going to write music or anything else. (Songwriting ideas) come slower now, but I never worry about it. That's another blessing. When you get close to the end of the road, you have to appreciate life more your family and friends. I can't think of a thing I would have changed.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.
WHAT: Kris Kristofferson
WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 18
WHERE: Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
TICKETS: $25 to $60
BENEFITS: Royal Family Kids Camp, a weeklong summer camp for abused or neglected children in foster homes
CALL: (209) 338-2100