Kris Kristofferson, former Army helicopter pilot, Rhodes scholar, janitor, singer, songwriter, activist and actor, has fond memories of friend and collaborator Johnny Cash. The morning after ‘Walk the Line’s’ New York premiere, he sat down with the film’s director, James Mangold, and V Life to trade Cash stories about getting stoned, recording-studio break-ins and magic caves.
James mangold: When did you first meet Johnny?
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: 1965, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. I was still in the army. He was wild, like a panther. He was bouncing off the walls in the backstage area.
JM: Why were you there?
KK: I was on leave, and I was trying to decide whether I was going to stay in the army or go to Nashville and be a songwriter. A woman who was showing me around brought me backstage and introduced me to John. It was electric, like shaking hands with lightning. After that, I became the janitor at Columbia Recording Studio, the guy who emptied the ashtrays. I was there for almost two years.
JM: So what happened when John finally recorded one of your songs?
KK: Well, he did “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and he made it the record of the year, song of the year. And I never had to work a daytime job again. He was singing it on his TV show, and he saved the lyrics for me. They didn’t want him to say “Wishing Lord that I was stoned” on CBS or whatever it was. They were trying to talk him into saying “Wishing Lord that I was home.” I remember he was looking at me, and I said “Well, you know it’s not the same thing.” He got out on stage, and I was up in the balcony. He looked up at me and he sang “Wishing Lord that I was stoned.” I almost fell out of that balcony.
JM: Did they delete it (from the broadcast)?
KK: No, and the song would never have been what it was if he had not kept that. And of course, after that he did other songs of mine, but that was the one that opened the door. I was always nervous around Johnny, but he was kind and supportive to me. They tried to fire me from my job as a janitor at Columbia once because Don Law’s secretary and his assistant were blaming me for some guys who broke into the studio and had cornered John up in one of the stairwells, trying to pitch him a gospel album. I had walked up the stairs to try and stop them. John was backed up against the wall, and this guy was saying, “You have to listen to it right now!” The notion at the time of anybody messing with John’s creative space was inconceivable. So they were going to fire me, but Don said, “I’m not going to fire you, but I want you to stay down in the basement and don’t go to the sessions anymore. Stay out of sight.” John came down and said, “I understand you’re not coming to the session.” And I said, “No, I’m really busy. I got all this work.” And he said, “Well, I just want you to know that I’m not going to start until you get up there.” So we walked back up together. And they didn’t fire me.
JM: That’s beautiful.
V LIFE: Is the story of you landing a helicopter in John’s yard true?
KK: That was a very minimal thing in our relationship. I don’t think John was even there. But he told the story as if he were.
JM: He would. That was one of the trickiest parts of working on this film, getting fact from fiction. That’s why it really helped stopping (the film) in ’68. Because I think from that point on, with things like the helicopter story and the caves … it gets almost biblically rich. I don’t think I could do it.
KK: I was glad you wrote that cave out.
V LIFE: Cave?
JM: There’s a story that John would tell a lot about when he was recovering at the house on the lake. He took a long hike and went into a cave and lost a flashlight and went beyond all sources of light. He’s in complete blackness and lost inside the womb of this huge granite orifice and essentially he saw visions that led him out. I mean, how do you tell this in a movie? Once he’s beyond all sources of light?
KK: John had a good imagination.
JM: He did. And it’s part of what you loved about him. That’s a moment that plays beautifully when John tells it, but as a scene, it would look like a bad Cecil B. DeMille thing. It would seem like a fable and not the reality, the real reality of the moment. I can only make movies about people and conflict. I can’t make movies about visions.
KK: You made a very wise choice. John was already so much larger than life. He was John Wayne, Abraham Lincoln — everything, you know? He was like Muhammad Ali: People loved him because he loved them. –moderated by Jeff Johnson