Various Artists: Nothing Left to Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

Andrew Gilstrap

Various Artists

Nothing Left to Lose: a Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

Label: Incidental Music
US Release Date: 2002-10-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

It's easy to remember single pieces of Kris Kristofferson's career: his role in the Highwaymen, his work as a grizzled character actor, "Me and Bobby McGee", the album cover of A Star is Born that's seared into our collective memory. But when you start putting the pieces together, the results are startling, painting a portrait of a modern-day Renaissance man. Kristofferson's had a successful film career and a wildly successful songwriting career, but the road he took to get there -- Rhodes Scholar, short story writer, janitor, soldier, helicopter pilot, English teacher at West Point -- sounds like it gathered enough experience, wild oats, and heartbreak to fill five life stories. Hidden by the public idea, the persona, of Kris Kristofferson is a man of formidable intelligence and talent.

That's no surprise to anyone who knows he wrote songs like "Me & Bobby McGee", "Help Me Make It Through the Night", or "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" -- but how many people know he's responsible for those '70s country standards? Like many a Nashville songwriter, he's best represented by the success of those who interpreted his songs, but Kristofferson had his own recording career that was for a time quite successful. Still, he's had more than 100 songs covered by more than 500 artists, so it's a good bet that songwriting royalties did their fair share to keep his helicopter in the air.

Nothing Left to Lose pays tribute to Kristofferson in fairly impressive fashion, with Incidental Music throwing down a gauntlet in the liner notes. This album, they contend, is not so much for the existing Kristofferson fan as it is for those who have no idea who the hell he is, who might say, "The old dude from Blade made music?" To that end, they've assembled a strong collection of artists who exist on the more accessible fringes of this whole Americana/alt-country stylistic shindig that's doing so well these days.

The "bigger" names -- Calexico, Richard Buckner, Handsome Family -- are tailormade for Kristofferson's songs and hand in the expected gems (although to be honest, Calexico and Buckner both seemed to find a touch more spark on Real: The Tom T. Hall Project). Handsome Family's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" finds the right mix of plaintive, plainspoken poetry and hungover shuffle. Calexico's take on "Casey's Last Ride" turns poignant and Leonard Cohen-like with the introduction of French-accented female vocals. Buckner's "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" maintains the feel of his recent Impasse album, only a bit warmer and fuller.

Surprises come from the lesser known acts. Souled American drapes "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends" in plinking toy piano and lethargic chords. Califone shifts hard from dirge to bizarro-world border cacophony and back again on "Border Lord" (although it's unclear what the shifts accomplish), and join with Rebecca Gates for a luscious, slinky version of "Nobody Wins". Virgil Shaw takes "Just the Other Side of Nowhere" to the verge of Jimmy Buffett territory (and it works), while Crooked Jades go for an all-out violin-driven hoedown approach on "Shipwrecked in the Eighties".

All in all, most of the artists here seemed compelled to go in one of two directions: depressing and rustic, or heavy with club beats. Overall, each approach works with only a few cuts in either camp turning out undistinguished, and it's fascinating to see Kristofferson's songs bent into such unlikely shapes. Probably the only failure on Nothing Left to Lose is Zmrzlina's and Milk Chopper's "Me & Bobby McGee". To be fair, covering this song is a thankless task to start with. It's already well-known in several renditions, not the least of which is Janis Joplin's. The version here is overcooked with electronic beats and a meandering pace, and only reminds you of what an utterly fantastic job Joplin did with the song (essentially making it hers and hers alone). The strongest, and least utilized approach on the album seems to be singing the songs from a straightforward singer-songwriter perspective. Diana Darby's "Jesus Was a Capricorn" and Howe Gelb's "The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)" rightly place the emphasis on incredible lyrics, letting a natural beauty fill the songs' empty spaces.

Whatever the approach, though, the artists on Nothing Left to Lose do their jobs -- they showcase Kristofferson's impressive songwriting abilities. Sure, in some cases there's no substitute for the original, but Nothing Left to Lose shows that Kristofferson's songs could work in any genre, and shouldn't be dismissed just because they represent a supposedly uncool niche of country music. Folks like Kris Kristofferson wrote good songs, and it feels good to be reminded of that fact.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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