This piece takes a look at Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.” The song appears on Kristofferson’s self-titled debut album from 1970 on Monument, which is, by any standard, an astonishingly good record. The album features “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” along with the ol’ Devil. That’s four absolute classics right there for ya.
Sunday Morning features an opening quatrain that most other songwriters would trade their career for:
Well I woke up Sunday morning/ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/ and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/ so I had one more for dessert
(I could play this game all day—Jason Isbell’s Southeastern features another couple life-work worthy couplets:
The first two lines of “Super 8”:
Don’t wanna die in a super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well
And from “Different Days”:
Time went by and I left and I left again/ Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.
If I’d written lines that great I’d call it a career and sip martinis on the house for the duration.)
Sunday Morning and Bobby are probably objectively better songs than To Beat the Devil, yet what I like about this one is that Kristofferson states very clearly a kind of founding intention for his life in song and art, right out of the gate. The only parallel I can think of is Craig Finn’s The Hold Steady, whose first album Almost Killed Me kicks off with “A Positive Jam.”
(Here’s Finn telling it like it is:
I got bored when I didn’t have a band/ so I started a band/ we’re gonna start it with a positive jam/ hold steady.
Rock on Craig baby.)
Anyway, let’s get to the focus of this piece. Kristofferson opens with a spoken intro.:
A couple of years back I come across a great and wasted friend of mine in the hallway of a recording studio. And while he was reciting some poetry to me that he had written, I saw that he was about a step away from dying, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me.
Here the singer is looking up at his idol who is both “great and wasted.” I wasn’t around quite yet in 1970, yet I can easily imagine Ginsberg’s “best minds” line hanging over talented folks across a lot of zones. Klosterman wasn’t quite there either (June 5, 1972–a mid Gemini of course), but he was close, and to indulge not for the last time in a little Klostermania, the zeitgeist seemed to be making people thirsty.
The singer receives some scraps of poetry, shards of shattered inspiration, and a song “occurs” to him. He doesn’t state it directly, however we imagine the song arrives fully formed, like “Pancho and Lefty,” or “Kubla Khan.” Thus, To Beat the Devil is also both an answer and an offer of redemption to his idol, who here is John(ny) Cash.
I’m happy to say he’s no longer wasted, and he’s got him a good woman. And I’d like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped showed me how to beat the devil.
The singer takes up the mantle of the master, and in so doing opens a possibility window onto redemption for his senior. This is no exaggeration—Cash also recorded To Beat the Devil in 1970 and we are basically stipulating that Kristofferson’s genius, descended from Cash while also original to himself, helped rescue Cash from addiction and the whole deal there. We won’t be deep diving into the archive on this one—as we said we’re just keeping it local and breaking it down, so you’ll have to take my word on it or search it up your own self.
Here’s the first verse; the words speak for themselves:
It was wintertime in Nashville/ down on Music City Row/ and I was looking for a place/ and to get myself out of the cold/ to warm the frozen feeling that was eating at my soul/ keep the chilly wind off my guitar
A classic down and out in the big city piece of scene-setting. The singer is physiologically and psychologically frozen, a cold wind gusts across his art. The man needs a break.
My thirsty wanted whiskey/ my hungry needed beans/ but it had been a month of paydays/ since I’d heard that eagle scream/ so with a stomach full of empty/ and a pocket full of dreams/ I left my pride and stepped inside a bar
You might think that the operative nouns here would be “thirst” and “hunger,” but no. This is not a man with a thirst; this is a thirsty man. We also hear an echo of a now-ancient American past where a man with an empty stomach would go in search of, of all things, “beans.”
Anyway, he’s got no money, can’t really bring himself to care. So, a singer walks into a bar.
Actually I’d guess you’d call it a tavern/ cigarette smoke to the ceiling
and sawdust on the floor/ friendly shadows/ I saw that there was just one old man sitting at the bar/ and in the mirror I could see him checking me and my guitar/ and he turned and said/ come up here, boy, and show us what you are/ I said I’m dry, and he bought me a beer
The man in the mirror, the devil himself. The singer comes face to face with the man who checks him out and summons him over. Kristofferson then enters into a bargain–offers up the terms of an encounter: a beer on the old man’s tab. Score one for the thirsty man. The singer faces the old man; it’s to be a showdown. He doesn’t have much, but he’s got some “friendly shadows,” traces of an older map perhaps, an older memory.
I can’t help here but engage in a bit of presumption. When I play the song in my head, I want to hear “in the mirror I saw him casing me and my guitar,” (listen to the way he pronounces “guitar” on the track. Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas in ‘36 and behind the laid back folksinger you can here some roots here baby).
If I could make one edit to the song, it would be to replace “checking me,” with “casing me.” What a great verb “to case” is.
Lexical Interlude: “To case the joint”
1. slang To observe a place in order to familiarize oneself with its workings in preparation for some criminal activity (often robbery). Judging from the security footage, those men cased the joint hours before robbing it.
2. slang By extension, to thoroughly examine a place. In this usage, no devious motive is implied. As soon as my kids walking into the hotel room, they started casing the joint, exclaiming about everything from the TV to the mini-fridge.
The seminal use of this verb phrase comes from Bill Callahan, formerly of Smog. Callahan is an odd duck—he is so artificial, so obviously self-created as an entertainer, that he has become almost post-authentic. Callahan contains multitudes.
My favorite Smog album, well in the top two, is Red Apple Falls, which features “Ex-Con,” on which Callahan sings:
Jean jacket and tie/ feel like such a lie/ when I go to your house/ I feel like I’m/ casing the joint
Devious motive implied.
He nodded at my guitar and said/ it’s a tough life, ain’t it?/ I just looked at him/ he said “you ain’t making any money, are you?“/ I said, you been reading my mail/ he just smiled and said, let me see that guitar/ I got something you ought to hear/ and then he laid it on me
The devil has a bead on the singer, and he’s not far off. Yes he’s broke. Yes he’s down and out. Whaddaya want?
Filmic Interlude I: The Long Goodbye
In Robert Altman The Long Goodbye, written by Leigh Brackett, the main character Philip Marlowe gets out of jail somewhere in the first act and heads to a all-purpose pit stop restaurant who’s owner apparently collects Marlowe’s mail. The dialogue is exquisite.
Marlowe: You got any messages for me?
Owner: Believe we’ve got a few over there. As a matter of fact, you’ll find my phone bill in there too.
Marlowe: I wouldn’t worry about that.
When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose. Kristofferson’s got nothing to hide in his mail. Those bills go straight to the wastebasket.
If you waste your time a talkin’ / to the people who don’t listen/ to the things that you are saying/ who do you thinks gonna hear?/ and if you should die explaining how/ the things that they complain about/ are things they could be changing/ who do you thinks gonna care?
there were other lonely singers/ in a world turned deaf and blind/ who were crucified for what they tried to show/ and their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time/ ‘cause the truth remains that no one wants to know
The devil’s words speak for themselves. The path of the troubadour is a dead end. The world has not ears to hear nor eyes to see. Truth tellers meet a bad end. Whiners gonna whine. It’s a strong opening bet, made, we presume, with his red right hand.
Well the old man was a stranger/ but I’d heard his song before/ back when failure had me locked out/ on the wrong side of the door/ when no one stood behind me/ but my shadow on the floor/ and lonesome was more than a state of mind
The singer is on familiar territory; he’s has been tempted by this cynical incantation, he’s not immune to tuning out his calling when out in the cold. Who is?
You see, the devil haunts a hungry man/ if you don’t want to join him/ you gotta beat him/ I ain’t saying I beat the devil/ but I drank his beer for nothing/ then I stole his song
This is the key verse in our little tale. You see, when we tango with the devil the devil usually gets to lead. That’s just the way it goes. But the thing about the devil is, his game is a bit of a bluff. A couple of low pairs, maybe. You just gotta call.
and you still can hear me singing/ to the people who don’t listen/ to the things that I am saying/ praying someone’s gonna hear/ and I guess I’ll die explaining how/ the things that they complain about/ are things they could be changing/ hoping someone’s gonna care
I was born a lonely singer/ and I’m bound to die the same/ but I’ve gotta feed the hunger in my soul/ and if I never have a nickel/ I won’t ever die ashamed/ ‘cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know
Kristoffeson flips it right around. The devil’s got a point; the singer may die dead broke, that’s fine. Songs are borne on the wind in any case. The thing is to have faith in your audience. To believe someone is out there, heart in their hands and ear to the wind. And to hold this faith as a mantra. That’ll keep ‘em guessing, cause then you’re not playing their game, you’re playing your own.
Overall, To Beat the Devil is a young man’s song. It’s got a confidence, a swagger, even a hubris. So, after drafting most of this piece I wanted to find a recent live version, see how it’s aged. I stumbled on a version from a live set with Lou Reed released in 2017. The set is part of The Bottom Line Archive, and it finds Kristofferson in a Waitsian stage of life. The voice is richer than ever, but he’s not exactly singing. Then again, that’s what they said about Dylan and it’s B.S. The voice is the voice; singing is just a category.
The set is interspersed with short interviews of the two songwriters. Here is Kristofferson’s spoken introduction that precedes To Beat the Devil. It is instructive.
Interviewer: The devil figures in some of your songs, you know there’s that silver tongued devil and he pops up from time to time. Who’s the devil? What’s the devil for you? What are your demons?
K.K.: Well, I, I’ll do that song then. Ahhh…
Interviewer: Is that a metaphor or is that something real for you?
K.K.: Well here’s a song called To Beat the Devil. Maybe it’ll explain it. I can’t.