|For Ethan Hawke's complete profile of Kris Kristofferson, check out the latest issue of Rolling Stone, on newsstands now.|
Standing backstage at the Beacon Theatre in New York, leaning against a crumbling brick wall in the dark, I could barely see Kris Kristofferson standing to my left. Willie Nelson was in the shadows to my right. Ray Charles was standing beside Willie, idly shifting his weight back and forth. A bit farther along the wall were Elvis Costello, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, Paul Simon and respective managers, friends and family. Everybody was nervous and tight. We were there for Willie Nelson's 70th birthday concert in 2003.
Up from the basement came one of country music's brightest stars (who shall remain nameless). At that moment in time, the Star had a monster radio hit about bombing America's enemies back into the Stone Age.
"Happy birthday," the Star said to Willie, breezing by us. As he passed Kristofferson in one long, confident stride, out of the corner of his mouth came "None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris."
"What the fuck did you just say to me?" Kris growled, stepping forward.
"Oh, no," groaned Willie under his breath. "Don't get Kris all riled up."
"You heard me," the Star said, walking away in the darkness.
"Don't turn your back to me, boy," Kristofferson shouted, not giving a shit that basically the entire music industry seemed to be flanking him.
The Star turned around: "I don't want any problems, Kris — I just want you to tone it down."
"You ever worn your country's uniform?" Kris asked rhetorically.
"Don't 'What?' me, boy! You heard the question. You just don't like the answer." He paused just long enough to get a full chest of air. "I asked, 'Have you ever served your country?' The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man's life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the fuck up!" I could feel his body pulsing with anger next to me. "You don't know what the hell you are talking about!"
"Whatever," the young Star muttered.
Ray Charles stood motionless. Willie Nelson looked at me and shrugged mischievously like a kid in the back of the classroom.
Kristofferson took a deep inhale and leaned against the wall, still vibrating with adrenaline. He looked over at Willie as if to say, "Don't say a word." Then his eyes found me.
"You know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him?" he whispered.
I shook my head.
"They're doin' to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin'."