Kris Kristofferson

Spooky Lady's Sideshow

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Spooky Lady's Sideshow Review

by William Ruhlmann

Kris Kristofferson has complained that no album he released after 1972's Jesus Was a Capricorn was given any promotion, and 1974's Spooky Lady's Sideshow is the first record that falls into that category. If his statement is true, it is understandable why Monument Records would have refrained from a major campaign on behalf of the album. Record companies tend to reserve their greatest promotional effort for developing artists who show commercial promise, expecting established artists to fend for themselves. And at the time of the release of Spooky Lady's Sideshow, the company probably considered Kristofferson an established artist; after all, two of his last three albums had gone gold, and he had hit number one in the country singles charts the year before with the gold-selling "Why Me" while at the same time topping the country albums charts twice, with Jesus Was a Capricorn and his duo album with Rita Coolidge, Full Moon. Also, in the interim between his last album and this one, he had become a movie star with his appearances in Blume in Love and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. But all that success masked a relatively fragile status as a recording artist. Kristofferson was actually more successful as a songwriter than as a singer; his third album, Border Lord, had been a commercial disappointment, and so had Jesus Was a Capricorn until "Why Me" belatedly became a fluke hit. He didn't really have as firm a fan base as the statistics indicated, and the movie stardom was a double-edged sword, suggesting that his commitment to music-making was compromised. But a second reason for Monument not to commit its resources to promoting Spooky Lady's Sideshow must have come from listening to the record itself. On paper, Kristofferson may have seemed to be at the top of his game, not only because of his record sales and box office appeal, but also because of his apparently successful marriage to Coolidge. And yet Spooky Lady's Sideshow was practically a concept album about dissipation and decline. Over and over, Kristofferson sang of characters and of himself (or, at any rate in the persona of a first-person narrator) going downhill while consuming liquor and drugs. From the back of the album cover, which was festooned with fictional negative reviews, to song titles like "Star-Spangled Bummer (Whores Die Hard)" and "Stairway to the Bottom," the album was a portrait of excess and deterioration. Monument was unable to locate a "Me and Bobby McGee" or even a "Why Me" to release as a single and settled for "I May Smoke Too Much," a Dixieland-style tribute to hedonism, which made no impact. With that, the album faded from its peak in the lower reaches of the pop Top 100, Kristofferson's lowest and briefest charting LP so far. It's hard to blame anyone but the artist himself for this. While he had been rushed in making his third and fourth albums, the belated success of "Why Me" afforded him a year-and-a-half to come up with the material for Spooky Lady's Sideshow. Its songs featured his usual wordplay and repeated many of his usual interests -- freedom, the Devil, Jesus Christ. Leaving longtime producer Fred Foster and Nashville behind, Kristofferson worked with David Anderle and a team of Los Angeles session pros, but his country-rock sound remained much the same. The problem was that his songs were so saturated in controlled substances and so determinedly focused on self-destruction that they became a self-fulfilling prophecy. You might say that Spooky Lady's Sideshow is Kris Kristofferson's version of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night (which was recorded around the same time though released later). But Kristofferson lacked Young's humorous perspective on his wasted condition, and instead of reinvigorating his career, the album was a misstep from which he never recovered as a recording artist.

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