By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Kris Kristofferson -- Oxford scholar, athlete, U.S. Army helicopter pilot, country music composer, one-time roustabout, film actor, singer, lover of women, three times a husband and father of eight -- seems ready to meet his maker.
At least, that was the clear impression he left with an audience of middle-aged-and-upwards fans at a concert in Geneva this week, a message underscored by his 28th and latest album, "Feeling Mortal" and its coffin-dark cover.
At a frail-looking 76, his ample beard more straggly than ever and his always gravel-laden voice gasping out the familiar lyrics of his great classics from "Bobby McGee" to "Rainbow Again", the hereafter appears at the front of his mind.
"I've begun to soon descend, like the sun into the sea," runs the title song of the new CD.
On the stage without backing group in Geneva, the first leg of a solo European tour to promote the disc from his own record company, "God" trips off his lips like a punctuation mark.
Even the old songs that made him -- as well as other country artists like Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash, and his one-time girl-friend Janis Joplin -- internationally famous, sound shaped by the fading voice to underscore a spiritual dimension.
"Sunday Morning Coming Down" emerges less as an ode to elderly loners facing old age without family and children and more as a call to prepare for the next life.
Religiosity was never that far from Kristofferson, son of a major-general in the U.S. Air Force, grandson of a Swedish army officer and in the 1ate 1950s a Rhodes Scholar in English Literature at England's Oxford University.
In the 1971 "Jesus was a Capricorn" he predicts the Christian savior would be crucified again if he came back preaching peace and love among all races and creeds.
In the new album, "Ramblin' Jack" is semi-autobiographical -- a song about a wandering singer "with a face like a tumbled-down shack" of "wild and righteous, wicked ways" who "ain't afraid of where he's goin'."
Kristofferson is adored by many believers, probably the vast majority of U.S. country fans and performers. But his fans among the unreligious and the atheists were also happy just to relish the poetry of his lyrics and the idiosyncrasy of his voice.
In Geneva, despite its Calvinist past as secular today as any major European city, the ageing 1,000-odd audience in a theatre seating twice that number, were certainly ready to enjoy anything he gave them.
They cheered and applauded his political declaration, an aside injected after a song line: "nobody wins." "But somebody has just won. Obama won, so the whole world has won!" he rasped, waving his electric guitar in the air.
They loved his self-mockery when, overcome briefly by a sniffle and pulling a blue bandana -- cousin of the red one in "Bobby McGee"? -- from his jeans pocket, he asked them if they minded having paid $100 "to watch an old fart blow his nose."
And they laughed with him when -- in the full flood of lyrics on the pleasure of being around "a lot of lovely girls in the best of all possible worlds -- he confided: "I wrote this song a LONG time ago."
His 22-year-old angel-faced daughter Kelly, a banjoist and vocalist, joined him on stage for a handful of numbers, while in the hall outside son Jesse manned a stall selling the new CD and the black "Feeling Mortal Tour" t-shirts.
Children -- their dreams and the dreams of their parents for them -- have also long been a central theme of his music.
"I wrote this for my little girl," he says of a father's song pledging he will be "forever there" for a daughter through life, and after. "Spread your wings," he tells her.
More prosaically, he recalls a rebuke from Jesse at age five over his 1970s hit: "The Silver-Tongued Devil": "That's a bad song. You're blaming all your troubles on someone else."
After the concert, the Kristofferson family left for Zurich and Vienna to continue the tour. "This may be our last goodbye," he sang in a final song. "We may not pass this way again."
"We'll miss you," called a voice from the audience.
(Reported by Robert Evans)