I first remember hearing “Help Me Make It Through the Night” when I watched John Huston’s Fat City, though I can’t imagine I hadn’t heard it before in some form. Kris Kristofferson’s song has been recorded by many artists, but was the biggest hit for “outlaw” country singer Sammi Smith. Her version was on the Billboard country charts for 33 weeks in 1971.
“Outlaw” country, spinning out of the Bakersfield sound popularized by hard-asses like Merle Haggard, was a rejection of the “countrypolitan” pop sound so prevalent in Nashville. Songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings grew their hair long and moved back to Texas, embracing folk music and rock & roll. Sammi Smith, a heavy smoker, had a husky voice, and the nerve to record a song that explored a woman’s desire for sex through the long, lonely night. It hardly seems controversial, but context, people, context! Most popular country songs sung by women at the time were about kicking your husband out of the house for being plastered. Or standing by your man.
Smith’s career waned in the late-70s and early-80s. She moved to Arizona, where she became a proponent of Native American issues, and died in 1995 of smoking-related illness. Here she is in the flesh (well, youtube flesh) singing her biggest hit.
Gladys Knight and the Pips went to #2 on the pop charts with their take of the song a year later. I love the spoken word intro: “I’m imagining a lot of happy people. And most of you are with someone you love. Well, you are the lucky ones. All over the world there are lots of people who are alone tonight. I imagine most of us have been in that situation at one time or another. I know I have. Recently I heard a most beautiful song with a dynamic lyric that really expresses this feeling of loneliness. It means a lot to me personally, and I’d like to share it with you. I think you’ll see what I mean…”
Kris Kristofferson began writing songs while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. After earning a masters in Engish Literature, and a stint in the army as a helicopter pilot, he moved to Nashville to make it as a songwriter. After 5 years he had recorded a solo album, and began to have some success selling his songs, including Janis Jopin’s posthumous version of “Me and Bobby McGee.” They had been lovers before her death. Here’s Kristofferson duetting with his former wife, Rita Coolidge. My dad always thought she was pretty. Her, and Lindsay Wagner, of Bionic Woman fame.
Here are some other great versions of the song.
Joan Baez, off her 1971 album Blessed Are…:
Loretta Lynn, from her 1971 album I Wanna Be Free:
The top ten UK hit for John Holt:
Tammy Wynette, from Another Lonely Song:
Skeeter Davis, from the album Skeeter:
Wilie Nelson, from Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson:
Johnny and June Cash helping each other make it through the night:
Lastly, the opening of Fat City. The song choice is appropriate lyrically, as the film begins with Stacy Keach, playing a washed-up boxer, lying in his skid row SRO bed with a hard-on. Throwing a cigarette in his mouth, he fruitlessly searches the room for a match to light his cigarette. The only impetus to leave the room is to get a light. Otherwise, you feel he’d lie there all day, except he’s also low on booze.
The film is set and shot in Stockton, CA, and is rather verite for a narrative film. The cinematographer Conrad Hall filmed the opening montage shots of Stockton’s decaying downtown from a van. This allowed him to go unnoticed as he shot down-on-their-luck residents loitering on the sidewalks and in doorways. Many scenes were filmed using existing light; there are great dim bar scenes shot during the day with minimal to no tungsten lighting. If you haven’t seen this movie, you’ve got to, if just to see Susan Tyrell’s performance as the most annoying yet heartbreaking drunk ever committed to celluloid.
I used to sit in bed next to my crippled grandfather and watch Keach as Mike Hammer. I didn’t know if I had a crush on Mike Hammer or wanted to be him. I took it personally when Stacy Keach was arrested for cocaine possession in 1984. My hero! I remember my brother and sister making jokes about it. 1984 was the first year I really remember watching the news. I have clear memories of Indira Gandhi being assassinated, and Marvin Gaye being murdered by his father.