This story first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Men's Journal.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
While I was stationed in Germany, I used to fly a general back to the States. He was asking me about my next assignment, which was to teach literature at West Point. I told him I was interested in the job, but that I also had a desire to become a country songwriter. I come from a military family, and I’m sure to him it sounded like I was going to join the circus. But he looked at me and said, “Follow your heart.” I never forgot that. It was a hell of a thing for a general to say.
What should every man know about women?
If God made anything better than women, he kept it for himself.
What’s the best cure for heartache?
Write a song.
What adventure most changed your life?
Right after I resigned from the Army in 1965, I flew helicopters for oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. I flew personnel from rig to rig, and I’d live on a platform out at sea. I had a lot of time to myself — no wine, women, or songs — so I’d sit in my helicopter and write. That’s where I wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” A few years later when I was on the road and not writing so much, my publisher told me I ought to go back out to the oil platforms. I told him, “You go.”
What’s the best survival skill you know?
Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.
Do you have a scar that tells a story?
I got scars on my face that tell some kind of story. I’m looking in the mirror, and I got one scar that’s really two scars — half from a baseball bat and half from playing football in college. I’ll tell you, though, after a while, your face gets so wrinkled up you can hardly see them.
Who is the toughest guy you know?
Muhammad Ali. Not just from his fighting, but because of the way he’s handling his incapacity. He’s never felt sorry for himself, and the last time I saw him, he was as sweet as ever. I met him back in the ’70s, after I did A Star Is Born, and he’d seen the movie. We’ve been close since. I remember that Waylon Jennings, who wasn’t impressed with anybody, wanted to meet Ali. I introduced them at some restaurant in Los Angeles, and I was worried because that’s when Waylon was really messed up. He looked like death eating a soda cracker — his hair was all greasy and he’d been up for a month, I think. But they became great friends too.
What song do you have to hear once a week?
I don’t think that there is one, but I could listen to Hank Williams until they throw dirt on me.
Have you ever cheated death?
Yeah, on my last parachute jump at Fort Benning. The guy going out the opposite door of the aircraft made a weak exit and I fell on top of his chute. My chute collapsed, and while I was busy trying to fight my way out of his, he pulled his reserve, and next thing I know he’s looking down at me. I didn’t even think to pull my reserve, which probably would’ve tangled us up again. Then my main chute opened back up. Everybody thought we were dead, but we both landed without getting injured. It was blind luck because I didn’t do one damn thing to save myself.
How should a man handle getting old?
[Laughs] You’re asking the right man. Just keep getting as old as you can as long as you can.
What’s the secret to life?
I had a list of rules I made up one time. It says: Tell the truth, sing with passion, work with laughter, and love with heart. Those are good to start with anyway.
What’s the best way to win a fight?
I boxed in Golden Gloves at Oxford and still know how to throw a straight left jab. Your weight has to be behind the punch to make it matter. Put your left foot in front of you, your right foot behind you. As you punch, your shoulder and hips come around, but you don’t want to cock your arm — just extend your arm straight out. It’s effective; I once broke a guy’s nose in an alley in Germany and didn’t have to throw any more punches.