Taxi Driver Music: “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”

In a recent post, we discussed the link between Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and the movie Taxi Driver (1976). In this post, we consider a musical connection between the movie and another song: Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”

In Taxi Driver, perhaps the one moment a viewer might think that there is a slight bit of hope for Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is when he first courts Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). After he charms her into going to a diner for a bite to eat, she quotes, “He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher… partly truth and partly fiction… a walking contradiction.” Bickle focuses on the “pusher part,” saying he has never been a pusher, but she explains she brought it up for the “walking contradiction” part. Bickle is amused, and a later scene shows him at a record store, apparently buying the album, which he later gives to her on their next date, which he blows by taking her to see a porno.

Although we do not hear the song or the name of the song in those scenes, the quote is from Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” which was off of his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971). The album’s biggest hit was “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” and the album also included Kristofferson’s version of “Jody and the Kid.”

“The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” which was not a hit for Kristofferson, has held up well through the years. A number of artists have covered the song, including Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Jerry Lee Lewis (with Kristofferson). When a tribute CD was put together for Kristofferson, they took the song for the title of the CD, The Pilgrim: A Celebration Of Kris Kristofferson. On that album, in the introduction to the title track, Kristofferson explains that he wrote that song “for a good friend of mine, Donny Fritts [Kristofferson’s long-time keyboard player], and Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash. . .” and then he goes on to list a number of people ranging from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Mickey Newbury to “maybe me and I guess my father.” As Kristofferson has aged and seeped into musical legend as one of our classic country elders, the song seems to be more and more about him.

It is a beautiful song, and while like Astral Weeks it is not completely in sync with the story of Travis Bickle, you can see where Martin Scorsese got a little inspiration from the song. Like “Madame George,” the song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” also contains some of the themes of isolation and loneliness that Martin Scorsese tried to capture in Taxi Driver.

He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars,
And he’s traded in tomorrow for today;
Runnin’ from his devils, Lord, and reachin’ for the stars,
And losin’ all he’s loved along the way;
But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse,
And all he ever gets is older and around,
From the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse,
The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.

Like many of Kristofferson’s songs, it works as pure poetry. His lyrics in “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” describe a man of contradictions, leaving much room for interpretation. I have never read an explanation for the “Chapter 33” in the title, but I suspect it is a reference to a man being near the end of his life, just as Chapter 33 will fall near the end of a book. Perhaps that is why the song seems to describe so many of the brilliant artists mentioned by Kristofferson in the introduction mentioned above. May we all be so lucky that the going up is worth the coming down.

In another performance, Kristofferson interprets the song with a more upbeat version of the song with a full band.

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