Rock Stories: Mark Rodney Remembers Kris Kristofferson And The Sylmar Quake Of ’71

By and on May 12, 2015

For the second entry in our “Rock Stories” posts, we turned to our friend Mark Rodney and asked him if he had any particular memories to share for our new series, so he told us about meeting and jamming with Kris Kristofferson in February 1971, on the night before one of L.A.’s biggest earthquakes.

First, here’s a little about what was happening at the time: By the beginning of 1971, Kris Kristofferson — thirty-four years old, a Rhodes scholar and an ex-army helicopter pilot – had been knocking around Nashville for years, and most of his success had come as a songwriter, with other artists scoring hits with several of his tunes.

Then, in ’69, when he was signed as an artist to Monument Records, he began cutting his own versions of some of those hits — “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Best Of All Possible Worlds,” “Darby’s Castle,“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” — as well as some new songs, notably “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “For The Good Times.”

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Kristofferson in a hotel room on Sunset Blvd., 1970

In April 1970, his debut album, Kristofferson, had been released, and within a few months, on June 23rd, he was kicking off his first solo tour at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. A month later he was playing his fourth gig at the Isle of Wight Festival, on July 26, 1970, and the very same day a piece in the New York Times was saying he was “the hottest thing in Nashville right now — and if you’re hot in Nashville, man, you’re hot everywhere.”

The hits continued coming in ’70, mostly for other artists: Johnny Cash scored a hit with his “Sunday Morning Coming Down” – Cash’s recording won the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year in 1970 and hit #1 on the country charts — and Kristofferson’s close friend Janis Joplin had a posthumous #1 hit, in January 1971, with “Me And Bobby McGee.” (The very next month, February ’71, Sammi Smith would take “Help Me Make It Through The Night” to the top of the country charts, giving Kristofferson his third country chart #1, and Bobby Bare’s recording of Kristofferson’s “Come Sundown” would also be a Top Ten hit that same month).

Not content to stay busy in just the music biz, Kristofferson was also at the time still filming his acting debut in Cisco Pike, which was being directed by a 27-year old director named Bill L. Norton. The drug dealer drama was being lensed on location in and around Venice, California, where Kristofferson was living at the time.

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Dennis Hopper and Kris Kristofferson, 1971
(Fine Art America)

Which brings us to Mark Rodney: Just a few months into 1971, the new year was also shaping up to be a great one for him too, as Mark had just recorded his first album with musical partner John Batdorf — it was released later in the year as Off The Shelf, credited to Batdorf & Rodney; Batdorf writes about it here. They were performing pretty much non-stop, and playing a lot shows in and around L.A. This seems like a good point to let Mark take over… so, take it away, Mark!

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John Batdorf, Mark Rodney and Jane Fonda, circa 1971

Mark Rodney:

“I have one fond memory that will forever be remembered by all involved — not for the magical stoned-out jam we had — but for the fact that it was capped off by the great 6.6 earthquake, known as the Sylmar quake, in 1971.

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In those very early days of our career — ya know, when you’re a teen you’re cocky and think you can conquer the world — when me and John Batdorf started playing clubs around Hollywood, the legendary Ahmet Ertegun himself called up Paul Colby, who owned and ran the famous Bitter End in Greenwich Village (where he introduced a young and unknown Bob Dylan to N.Y. audiences), who had recently moved out west to showcase new acts at his Bitter End West. It was also a venue for Warner Bros. Records, for their star acoustic acts — like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Randy Newman, etc. — and was also trying to compete with the main club, the Troubadour, which it never did…but that’s another story. Because of Ahmet’s clout, we were impressive enough for Colby to let us be the regular opening act for some of these great shows. He paid us only $50.00, which actually was okay for two unknown teens to open a show.

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One night, in early February, as we were finishing a big weekend show which featured Earth Wind and Fire, and the main act Dion (strange show but it worked), Paul invited us to his assistant/girlfriend’s house for a little after-hours party.  Since it was already about 2:30am, I said, ‘Sure, why not?,’ so we ended up in a nice area of houses in West Hollywood, and his assistant/girlfriend leads us to the dining room area where Paul is sitting at this big table. She introduces us to the guy sitting at the head of the table, “Boys, this is Kris Kristofferson.”

Now, he had just been named Country Songwriter of the Year, and was working on his first film, the innovative Cisco Pike, which also starred Gene Hackman, Harry Dean Stanton, and Karen Black. It didn’t come out until the following year.

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I had heard of him from that Janis Joplin song he wrote, “Me And Bobby McGee,”  but I knew the guy sitting next to him more, and that was Eric Andersen, who had started with Dylan in New York. I had his records. Also, sitting across the table was a friend of Kris’s named Eddie Rabbitt, who later had some big country hit records. There was also a guy with a big camera filming every move Kris made. It sort of reminded me of D.A. Pennebaker filming Dylan in Don’t Look Back. It was neo-new wave film realism, as Kris started rolling some joints and the man with the camera, who never said a word all night, filmed it all.

So, now we’re starting to get real stoned and Kris asked us who we were. Paul had told us to bring our guitars so he knew we were musicians, and then, cocky as ever, I said we’re John and Mark (as we were known then) and we had just recorded an album on Atlantic in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That was impressive, and we knew Kris was friends with all the guys down there. Then he said, in that now famous low bass voice, ‘Well, play us a song!’

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Kristofferson and Karen Black in Cisco Pike (1971)

I guess we were pretty stoned cause today I would be nervous with folk and country legends asking us to entertain them, but, when you’re young and stoned, ‘what the fuck!’ So, we played a song or two, and Kris got excited. I think he got off on our enthusiasm as he was just then becoming a superstar in his mid-thirties and we were teens. He told me to start concentrating on harmony singing and showed me a part I should try on one of our tunes.

He was so cool. That night in Hollywood was a big stepping stone in our future, and about 5:00 o’clock in the morning, everyone was too spent to do anything else but go home and crash. We all swapped phone numbers, said ‘goodbye,’ and split.

Since we lived just a few blocks away, I got in bed a little before 6:00a.m. I remember, as I was drifting in mid-sleep, I heard a drum roll in my dream. It just seemed to get louder and louder ’til I woke up — that’s when the bed starting jumping up and down and all the windows in the house started breaking.

I was still so stoned I thought it was part of my dream. Then, I started to hear some screams and people outside were saying things like ‘we were all gonna die!’ Then it stopped. It was the eeriest silence I’ve ever heard in my life. It turned out to be L.A.’s worst quake, at that time. It’s still the worst one I’ve been in. I went back to sleep while everybody went outside.


The earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley near Sylmar at 6:00:55 a.m. PST on February 9, 1971, with a magnitude of 6.6.

We wound up doing some shows with Kris, at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, and spent a week with him. Man, this guy had so many chicks. Talk about groupies — his were movie stars! I won’t mention any names, but there was Jane Fonda, then Karen Black, (oh well, guess I am mentioning names), then Emmylou, and that was only the third day! Man, this guy got more ass than a bicycle seat! (ya know, maybe I shouldn’t say that). His girlfriend at the time was Carly Simon, and we would jam a little with her in the dressing room.

Believe it or not, we all shared the same dressing room. I guess the solo room for the headliner was for Kris but he stayed in the one bigger room, with his band, and we shared. He switched his women around. Carly — whose first single had come out and was getting lots of airplay — was mostly in our room, but Emmylou was mostly in his other room. Carly was very friendly and we sang with her.  She would just start singing harmony with us.

We hung out with his band, which included Donnie Fritts — who played one of the Daltons in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, with Kris and Dylan — and Billy Swan, who later would have a giant hit with “I Can Help.” I loved talking with Donnie, and we had some laughs. He had been with Kris a long time and he was also an actor. Billy Swan was friendly, but he had a cross eye and it seemed like he was looking around you. Thinking back now, they cut us a lot of slack, probably because we were nineteen years old.  There were all in their thirties.

Kris was like our older brother. He had come a long way from once achieving the honor of becoming a Rhodes Scholar, dropping out of West Point (they wanted him to be a general), then he decided to chuck it all in and go to Nashville and be a songwriter, much to the chagrin of his military family, who disowned him by then. He then flew helicopters along the Texas pipeline, and then got his first job in Nashville, as janitor cleaning Bob Dylan’s ashtrays during the Blonde On Blonde sessions at Nashville’s Columbia studios. Talk about paying dues!

I should also add that marijuana was in constant supply and the dressing room had to be aired out a lot, by the owner’s request. It was a long week and we were all pretty close after it was over. Kris gave me a number and said to visit, before he went back to Nashville where he was still based.

The next week we went to this house on the Venice canal, which was actually owned by Eric Andersen’s family, I believe. At that time, the great LA earthquake was still the main topic of conversation and everyone had a story. The Sylmar quake it came to be called, I think. Kris said to me, “Son, we will always remember the night we met…as long as we live, we’ll never forget,” and he was right! That’s just like Kristofferson, taking real life and putting it to poetry. It was a time I’ll never forget and I bet Kris will always remember that explosive week.

Later on, when I saw Cisco Pike, Kris looked exactly the same as the time I spent with him. There was a scene where Kris and Harry Dean Stanton are driving down the Strip and Harry Dean says, “We gotta get the band back together, man” and he asks Kris, “what’s Fritts doing?,” and Kris replies, “Driving a truck.” I smiled.

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Thanks, Mark!

Almost a year after the Sylmar earthquake, Columbia Pictures decided that Cisco Pike had limited appeal and wasn’t worthy of wide distribution, so they released it to just one theater in Los Angeles — on January 14, 1972 — where it played for several weeks before closing.

In 2006, Sean Howe, writing about Cisco Pike’s DVD release for the L.A. Times’s Sunday magazine, West, called the movie a “hippie-burnout drama … in which the optimism of the 1960s slips into the disappointing loneliness that Los Angeles can cultivate like no other city.” 

Howe explained in his excellent in-depth article that although Cisco Pike had never aired on TV, — despite a failed attempt by the late Z Channel head Jerry Harvey to persuade Columbia to license him the rights for broadcast, sometime during the ’80s — and the film was never made available, officially, on VHS, Cisco Pike had nevertheless found its way to a devoted audience, and today it is considered a cult classic.

(By the way, we realize Cisco Pike was not technically Kristofferson’s movie debut — he had a bit part in a movie he’d helped score, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, shot in 1970 — but Cisco Pike was his first starring role).

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.