That Time My Boss Asked Me Whether I Knew Merle Haggard Was on Drugs
Merle did what he wanted, ‘til the end
I’ll get the hagiography out of the way quickly — Merle Haggard was a favorite, a perfect virtual drinking buddy whether I was in a bar in Sacramento, driving through San Francisco or shivering in a cold flat in South London. He was West Coast, so I liked that, the same way I liked Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. But we need not dwell on the drinking songs because they have been played all over and are like familiar friends — they wrap you in the same alcohol embrace each and every time. We all know them.
Then there are the fightin’ songs and the political songs — hell, even Merle was conflicted by “Okie From Muskogee.” But it mattered. Just as much as Andy Warhol instructed Lou Reed to write about what you see and what you know, Merle’s songs weren’t always easy to agree with, but there was a reality worth listening to buried in those lines about small town values. There was “Mama Tried,” with an outlaw vibe so smouldering that even the Grateful Dead nodded in agreement. There was “Workin’ Man Blues.”
And then there were the songs that served to reveal himself as a wise sage about 75 years older than he really was. Here we find material such as “Someday We’ll Look Back” and “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go.” I first heard “Silver Wings” on the Knitters’ first record, sung by John Doe. It broke my heart then, and still kills me on each repeated listen. It is a classic, a song written by a master with his own unique voice but meant for everyone to sing. And then there’s the song about the long winter.
To me, “If We Make It Through December” is as important a statement of faith in the Equinox and the human condition in the dead of winter as Van Morrison’s plea in “Fire in the Belly.” In that song, Van says: “Gotta make it through January/Gotta make it through February,” and you believe it because it is true. When Merle says “if we make through December, we’ll be fine,” you want to believe him.
Merle was like Van in many ways, a quixotic and unruly observer of what a friend calls the Majesty of Life. I’d say he was America’s Van Morrison, if Van hadn’t spent so much time in America and I’m not really into borders. But both men have an ability to reveal the secular as spiritual and vice versa.
But I promised I would get the hero worship out of the way quickly. So, onward.
I only got to see Merle play once, at the Contra Costa Fairgrounds in the summer of 1989. I was a young entertainment reporter at the newspaper group that included the Oakland Tribune and other publications in the suburbs of the East Bay. Among the myriad of jobs I had was going out on a seemingly nightly basis to see some musician or band so I could then write up a review of how cool it was to be at a show most of our readers hadn’t had the opportunity to attend. I still remember my boss asking me whether I’d like the idea of going out night after night to concerts and getting paid to do it. It wasn’t until years later that I heard Todd Snider put it roughly the same way when he described getting a record deal — “Fuck YES, I would like to do that. Hell yeah, I’d like to do that.” — and laughed, recalling my own good fortune.
Well, I’d been at it for more than a year and the shows were piling up, so much so that I was actually getting burned out, especially on concerts that I under different circumstances wouldn’t have been caught dead at. Seriously, YOU try and find a date to the next Richard Marx show that passes through town. But acts like Merle were something different — a pleasure to witness, a joy to try and write up, as fairly and accurately as I could, on a TRS-80 portable laptop.
It was late June, around the time that the issue of whether flag-burning was protected under the Constitution had become a major staple of the yet-to-be-fully-born 24-hour news cycle. The Supreme Court had ruled 5–4 in Texas v. Johnson that burning Old Glory was a protected act of dissent. The issue really divided people. Frank Sinatra, for one, was really pissed off about it and wrote a letter to George Bush telling him how he felt. Flag burning, for a brief period, was everywhere. Well, at least in San Francisco. Gotta protest? Make sure a few flags are torched!
So this was also about the time the Bush Administration was making a major push to do what Ronald Reagan had actually avoided under his time in office — seek a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade. I recall eating Mexican food at Pancho Villa Taqueria in the Mission when a number of people came in charged up from a pro-choice protest at the Federal Building off of Market. “Did they burn some flags?” I asked. “Oh hell yes,” a nice young woman said. “About every couple of minutes another one went up in smoke.” I was in love and hoped I could sit with her. But she drifted away and so I went instead to the Haight and got drunk and danced.
So it was in that atmosphere that I set off some days later to check out Merle at the Contra Costa Fair at what was probably concert no. 10,234 for him and his band. (I’m sure it’s online somewhere but I’ll leave that to his real fans). The fair had booked in a Murderers’ Row of country talent — Johnny Cash one night, Merle the next, Roy Clark on a closing show. Today all would be held up as Pax Americana, but at that time they were just three middle-aged country stars passing through another local fair at a time when country was suspect goods for the hipsters. For the record, Johnny was classy as he was his entire life and Roy managed to put his fuckin’ Hee Haw act aside and play some of the most amazing guitar I’ve ever seen. And then there was Merle.
Merle came out while it was still light. It was important at the fair to have some acts that were considered headliners out there doing their thing, but still done and dusted in the post rush-hour light so the crowd could be tucked in bed early.
If I recall well enough, Merle worked his way through a number of old favorites and made sure to play “Workin’ Man Blues” because I think it was used in a commercial around that time. A couple of sponsors got a shout out. What I do remember was a slow, shuffling nature of the show, a relaxed pace that revealed itself through long, languid breaks between songs and pauses between speaking.
“Sorry, folks, gotta bit of a cold, tonight,” Merle said. I took it for what it was and noted his comment duly in my notebook. Merle says he has a cold. Of course, I was not Gay Talese writing about Frank Sinatra and his illnesses. Good lord, I was just another scribe at a county fair. And if Merle says he has a fucking cold, that’s what I’ll believe.
The rest of the show was dispatched in the same shuffling, unhurried manner. Songs were played slowly, sadly, like there had been a recent death in the family. And then near the end, he said, “Folks, we’re gonna do something new.”
Later in the summer he said he had written it in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco. The song was called “Me and Crippled Soldiers” but that night he didn’t say what it was. A woman came out from stage right with a piece of paper in her hands and held in front of Merle’s face while the band kicked in and he sang :
“Now that it’s alright to burn the stars and stripes
I guess nobody needs really needs old Uncle Sam.”
Ah, I thought. Protest.
The song continued:
“I’ve been known to wave the flag before
And saddened when we went to war
Fighting for the symbol of our land
For all the wars we fought and won to keep old glory waving
Today, they ruled to burn old glory down
And only me and crippled soldiers give a damn.”
The crowd gave a great cheer at most of it but frankly, since it was a new song, most people weren’t listening. Don’t challenge me on this, I know it’s true. If a musician plays anything new that’s the signal for the bathroom. Even Radiohead. In my review I noted he had played a song backing up the anti-flag burning folks, but didn’t offer a lot of detail other than the fact that some woman who looked like Sacheen Littlefeather had held lyrics in front of his face.
The show ended, as all do, and I drove my Honda back to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge. The earthquake that would change our lives was still a few months off. I wrote my review and unfortunately didn’t include enough about the flag song. New song, okay cool. But what?
The next day I was sifting through letters and press releases on my desk at work and wondering if I should bother asking anyone I knew if they were remotely interested in seeing Milli Vanilli the next week (they weren’t). My boss called me into her office, something she didn’t generally do unless she was giving someone a promotion or was unhappy about something. I suspected the latter.
“Did you see Merle Haggard last night?”
“Well, it’s in the paper this morning,” I replied.
“Was he stoned, do you think?”
I sat dumbly looking at her. Stoned?
“I hadn’t noticed. Why are you interested?”
She told me a person from the paper had been at the show and had read my review of the show and wondered if I had noticed how “drunk or doped” Merle appeared to have been at the show. The show was dead because of Merle’s behavior.
“Gee, I don’t think so,” I replied. “He said he had a cold.”
“Apparently he had to have someone hold lyrics up to his face. He couldn’t remember the lyrics.”
I struggled to think. The flag burning song?
“No, he said that was a new song. He might not have memorized the lyrics yet.”
My boss sat looking at me, considering my argument. At that point I was allowed to leave and plan the rest of my day which involved me wondering whether Merle truly had been stoned and I hadn’t noticed. Merle didn’t call for a correction and life went on.
I’ve thought about that show a number of times. Should I have made a bigger deal about his flag song? Should I have noted that he was sad and slow and shuffling through the songs? Absolutely not, and ultimately I was driven back to Jefferson Starship’s song “Stairway to Cleveland.” In which they opined: “FUCK YOU, WE DO WHAT WE WANT.”
Merle did what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, whether he was supporting the war in Iraq, protesting it, hating the flag-burners, loving the rebels who give voice to a true anti-Iraq voice. Etc. He was the most conflicted dude who would have hugged Neil Young and Hank Williams Jr. at the same damn time. He was a singular icon whose songs communicated truth, love, passion and doubt. Did I like those politics, whatever they were? No, probably not, but the songs were a sweet decay across all that is meant to represent to be alive.
And he did what he wanted. To the end.
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Kirk West had unprecedented access to the legendary band for over 40 yearsmedium.com