Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Best of the Free Life

Well I hear you had an adventurous youth, makin' love in a telephone booth
And I even hear you did a little stretch in jail.
But now you got a big ranch house with a bar
And eight, nine, ten of them fancy cars
And every other week a check comin' in the mail. "I'll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle," (Nick Gravenites).

Noting the passing of country music legend Merle Haggard.

The man always seemed the perfect contrarian. "Okie From Muskogee," a signature piece from the late '60s, was recorded because Haggard was angry at protesters. In his mind, they didn't know any better than the country folk in Oklahoma. He did not want the record company to release "Fighting Side of Me," preferring a song about a white man who falls in love with an African-American woman. He lost, the record company fearing for his reputation.

He'd indeed done "a little stretch in jail."  He was arrested several times as a juvenile, and then as an adult. He ended up in San Quentin prison after a botched robbery (according to Rolling Stone he was pardoned by then-governor Ronald Reagan in 1972). He emerged a changed man, having narrowly escaped participating in a prison break that led to the murder of a police officer and the execution of Haggard's proposed co-conspirator.

He had a string of hits and successes. Many of the songs growled and sputtered at things for which he had little patience. "Rainbow Stew" seemed to suggest that, when politicians did what they said they'd do, we'd "all be drinking that free Bubble Up, and eatin' that Rainbow Stew. Eatin'g Rainbow Stew with a silver spoon underneath that sky of blue." Like that would ever happen, he inferred. He wondered, in the song "Are the Good Times Really Over," if, having been lied to by Richard Nixon, the best of the free life was behind us.

The digital revolution had overtaken music in the 1990's. For those of us who grew up with FM radio and our fingers poised over record buttons, it was like the world was made anew. One could order, for a modest sum, one song at a time. There was piracy, and lawsuits, and haggling over the billions of dollars chasing a technology that refused to be stilled. In the midst of it, dipping my toe into a rapidly filling ocean of sound, I heard Merle sing these lyrics:

I've been throwing horseshoes over my left shoulder.
I've spent most all my life looking for that four-leaf clover.
Yet, you ran with me, chasing my rainbows.
Honey, I love you too, and that's the way love goes.

I had to have that song. It was the first I downloaded, for $.99. The best of the free life - for me and the woman with whom I continue to chase rainbows - was still yet to come. 

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