by Tom Hallett
I died, the story went, on Friday the 13th of August, 2004. Apparently, I'd been drinking heavily and decided to tearout across the fields on a four-wheeler. Drunk out of my mind, I'd misjudged a turn and rolled the machine, killing myself in a blaze of hot smoke, gin, and spilled fuel oil. And on Friday the 13th!!
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Grownups have a strange way of putting themselves in compartments and groups. They build up barriers ... of religion, of caste, of color, of party, of nation, of province, of language, of custom and of wealth and poverty. Thus they live in prisons of their own making." —Jawaharlal Nehru
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Son”
Across state lines and international borders the news spread, the flames of
rumor fanned by town gossips, mentally disturbed ex-family friends, and well-meaning
but monstrously misinformed relatives—Hallett's dead, killed in a bike
wreck, ya know he was always a big drinker, what a shame, I knew he'd go young,
the way he lived, tsk tsk tsk ... of course, not a word of it (Well, maybe the
part about havin' a few nips now and then) was true, and by the time I found
out about it, the myth was more interesting than anything I could possibly have
compared it to in my actual life.
Thing is, the news reached my estranged father up in Alaska before I heard anything
about it. I hadn't talked to the old curmudgeon in over a decade, preferring
the tranquility of comfortable silence to the rage and rancor of our relationship
during my teenage years. It's an old story, and one that'll probably always
have some universal application, but the old man and I just never hit it off.
Sure, it'd be easy to lay all the blame on him—he was an angry, stubborn,
opinionated, coarse man for most of my youth. Very old-school, raised on the
principle of spare the rod, spoil the child. Needless to say, that approach
to child-rearing hasn't exactly proven to be the most effective way to nurture
a healthy relationship with one's offspring. On the other hand, that was over
three decades ago, and holding a grudge for that long is more punishment to
the holder than the holdee, you can bet yer bottom dollar on that.
And so it was that my pa called me up and left a message requesting that I call
him and basically prove that I was still alive. I thought long and hard about
it, weighing the pros and cons of rekindling a relationship with someone who
I'd relegated to a small but still painful corner of my mind over 20 years ago.
I wondered if, after all those years of letting the resentment and frustration
I'd accumulated as a rugrat sort of filter off into the ether, it would be worth
the time and effort to try and rebuild some kind of at least functional camaraderie
with the man.
It was a call from my youngest stepbrother, Ricky, whom I hadn't seen since
I ran away from home at age 16, that made my mind up for me. Hearing the voice
of that little guy (well, he isn't so little anymore; he's married with a 5-year-old
daughter—my niece I've never met), hearing the pain in his voice as he
described what it was like for him to hear that his long-lost oldest brother,
the guy who used to change his diapers and spoon-feed him and play with him,
had been killed in a stupid, drunken motorcycle accident, well, that made me
think. And when he told me in a broken voice that he'd stumbled out to his truck
and dug out a mix tape I'd made him when he was still a little boy (first tune—Steely
Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," how prescient of a song to include
for a guy who was about to embark on a less-than-stellar career selling "magic"
mushrooms to dorky college dudes on the beach in South Florida), how it made
him cry and wish he had a second chance to get to know his big brother, that
made me think.
So I sucked it up and called the Old Man. I half expected the gruff, almost-rude
greeting of days bygone, back when I'd call to say hello and he'd immediately
launch into some form of criticism of my wicked ways, and I'd get pissed, and
we'd argue, and somebody would hang up in anger. You can imagine my surprise
when he quietly cleared his throat and said, "Before you say anything,
I'd just like to say that hearing about your supposed accident really opened
my eyes. No matter what, you're my son, and I love you."
That was a mind-blower. I can recall one of our infamous arguments, when I told
him, "You know, dad, I've told my son I love him more times in five years
than you have in my entire life." He'd hung up that time, and we hadn't
talked since. Maybe he remembered that conversation, maybe not, but hearing
the old cuss break down and utter those words got me to thinkin' that maybe
it isn't too late after all. Maybe it never is—maybe we just make it that
way by not opening ourselves up and letting go of the past—but my brother
Ricky was dead-on about one thing—you don't get many second chances in
life to straighten out relationships gone wrong. And family—even family
that you may not agree with all the time, or who've done you and yours wrong
in the past—is the most important thing a person can have.
Maybe your family is made up of blood relatives, maybe it's your closest circle
of friends, your co-workers, the members of your band; it really doesn't matter.
Those are the most important people in your life, and there aren't very many
things big enough, or bad enough, to excuse letting those relationships wither
and die. Which is really just my roundabout way of saying, hey, if you've got
a parent (or a child) or a brother or a sister or even an old friend that you've
drifted away from, it's not too late. If a crusty old grifter like my old man
can overcome his pride and make that call, and if a cranky, gonzo rock n' roll
writer like myself can overcome his anger and make room for forgiveness, then
it's probably not too late for you either.
This week, as the world continues to spin out of control and we as a nation,
as a people, as a planet, become more and more divided, confused, and angry,
my wish is for all of you to make your own worlds a little warmer, a little
more habitable, a little less lonesome. Make that call, send that e-mail, write
that letter, make that mix CD. At least you'll rest easier knowing you gave
it a shot. As my old dancin' wino pal Rafe used to say, "It's nice to be
nice!" In the meantime, I'm gonna dedicate the rest of this column to my
old man, who always hated my music but who unknowingly turned me on to some
of my favorite artists. Thanks, dad, for Waylon, and Willie, and Patsy, and
Hank, and the soundtrack to American Graffiti. Thanks for those hot album covers
featuring Olivia Newton-John. Thanks for Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, and
even the Marshall Tucker Band. And last but not least, thanks for ...
If I Could Only Fly (ANTI, 2000)
a rule-breaker and a trend-maker, country legend Merle Haggard kicked off the
current wave of classic country-and-western artists making a return to form.
Thanks to the Hag, folks like Loretta Lynn are working their magic once again,
and making a mark on a new generation of music fans. Although never quite as
spiritual as Johnny Cash, and never quite as musically edgy as Waymore and his
ilk, the Hag almost single-handedly established the California honky-tonk genre
as we know it today. He inspired everybody from Gram Parsons to Johnny Paycheck
to Dwight Yoakam, and remains a talented and powerful singer/songwriter to this
If I Could Only Fly finds the man once again distilling his own material,
and a heady brew it is, too. From the opening track, "Wishing All These
Old Things Were New," which finds Merle wistfully dealing with aging and
the advent of a new age ("Watching some old friends do a line/Holding back
the want to end my own addicted mind/Wishin' it was still the thing even I could
do ..."), through old-school classics like the Bob Wills-meets-Louis-Prima
stomp-n-honk cow-jazz ride of "Honky Tonky Mama," there's no doubt
that the old, gnarly Merle is back, and he's righteously pissed about the state
of Nashville and country music in general. Not that he harps on that point—he
just plays DAMN good American music and he (and his band) play it DAMN good.
"Turn To Me" is classic barroom jukebox fare, with Norm Hamlet providing
soulful, weeping pedal steel and lauded axeman Red Volkaert strumming softly
in the background. The title track, which features piano, harp, and harmonica,
is one of the few covers on the album (written by D.M. Fuller), but the Hag
makes it his own with ease; his voice in fine fettle as he intones the heartbreaking
lines: "You know sometimes I write happy songs/Then some little thing goes
wrong/And I wish they all could make you smile/Coming home soon and I wanna
stay/Maybe we can somehow get away/And I wish you can come with me/When I go
again, if only we could fly ..." Yep, this is cryin' in your beer music,
made by a guy who's probably the happiest (and most sober) he's been in decades.
That's the key, and always has been, for Merle. Stepping outside of himself
and becoming the character in his songs, no matter how far from his real persona
that character is.
Back in the Sixties, when he was singing vehemently pro-hawk, pro-U.S. government
tunes like "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side Of Me,"
and putting on a pretty good front to the public as a good ol' boy, Merle was
tooling around in fancy tour buses, snorting coke and livin' like there'd be
no tomorrow. In later interviews, he admitted that he always thought it was
pretty funny that he was making a killing on songs that raged against the very
deeds and thought processes he was embracing in his personal life. Now that
he's older, and wiser, and undeniably a survivor, he's completely open about
these things and it shows in the honesty of the songs. I don't hold much hope
for many of the once-talented bags of human detritus that make up Nashville's
old guard, but it's sure nice to hear Merle coming to grips with his past, and
his personal demons, and his legacy, to rise above it all and create one hell
of a great American album. This isn't pure country, it isn't rock ’n’
roll, and it isn't jazz, but it is an amazing amalgam of all of those styles
and more, and what true American folk music should be all about.
Most notably, and poignantly, The Hag includes a slew of songs here that relate
to family, and the importance of finding your place in this world and making
peace with yourself and your past. Four of those songs, "(Think About A)
Lullabye," "I'm Still Your Daddy," "Proud To Be Your Old
Man," and "Thanks To Uncle John," find the man at last coming
to grips with the things that are the most important to him—the sweet,
sleeping face of an innocent grandchild, his relationships with his own children
(in "I'm Still Your Daddy," he pleads, "I knew someday you'd
find out about San Quentin, and your heart would break/And your faith would
go away/But it's time you knew the truth about your papa/I've not always been
the man I am today ... let me be the first to tell you I was wrong ..."
and the lasting, pure hope that those rare, angelic child-hood influences ("Thanks
To Uncle John") can leave on a person throughout a lifetime.
Only I Could Fly isn't the best record Merle Haggard has ever made. It's
not even the best country record I've heard recently. What it is, though, is
a fine return to form and one helluva great start at recapturing a stellar career
and finally receiving the respect and attention he's due from a whole new, younger
fan base. This is the real deal, kids, and that's why I dedicated this review
to my own pa. Hope is a beautiful thing, and to realize that there's always
one more day in front of you to make things better for you and yours, why, that's
about the most valuable gift you'll ever receive.
That's it for me this week, kids. I best get back to canceling that humongous
gravestone/monument and pine box that my hometown was going to donate for my
funeral. Jesus, don't they know I'm too full of piss and vinegar to die at this
age? And let me clue you in on one thing—when I go, it sure the hell won't
be drunk on some stupid jock sports vehicle. Nope, nothing so dramatic for me.
Either my liver will just POP like some ancient, liquor-stained balloon, or
I'll drift off to sleep listening to my Velvet Underground box set and just
not want to wake up EVER. But I'm not planning the big sleep anytime soon, so
disregard any rumors and please, don't send flowers. Until next time—make
yer own damn news. ||
If you have local news/gigs/CD's you'd like to see mentioned in this
column, or you'd just like to complain that you've already made a donation to
the brewers of Old Milwaukee in my name and you want your money back, send replies
to: (temporary e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org.