Merle Haggard’s attorney sent me a Facebook message Tuesday night. We’d spoken before, a year ago, about my request for permission to publish some of Merle’s photos in a book. He briefly reintroduced himself. Then he wrote, “Do you have time for a call tomorrow?”
Arrangements like these with an attorney — any attorney, even one’s own attorney — are never good. This could not be good either, but I gave him my phone number anyway.
The next morning he called and gave me the bad but not unexpected news. Merle, who’d been dealing with double pneumonia for three months, off and mostly on, was fading. He’d been in hospitals in Santa Rosa, Redding and Sacramento, and finally, last Monday, he decided he’d had enough. He would go home to Palo Cedro. Home for good.
Now, early this Wednesday morning, the attorney told me, it seemed certain that Merle’s time was short. His death was imminent.
I’m sorry, I said, or something similarly inadequate.
We chatted for a bit. I found my mood brightening as I learned how Merle had spent a portion of those last few days.
He’d gone back to Bakersfield.
There, on his beloved tour bus, parked on his wooded Shasta County property, Merle’s attorney read aloud to him. Merle listened to stories about Fuzzy and Bonnie and Buck and Red. About the Lucky Spot and Cousin Herb and the two-bit recording studios Lewis Tally used to build out of coat hangers and bathtubs. About Bill Woods, Billy Mize and 1963.
I doubt he wanted to hear much about record contracts or Billboard charts. My guess is that Merle wanted to conjure up again the people and places, many of them gone now, that had been there when he was just another striving, ambitious nobody who played guitar and sang. In his case, it turned out, pretty well.
At one point, in the midst of one of those readings, or so I gleaned, Merle turned to his attorney and told him that when the time came, he wanted Bakersfield to know about it first. Not the New York Times or Rolling Stone or anyone else, but his hometown newspaper. He wanted The Californian’s article on his life and death to be the first official record, or as close to it as reality permits.
An hour later I was meeting with two colleagues about how we would approach this huge, multi-tiered story, and I conveyed the attorney’s description of Merle’s thoughts on how this should play out, and why.
Just then my cell phone rang. It was Merle’s attorney again. Merle had passed. If we could just wait until the family gave the go-ahead before we hit “send,” he said, he’d appreciate it.
And I felt a lump in my throat, something that doesn’t happen to me often on the job. Cops, nurses and journalists try not to feel these things because they simply can’t. Death and tragedy pass through our lives so often, we’d be blubbering, useless messes if we broke down at every heartbreak. But this one got to me because it hit me where I live. Because Merle had let me in — he’d let Bakersfield in.
Merle moved to Palo Cedro in 1976, part-time, and then full-time by the early 1980s. And judging by the way he wrote of his home town at the close of his second autobiography, “My House of Memories,” he was glad to have that part of his life in the rearview mirror.
But almost immediately after the publication of that (perhaps intentionally) provocative book, it seemed like he looked back wistfully across that 450-mile-long expanse of inland California and realized he could never completely say goodbye. And over the next 25 years Merle made that realization known, more and more clearly every day.
Bakersfield, not always as warm toward Merle as it might have been, returned the affection. Honorary degrees, street dedications, sold-out concerts.
I imagine everything coalesces when one knows one’s time is short. That seems to have been the case for Merle. He took death straight on. No outward fear and no feeling sorry for himself. There were legal and quasi-legal items of business to take care of — creation arrangements, a statement of directions for the service — pall bearers, performers, presiding clergy. There was time with those closest to him, private moments that the rest of us aren’t and shouldn’t be privy to.
Bakersfield should know there was also time in Merle’s final days for this city. Its memory stayed with him until the last.