Perhaps it’s common as one ages, to scan the daily obituaries; I certainly didn’t do so as a young man. I usually picked up only on the passing of individuals of some fame or fortune whose deaths were announced on the front pages or in the sports or entertainment pages; names everybody knew. Now I regularly look first at the top of the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Post to see if someone of note has passed, what their status in life was, what profession they had pursued, and, almost more importantly, at what age did they pass on. I never used to do that. Now maybe its because I’m subconsciously hoping to see that more of the diseased lasted well beyond my age and by how much. While my wife, Ani, never looks at the Metro section of the Post, says it’s too full of crime, after scanning the front page headlines, I usually go directly to the Metro’s obituaries and often skip the rest of the Metro although I find John Kelly’s “Washington” column often appealing. We’ve never lived in Washington but we subscribe to the Post and pick up the New York Times most days. I’m still an actual newspaper reader; I don’t seek the news on my computer.
In recent weeks three individuals who I strongly related to died. Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, and Morley Safer. I’d venture to say that of the three, Haggard and Safer were probably the best known and may have passed away the best blessed financially, although Haggard’s up and down battles with booze, drugs, and multiple marriages, might merit closer inspection in that regard. But it doesn’t really matter. Their contributions to the world and my admiration for them wasn’t about money.
Merle Haggard was everything I always though Nashville should have been but as time passed, wasn’t and especially isn’t today. Merle’s music could be called “country” with no apologies. Out of Bakersfield, California, Haggard’s fine baritone sang lyrics to songs he wrote that told stories as old as the dust bowl struggles that drove his parents to California two years before he he was born. He never got slick, not in my opinion, anyway. I can’t listen to most of the formulaic stuff that Nashville has pumped out in recent years. Can’t really believe they have the nerve to call it “country music.” Merle Haggard died April 6, on his 79th birthday. He was my senior by five months. I saw and heard him perform only once, a couple of years back here in Charlottesville, Virginia. He did a good show. I’ve seen Willie Nelson come out as a headliner and go through his hits rather by rote. I don’t think Haggard ever performed that way. Willie Nelson is a national treasure, of course, but I think Haggard deserved an equal accolade. Ironically, every time I hear Willie and Merle’s recording of Townes Van Zant’s “Poncho and Lefty,” Willie carries most of the song, accompanied by Mexico reflecting guitars, but I always wait for Haggard’s voice to come in with that lyric in his voice so smooth and mellow:
“The poets tell how Poncho fell, Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel. The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold. So the story ends we’re told. Poncho needs your prayers it’s true. But save a few for Lefty too. He only did what he had to do. Ah, and now he’s growin’ old.”
Morley Safer, the longest serving reporter on CBS’s “60 Minutes,”joining the fledging program in 1971 died May 19, age 84, a bit more than five years my senior. Safer had a reputation for fine writing and diligent reporting. In 1965 as CBS bureau chief in Saigon, Safer accompanied U.S. Marines on a mission to a village called Cam Ne and depicted on the air how the Marines destroyed the village, casually burning down the villagers’ homes and belongings, a report that strongly shaped the feeling in the U.S. that this war was wrong. I’ve never been a news photographer, never been in combat or involved in stories of such grief and sadness. He reported on 60 Minutes stories that were much less dramatic, of course. His interests were broad and he could take great pleasure in reporting on a family who produced quality wine not for just decades but continuously for centuries. Safer was such a class act and although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I’m sure it would have been just that, a true pleasure. I smiled when I heard a colleague of Morley Safer’s comment on his friend in the days after Safer’s death. Safer’s reporting, he said, was proof of “the power of truth over spin.” Oh, that we might have more of that in our lives these days
The other passing of someone I really related to was that of song writer and performer, Guy Clark, who passed away May 17, age 74. A Texan, Clark was one of Nashville’s premier song writers when Nashville was producing quality country music. He wrote for 40 years and his songs were recorded by many of the country greats: Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and many others. It’s said the Clark lived quietly, never reaching great fame with his own recordings, playing smaller venues to devoted followers.
Following his death, it was reported that Guy Clark told musicologist Ben Sandmel in 1992 the following about his song writing and his career: ”Something else that’s important is dignity…I’ll bet that when you’re dying, you’re not going to think about the money you made. You’re going to think about your art.”
For all those amongst us who have often wished for relief from financial pressures and struggles Clark’s quote is a reminder that when you’re blessed to be doing something you truly love, what’s really important is what you produce The passion that creates truly good work over the ordinary is what makes art that will last. If you don’t have the passion, if you don’t truly care, you won’t produce art that lasts. You may make the money. And maybe for some that’s more than enough. It wasn’t for Clark and I don’t think it was at the top of the list of what’s important for Safer and Haggard, either. They deserved to be rewarded because they were good. They were very good. Sometimes, but not always, it works out that way.
I’d welcome your thoughts on this if you have some. I’m going to try to be a more frequent contributor to this part of my website. Maybe I’ll even get into the social media stream with Instagram, we’ll see.