mat (coagula) wrote,

My Merle Haggard Story

So I took this girl to Vegas and I really wanted to impress her. This was 1995. We checked into the Frontier Hotel because they were centrally located on the strip and had the best rates. That place is long gone. Not the most lavish, but the best location to see as many different things as there were to see there.

So I ask her what she wants to do. She is terrified of gambling (except she was dating me, what a long shot bet, right?) and sure, wants a nice meal and to see whatever there is to see here. Not a wild party-er, not really a "Vegas Type" but playing along for one trip, and I'm doing my best to make it romantic and fun.

"Do you want to see a show?"

"Oh, no. No."

"There's lots of stuff to see..."

"No, I am not into what Vegas is going to show... if it was Van Morrison or Merle Haggard, someone great, sure, but not a Vegas show."

Okay, okay, let's go for a walk."

So we decided to walk up the strip. After a half mile or so we chanced upon a two-hundred foot marguee in front of one of the casinos, it might have been the Riviera or the Sahara, don't exactly recall, but do recall that every casino had a big marquee with big names out front, the real stars were right here and you could almost touch 'em and most definitely catch them live and in person here.

So on this two-hundred-foot-tall marquee were 60-foot tall letters:


It was a sign. Literally and metaphorically. We both laughed. The next morning I called and made reservations. We dressed up. She was nervous to be "doing it right" I was nervous to make sure she had a good time. We got a good seat and the opening act played. They played and played.

Then they played some more. Then they admitted that they were actually Merle's band and that he was a little under the weather. I was quite bummed, the magic of that laugh we had just had to pay off somehow.

Finally, after 90 minutes of this band dragging themselves thru numbers and taking requests and suggesting maybe it was time to do one of the songs they had played again with each member playing a different instrument, he staggered onto the stage. He was fucked up out of his gourd. They put the guitar around his neck and he growled into a song, oh boy, this was actually sadly laughable. He played a few more songs, raw, sloppy, rough. Then he apologized for "being under the weather" and played a sad, slow song. He was sobering up and that miraculous angelic voice began to rise and fill the auditorium and then it leaked into our souls, all of us, the whole theater just burst into warm tears. I don't even recall what the song was but everyone was crying - and yet everyone was happy to be moved to tears by the melody that voice delivered.

By the time he had made it thru the set he was blaming the casino for giving him booze in his suite and then expecting him to finish early so they did not have to pay the ushers overtime. But he was sobering up and he played on. It was uplifting in the way churches wished each service could be. We left hours after we should have... had the set started on time. But we left feeling alive. There was no need to gamble or seek thrills, to walk back in the warm night air after having heard that voice live made the simple sidewalk feel like an escalator of bliss.

That girl and I had a good run for a few years and we are still friends now and you wonder, does the joy of that voice still ring around in our heads and uplift? Did it drop us onto a higher plane? Was it all just a momentary buzz or did we transform from staggering sloppy blubberers to redneck angels for good? I should hope the latter. You really want to go bat for art and vouch for its power when it leaves entertainment behind and changes the entire world for you in a few touching songs.
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