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FROM FIRST AND SPRING

Why We Root for the Running Kind

An Editor's Note

September 17, 2006|Rick Wartzman

It has become a country music classic, and it isn't even a song. Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were appearing together on TV, reminiscing about their storied careers, when Cash recalled a concert he once gave for the inmates at San Quentin.

"It's funny you mention that, Johnny," Haggard said.

"What?"

"San Quentin."

"Why's that?"

"The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin."

"I don't remember your being on that show, Merle."

"I was in the audience, Johnny."

Whenever I played cops and robbers as a kid, I was always cast in the role of cop. As an adult, I've never had so much as a felonious impulse. Yet there's a little piece of me that can't help but root for the bad guy sometimes.

California, as evinced by this week's issue of West, is full of them--real and imagined. We see L.A., at least in part, through the actions of film-noir tough guys and nihilistic gangbangers. Ours is a paradise stained with blood, a metropolis "redolent in crime," as Michael Carlson writes in the afterword to "Crime Beat," a collection of newspaper stories by journalist-turned-novelist Michael Connelly.

Though we blanch at the violence, we also can't help but be mesmerized by it. And when somebody crosses the line (not too far), we may even find ourselves admiring his audacity, reveling in his roguishness, cheering for the outlaw as underdog.

It is in this romantic tradition--a peculiarly Western tradition--that Haggard falls.

There's a kind of "worship of banditry as rebellion" in this part of the country, says Gerald Haslam, the author of numerous books about California, including a history of country music in the state called "Workin' Man Blues." "The kind of people who came out here were not very satisfied with the established social order. They had an anti-authoritarian spirit."

That certainly describes Haggard. An incorrigible youngster, he took great satisfaction in committing petty offenses and escaping from a series of juvenile detention centers. "There is a restlessness in my soul," he's explained.

In late 1957, things became more serious. Haggard's burgeoning singing career in Bakersfield was interrupted after he and a friend got caught breaking into a restaurant, high on red wine. He turned 21 in San Quentin--a moment he'd memorialize in his hit "Mama Tried."

For all that, Haslam says, "I never thought of Merle as being crooked. He was adventuresome."

The two attended Standard School together in Oildale, where in the '40s they raced on the sixth-grade relay team. Haggard was the fastest on the squad, Haslam next. Haslam would eventually emerge as the top track star, thanks to Haggard's getting into trouble and dropping out of organized athletics.

Really, though, Haggard's the one who could never stop running.

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