Merle Haggard and the Strangers are coming to Oaksterdam March 14-16 to play the Paramount on a bill with Bob Dylan and a rising star named Amos Lee. Tod Mikuriya, MD -the grand old man of cannabis therapeutics in the U.S.- was asked if his 11-year old, currently into Elvis, might want to go. He gave it some thought
"I met Merle once," he said. Their paths crossed outside the Redding airport one Sunday afternoon in 1997 or ’98. "It was not long after Prop 215 passed,’ Mikuriya recollected. "I was flying up there quite frequently to conduct weekend clinics in Red Bluff," i.e. to see patients who were afraid to discuss their cannabis use with their own doctors, or whose doctors were afraid to issue approvals.
Dr. Tod, as he is known to thousands, recognized and introduced himself to the musician and the woman he was with (Haggard’s wife and manager). Mikuriya explained what he’d been doing in Red Bluff, and then: "I asked him why he was stand-offish on the issue while his buddy Willie Nelson spoke out. They indicated that self-censorship was necessary in order not to endanger his career." Mikuriya decided not push it. He told the Haggards that when "Okie From Muskogee" came out, he’d written an answer song. And then, a capella on the sidewalk outside the terminal, he sang it for them:
They rot their minds and bodies with white lightning
Strewing highways with slaughter of the drunks
While the cops are raiding bedrooms
Of the marijuana smoking leftist punks.
I’m glad I’m not an okie from Muskogee
Where the mind and the conscience are asleep
Frightened and kept ignorant from childhood
Is it any wonder that they act like sheep?
The local campus hero is the jock strap.
Scholarship and brand new shiny car
Making business for the abortionist
who pays the sheriff who runs the local bar
American Legion and VFW veterans
March down the flag-draped Main street twice a year
Then sit around drinking beer and watching pornies
Just in case you’d wonder if they’re queer.
Nixon, Mitchell, Agnew are their heroes
And the Indo China war’s a holy cause
The widow’s flags on our sons’ pine boxes,
Repay us for a war outside the laws.
Sex education was sent here by the devil
We hear an aging pious preacher bray.
Keep our children ignorant as we are
And the welfare rolls keep rising day by day
How did Mr. and Mrs. Haggard respond to the sidewalk serenade? "They seemed a little taken aback," says Tod, matter-of-factly. "Not particularly amused. But it was some closure for me."
Although he may have been reluctant to talk politics outside the Redding airport with a small-s stranger -a singer-songwriter-psychiatrist!- Merle Haggard has his own reasons for deploring the marijuana prohibition. In April, 1999, a Globe reporter asked Haggard why he had stopped playing Boston. Haggard explained that New England used to be part of his Canadian tour, but by 1990 the indignity of crossing the border had become unacceptable. "If they find a seed of marijuana in your car or bus, they’ll run it all over the news," he said.
"I’ve got 30 people working for me. There is liable to be a seed of marijuana. So it makes it very uninviting to go into Canada, knowing that the United States is going to harass you coming back. They snatched some buses from people I won’t name, and buses are not cheap. It costs us seven or eight years of our lives to pay for these buses, and they just take ’em. Like I say, you can’t personally shake people down that work for you. I’m not going to do that. You don’t know who’s doing what and who isn’t, but this ‘zero tolerance’ thing they’ve got going is really amazing. They’ve got private enterprise building prisons now. It’s scary. It’s overkill."
FRED GARDNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org