In today's Wall Street Journal, I intervew Merle Haggard for my "Anatomy of a Song" column (go here—it's free!) and Michael Richards for my "House Call" column (go here). Merle Haggard, of course, is one of country music's greatest living singer-songwriters, and Michael Richards played Kramer on Seinfeld, one of television's most memorable and inventive sit-com characters, and now is on Kirstie on TV Land.
For "Anatomy of a Song," I interviewed Merle about Big City, a song he wrote in 10 minutes with his bus driver in the Los Angeles parking lot of Tom Jones' Britannia Studios in July 1981. Merle was there to record 23 songs in 48 hours after signing with Epic Records. Big City, a song about blue-collar frustration with boring jobs and urban decay, became his 28th No. 1 hit.
During our phone conversation, Merle was warm and relaxed—I felt like I was sitting at a bar or lunch counter with an old friend and master storyteller. His drawl is honey-round and oaken, and he has a knack for putting things plain. If something strikes him as funny along the way, he's the first to laugh. When you chime in, Merle laughs even harder—as if you both witnessed the same event. Merle is as much about flavor and bringing you inside as he is about crafting meaningful songs. Which makes sense, since great songwriters are constantly listening for people who have an "interesting ways of puttin' things," as Merle said.
When I asked Merle why he doesn't perform much in New York, he pointed out that his band doesn't really hit too many major cities. "Country folk aren't really comfortable in big cities," he said. "Nothing against them. Its just that they're crowded and a little close—claustrophobic I guess you'd say." Merle is a gentleman and a beautiful songwriter who knows how to touch the common American in all of us. Here's Big City...
Michael Richards also likes the freedom of wide open spaces. In my "House Call" column, he talks about his 1929 Spanish-Mediterranean home along the Pacific Coast in L.A. Michael looks great—pretty much as he did in Seinfeld, just few years older. The big surprise for me was his love of reading and his curiosity. He's a voracious reader of literature—he has a collection of 3,000 leather-bound classics—and tends to ask as many questions as he answers. Seinfeld never came up—I didn't bring it up. Instead, we talked about his childhood, his love of architecture and his fondness for old things with character. [Photo of Michael Richards above by Annie Tritt for The Wall Street Journal]
I can tell you he kicks himself daily for using the "n" word during a comedy set in 2006 that he told me was intended to shock an unresponsive audience. More performance art than racial hostility. Bad judgment on his part for thinking that was a clever way to go and for being oblivious to cellphone cameras that could misinterpret his intent. He should have known better, and wears the error now like a massive weight.
I'm not making excuses for that behavior, but I can tell you that Michael is hardly the bad guy the media made him out to be. I found him to be as shy and as good-hearted as any artist I've met. A couple of fascinating tidbits: He grew up in South Central Los Angeles—the city's equivalent of Harlem. Today he lives in a home designed by the city's first major black architect, Paul R. Williams, and is friendly with Williams' granddaughter, who wrote a book on Williams. Richards also loves jazz and I found him to be completely open-minded and enormously regretful about what happened. Everyone make dumb mistakes; the issue, for me, is intent and what's in one's heart.
Michael's outburst really was a comedy bit gone bad—not a racist run amok or someone with a long history of bigotry. Even black comedians I've watched on YouTube know deep down that racism wasn't his motive—just a Lenny Bruce-like outburst at work. At any rate, I'm sure Michael will eventually work his way back into audiences' forgiving hearts, and he's certainly paid for the error in judgment. On TV, I've always found him to be a brilliant improviser and student of those ingredients that make us all funny and at times foolish.
Here's Michael in Seinfeld, in a clip of bloopers that show just how hard he worked, how seriously he took his character and how much he cracked up the rest of the cast...