Written by Max D. Barnes
Sometimes forgotten singles weren’t even hits in the first place. In that spirit, we introduce the sister feature of Forgotten Hits.
Merle Haggard would’ve sounded great on the radio in 1994, as he returned with his strongest single in years. Haggard scored his first top ten hit in 1965, and still reached as high as #4 in 1989. But as the wave of new country stars overwhelmed playlists, he was one of many legendary artists who could no longer get a seat at the table.
Sadly, one of his best songs was lost in the shuffle. “In My Next Life” tells the story of a farmer and his wife. The farmer is plagued with guilt and insecurity because he feels he has been failure, as one more season of drought has proved the death knell for his family farm. He stands by his wife, both of them in tears, and tells her:
In my next life, I want to be your hero,
Something better than I turned out to be.
I spent this life behind a plow and harrow.
In my next life, I’ll make you proud of me.
The second verse pulls no punches, as it takes place at the man’s deathbed. Before he repeats the refrain as his dying words, the greater truth of this situation is revealed, as listeners are given the details that the man himself cannot see:
The muscles in his arms, just like his run down farm
Soon withered up and slowly disappeared.
One hard working man, two hard working hands,
Were giving up after all these years.
His aging eyes grew dim, and the lady that worshipped him,
Sat crying on a chair beside his bed.
Her hands caressed his brow, she said, “It’s alright now,”
And as he slowly slipped away he said,
In my next life, I want to be your hero…
The man in this song bears resemblances to my father that go beyond the shared name of John, and it is impossible for me to listen to the song without being deeply moved. My father was a master electrician who worked with his hands all of his life. Though we were always well provided for and often did quite well during economic boom years, he struggled toward the end of his life, as his age made it more difficult to find a job.
Yet he always found a way, and was back at work on what became his final project – a bank on the lower west side of Manhattan – when he started experiencing back pain. What was first assumed to be a side effect of long subway rides was diagnosed as pancreatic cancer, and five months later, he was gone.
In his final weeks, his biggest concern was not his failing health but the fear that the mortgage on our home would leave his wife and family without the stability he always wanted for us. This man who had been a spectacular success by all important measures, who was indeed worshipped by his wife and children, feared that he had been a failure. I have no painful memories associated with my father other than seeing that emotional suffering paired with the already devastating physical suffering with which he was afflicted.
I wonder if this song captures a universal truth about men who made their living working with their hands, particularly those who were self-employed and didn’t have the security of a union or retirement plan. My dad used to be in awe of my ability to write and speak in public, two skills that he always felt beyond his abilities. I would retort that if he tried to do what I do, he’d stumble over his words and make some grammar errors. If I tried to do what he did, I’d be dead from electrocution in seconds.
Recent professional successes for me have reminded me more than ever of the absence of my father, who I know would be so proud of me, and it hurts that he isn’t here to share in them. So on a Saturday morning when Dad is anything but forgotten, I celebrate a forgotten single that deserves the audience that it never received upon release.