The Briefest of Tributes to John Hiatt

I just read Wikipedia’s account of John Hiatt’s career, a disjointed narrative that comes off more like a collection of bullet points than it does an essay. However, I did learn something there that surprised me. Because my first Hiatt record was Slug Line, I always assumed that he started as a new wave musician, but as it turns out, Hiatt moved from the rock/country rock of his first two albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats (1974), to the punkish, ska-ish Slug Line (1979) and, finally, then back to rock/country rock. When he ran away to Nashville after dropping out of school, Hiatt worked for Tree Publishing earning $25 a week as a songwriter. Although Hangin’ Round the Observatory wasn’t a commercial success, a Three Dog Night cover of “Sure As I’m Sitting Here” hit #16 on Billboard.

In fact, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t covered a Hiatt song. Dylan has, the Neville Brothers have, Springsteen has, even one of his boyhood heroes, Mitch Ryder has. Of course, Bonnie Raitt scored a big hit with “A Thing Called Love.”

Whatever the genre, Hiatt delivers solid melodies and clever lyrics, often in the form of narratives. Here’s a snippet from Slug Line’s “The Night That Kenny Died,” a tale of teen hypocrisy as high schoolers go all hooey when a classmate they disliked dies suddenly.

 

It was so touching all the girls that would not touch him
He drew their pictures in his books I used to watch him
And then he’d pick his nose
And wipe it on his clothes
But everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Died on a motorcycle
We never understood
That he was holdin’ on tight
Through the middle of the night
Starin’ at a [?] one Mercury hood
It seemed so spooky that the nerd we all detested
Would die so gloriously and so unexpected
A wonderful guy God knows
They kept the casket closed
And everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
And everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died

Perhaps his two best records are Bring the Family (1987) and Slow Turning (1988), recorded with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner.

Hiatt’s wit, I think, rivals Warren Zevon’s. In “Your Dad Did,” Note the sitar during the daughter’s prayer,  which she immediately undercuts with her coda.

 

Well, the day was long now, supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah, the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two year old says grace
She says, “Help the starving children to get well
But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell.”
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did.

Check out this from “Perfectly Good Guitar.”

:

Well he threw one down form the top of the stairs
Beautiful women were standing everywhere
They all got wet when he smashed that thing
But off in the dark you could hear somebody sing
Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
I don’t know who they think they are
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
It started back in 1963
His momma wouldn’t buy him
That new red harmony
He settled for a sunburt with a crack
But he’s still trying to break his momma’s back.

 

I finally got to see Mr. Hiatt live on his 2014 Terms of My Surrender Tour,[1] a great show but a melancholy one for me personally. My wife Judy had just been diagnosed with lymphoma, and it would be her last concert.

Although he John play it at the show, this was Judy’s favorite (and you ought to check out the Johnny Adams cover).  Dig the lyrics.

 


[1] I had seen him with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and the late Guy Clark but not by himself.

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