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 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 didn’t 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.

A Tiny Tribute to Ry Cooder


Ry Cooder is an underappreciated American treasure. Although his exquisite studio session work (with bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, and Paul Revere and the Raiders) has been invaluable and his delightful original compositions often remarkable, it is his work as an archivist that has enriched my musical knowledge and refined my musical tastes.

Cooder’s an excavator of buried treasures, a discoverer of exotic, beautiful music, whether it be from the Mississippi Delta, Mexico, Cuba, India, or Sub-Saharan Africa. He’s sort of a medium – a vessel through which these songs are filtered and then transformed into a mode that preserves their essence but makes them new.

Check this out, for example, a cover of Washington Phillips’ obscure gospel song “Denomination Blues” from Cooder’s second studio album Into the Purple Valley, released in 1972.

This snippet embodies a remarkable paradox of Cooder’s music — his recordings of dated songs never sound dated — they sound the opposite of stale.

His fourth album, Chicken Skin Music, might be my favorite. On this record, Ry embraces both Hawaiian and Tex-Mex music. Essentially, he blends those formats into country and blues numbers. For example, here are legendary Hawaiian musicians Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs contributing to this old Hank Snow tune:


Chicken Skin Music also features for the first time now long-time collaborator Flaco Jimenez and his diatonic button accordion. Here they are doing Jim Reeves’ 1959 “He’ll Have to Go” in bolero rhythm.

Not to give you the wrong impression; the cat can also rock, as he does in this cover of Elvis’s “Little Sister,” from the 1979 album Bop Till You Drop, the first major label album ever to be digitally recorded.

Of course, in recent years, Ry’s justly become famous for his collaborations with Cuban musicians in The Buena Vista Social Club, the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and the Indian sitar player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

Here’s a short clip from the Touré collaboration.

Add to that concept albums like Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy, not mention his work with Little Village, the band he formed with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner, and you have a body of work deserving of some sort of Presidential Medal.

I bet in a 100 years Cooder’s recording will not have aged – and that’s always been the test of great art. So c’mon President Biden, Let’s get goin’.


Foreign_Affairs_Tom_WaitsI-and-I, that’s right, Mr. Hoodoo Man he-self, boon companion and devoted supporter of Mr. John Jameson, lover of hoppy craft beer concoctions, not to mention spicy Sunday morning bloody marys, has voluntarily climbed aboard that proverbial wagon that refuses to stop at taverns, bodegas, juke joints, and roof top bars.

Or to put it more succinctly, he’s quit drinking alcohol.

Why, you ask? Has Mr. Moore been stumbling in at 3 a.m. and slapping around his beloved consort Judy Birdsong?

Of course not.

Has he found that drinking has adversely affected his social life?

To the contrary.

Okay, is he chronically late, a no-show sometimes? Does he hire barmates to grade his essays? Does he put himself in risky situations? Is he a frequent visitor to emergency rooms?   Has he gotten a DUI? Recently made a complete and utter ass out of himself?

No, no, no, no, no, and “not that he is aware of.”

Why then?

The answer is vanity. Recently, he saw photographs of himself at his son’s wedding and realized that his once David-Niven-like svelteness had ballooned into a girth approaching Hitchcockian proportions. And even though he now possesses a Falstaffian paunch, his arms and legs have maintained the emaciation of his 97-pound-weakling adolescence.

John Falstaff by Eduard Von Grutzner

John Falstaff by Eduard Von Grutzner

He’s too vain to post a photograph, but picture a four-month pregnant Mick Jagger and you get the picture.

Why not cut out those empty calories? Why not give it a try?

So how has he been spending those hours not spent in drinking establishments?

Listening to songs about substance abuse, that’s how, and he’s come up with a list a few killer song lyrics devoted to over-indulgence, like this classic from Willie Nelson:

The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.

Not only that, he’s going to provide sound samples to go along with a few of his favs. So sit back and enjoy


(I know it lacks that Buzzfeed allure of botched plastic surgeries).

Okay, we’re going to start with John Hiatt’s “Paper Thin,” whose first sentence has the panache of the opening of a well-crafted short story. Listen.



Here’s how the song ends:



(Saw John about a year ago in concert.  Here’s the REVIEW).


Okay, for our next lyric on substance abuse, let’s go way back to my tenth grade year of 1968 and the Butterfield Blues Band’s “Drunk Again.”  The song’s by Elvin Bishop and features the domestic trauma drinking can cause.  Here’s a snippet:



Of course, as Bob Dylan famously tells us in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” — “I started off on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff” — alcohol is the ultimate gateway drug.  I betcha ain’t nobody ever shot up heroin who hadn’t started out on the road to perdition with wine or beer. You start off seemingly innocuously with a PBR and the next thing you know your rolling up bills and snorting cocaine or worse.  Here’s John Hammond, Jr’s superb cover of the Tom Wait’s classic “Heart Attack and Vine”:



That’s right:

Boney’s high on china white;

Shorty’s found a punk

You know there ain’t no devil;

that’s just god when he’s drunk.

Well, this stuff will probably kill you;

let’s do another line.

What you say you meet me

down on Heart Attack and Vine.

Love can be a drug, they say.  Wasn’t Robert Palmer “addicted to love?”  Here’s the great Lucinda Williams making the analogy:


C’mon, Lucinda.  You know what Willie B Yeats sez:  “Never give all the heart for love . . .

Okay, let’s end this thing on a positive note.  The resurrection of Tim Finnegan via Irish whiskey.  Here, the Clancy Brothers describe how dead Tim’s corpse is brought back to life during a drunken brawl at his wake, which is the song that gave rise to James Joyce’s last novel.




Mickey Maloney ducked his head
when a bucket of whiskey flew at him
It missed, and falling on the bed,
the liquor scattered over Tim
Now the spirits new life gave the corpse, my joy!
Tim jumped like a Trojan from the bed
Cryin will ye walup each girl and boy,
t’underin’ Jaysus, do ye think I’m dead?”

Come to think of it, quitting drinking altogether seems anti-Buddhist.  Maybe the middle way would be better.  Lose weight by exercising, eating healthily, and limiting one’s intake to a couple a day?

Sounds like a plan.

Robert Cray and John Hiatt: Review 25 July 2014

You might say that last night’s concert featuring Robert Cray and John Hiatt was too much and too little of a good thing — too much of the excellent Robert Cray but too little of the brilliant and dynamic John Hiatt. promotional poster

The tour’s promotion suggests equality as if the show is a double billing, and indeed stage time for both performers and their bands is equally divided into two one-hour-and-fifteen-minute sets separated by an intermission when roadies strip down Cray’s slicker set-up with its elevated drum kit and replace it with Hiatt’s down home array of amps and instruments.

Nevertheless, someone has to go first, and that someone is Robert Cray. I’ve always admired Cray as a musician and ambassador for the Blues.  Certainly, his eloquent guitar solos come to life with an anguish that articulates the despair inherent in the genre — the lost love, poverty, betrayal, and hopelessness that the Blues uniquely expresses.  Cray’s guitar screams, moans, flashes anger — almost as if it’s on the verge of human articulation, like Benjy Compson attempting to utter the unutterable.  Certainly, Cray’s performance of “Don’t You Even Care” was killer urban blues, passionate music coupled with effective imagistic lyrics that brought to life rain-slicked city sidewalks and shitty motels.

And yet, because he performed so many of the tunes in the same rather up-beat tempo and because virtually every song was about some woman who done him wrong, a sameness seeped into the set, a repetitiveness not helped by his starting each number by saying, “This next one is called [so-and-so].”  Also, I found odd that he didn’t cover any blues standards but relied on his own songs, which, although certainly competent in every aspect, are by no means classics. How I would have loved to hear him cover some Willie Dixon tune like “The Same Thing” or “Spoonful.”I know this might sound demeaning — and I don’t mean it to — but Robert Cray is sort of like “The Peyton Manning of the Blues” — richly talented, technically perfect, but somehow mechanical.

Certainly, “mechanical” doesn’t describe John Hiatt, whom I’ve been following since his third album, 1979’s Slug Line, a punkish romp featuring songs like “Take Off Your Uniform” and “The Night That Kenny Died,” which features these lyrics:

It seemed so spooky that the nerd we all detested

Would die so gloriously and unexpected

A wonderful guy God knows

They kept the casket closed.

As Hiatt matured, so did his music, bolstered by recording with some of the finest studio musicians in the world including the incomparable Ry Cooder on guitars, Jim Keltner on drums, and Nick Lowe on bass.

Last night’s performance featured several of his best.  He kicked off the show with “Your Dad Did,” from Bring the Family, a witty song about the frustrations of the working life, in which the hapless narrator’s “seen the old man’s ghost/Come back as creamed chipped beef on toast/Now if you don’t get your slice of the roast/ You gonna flip your lid/ Just like your dad did.”  He followed that with “Detroit Made,” a paean to that classic  automobile beloved of African American males, the Electra 225, better known as “a deuce and a quarter.”

In addition to a series of his most famous songs — “Perfectly Good Guitar,”  “A Thing Called Love,” and “Memphis in the Mean Time,” e.g. — Hiatt included three excellent new ones from his current album, to wit, the title track “The Terms of My Surrender,”  plus “Long Time Comin’,” and the haunting, country-bluesy “The Wind Don’t Have to Hurry.”

Not only was the music engaging — the Combo rocked — but Hiatt is a consummate showman with an incredibly expressive mug.  As he struts loose-limbed across the stage like a modern minstrel, he grimaces, smiles, expresses disbelief, sticks out his tongue. I’d call him a kind of musical comic genius.

Then, boom.  It was over.

They came out for one encore, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” and that was it.

My son Ned commented as we were leaving that he now had a better appreciation for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Hiatt’s hour-and-a-quarter had been much shorter than Robert Cray’s.

John Hiatt and his Combo exiting the stage last night 7/25/2014

John Hiatt and his Combo exiting the stage last night 7/25/2014