This feature appeared in the late, lamented on-line magazine MAGNET

 

 

JOHN HIATT: Walking The Streets Of Humanity

 

BY NICK KREWEN

 

At an age where some people stop cold in their tracks, take a deep breath and reassess their lives, JOHN HIATT is just coming into his prime. There's not a drop of mid-life crisis in his veins.

"I really like what I'm doing, " announces the veteran singer-songwriter, his eyes gleaming with a youthful exuberance that belies his age of 43 years.

"I always like my next batch of songs the best, " he laughs. "And I always feel like my newest album is my watershed album. I realize I haven't had that big mega-hit, but I feel really fortunate the way my career has turned out. It's been very good."

While Hiatt's name may still draw some blank stares with the general public, he's a household name among some impressive peers who have relied on his ringing melodies, incisive lyrics and stylistic proficiency to heighten their own musical profiles.

Some ample royalty cheques have resulted from BONNIE RAITT's version of "Thing Called Love"; JOE COCKER's "Have A Little Faith In Me"; and THE JEFF HEALEY BAND's "Angel Eyes." Taking it beyond pop and rock, country music's ROSANNE CASH topped the charts with "The Way We Make A Broken Heart" in 1987, and THE DESERT ROSE BAND, SUZY BOGGUSS and ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL have all drawn from the impressive well of Hiatt's catalogue. It also has to be gratifying when blues great BUDDY GUY names an album after your song "Feels Like Rain," or when musicians ranging from funky New Orleans ambassadors THE NEVILLE BROTHERS to the poet laureate himself,BOB DYLAN, come knocking at your door. I know that if Mr. Wheezin'-In-The-Wind covered one of MY songs, I'd be repeatedly pinching a sensitive part of my anatomy just to ensure it wasn't just a dream.

"I've never written a song for somebody else," muses Hiatt as he sips a glass of mineral water in his downtown Toronto hotel suite.

"I've been asked to many times, but I've never been able. Since I write with some regularity, I've always got a batch of songs going. But the few times I've been asked to tailor make the songs, the results have been disastrous. I'm just not that kind of writer.

"I think what's emerged in my career over 20 years is a necessary singer-songwriter kind of fame, which has afforded me quite a bit of flexibility."

That "flexibility" has also accounted for a dozen albums by the Indiana-born singer-songwriter containing emotional songs about the human condition, including a string of albums that began with 1987's Bring The Family  that has slowly inched John Hiatt towards the elusive Holy Grail of Stardom many fans feel he's overdue.

Now with an exceptional new album out on the streets calledWalk On  that's been deservedly earning stellar press, a freshly inked pact with Capitol Records, and a tour that will have him circling the globe over the next two years, will John Hiatt finally break beyond cult status and rake in the millions?

Hiatt laughs and shrugs.

"Well, I'm all for having a new experience. "

If for some reason it doesn't happen, he knows he'll keep doing what he's done since moving to Nashville at the age of 18, and releasing his debut Hangin' Around The Observatory  album six years later: sing and write.

But these are happier times for Hiatt all around. He's got a few acres of century-old farmland, complete with log cabin, just south of Nashville, where he lives with "three kids, a wife, horses, dogs and cats." Hiatt's personal stability has never been more harmonious, especially since he went through a horrible time in the mid-1980s when a previous marriage ended up in divorce, and eventually suicide.

Hiatt also suffered the loss of a brother through similar circumstances earlier in his life, and has been plagued in the past by alcoholism, obesity and clinical depression.

His admits that his personal problems led to the creation of one of his finest songs, the reassuring "Have A Little Faith In Me."

"I was a single parent, I had just gone through a marriage which ended in divorce and suicide, and I needed some strength from somewhere," Hiatt recalls.

"In a weird sort of way, I think it was me singing to myself, ` You're all alone, kid. Just hang in there. Things will improve.'"

The healing power of music aside, Hiatt feels his songwriting is better suited to the role of guardian angel in his life.

"I guess it can heal, but I've more often had the sense that it's rescued me. I've had this sense that it's pulled me out whenever I'm in a rut. I've struggled with depression -- I've been diagnosed -- but I've always felt that everybody walks around on level ground, and I'm in a rut about two feet lower. It's like the reverse of the old short actor syndrome, when they used to raise the old short actor in the movies a little bit so they didn't seem so danged low.

"So I always had the sense that songwriting just helps lift me up emotionally."

Hiatt is also in better spirits about the state of his craftsmanship, worrying less about the technical side of things and just letting his creativity flow.

"I think what's happening to my writing is that I'm getting a lot looser with it," he explains. "I'm finding less convention, less discipline and more straight inspiration."

The raspy-voiced troubadour also relies on spontaneity rather than preparation.

"I don't write stuff down," he says. "It just comes. Lyrics are the last thing I write. I never plan what I'm going to say. It's always, I've got a melody, I've got chords: now I need to sing something over it. Time to write a lyric. Then it's just taking a little thread and seeing where it goes. The melody usually takes the lead and suggests some kind of feeling."

OnWalk On, Hiatt's instincts are irreproachable. From the moment the album kicks into gear with "Cry Love," a heartbreaking wail of marriage gone bad, Walk On  becomes a travelogue that journeys along the streets of humanity. John Hiatt's world may have its good days and its bad days, but the spirit of survival roosts in every musical nook and cranny. We rejoice in the rootsy rambling philosophy of "You Must Go," feel the spine-tingling chill of fear of New Orleans at night in "Walk On," and drown in the melancholy of "The River Knows Your Name." Then there's the exhilarating ecstasy of "I Can't Wait," and the reassuring warmth of "Your Love Is My Rest."

For laughs, "Ethylene" is a deliriously goofy love song designed from a stop Hiatt once made in Missouri.

"I saw the name on a road sign in Missouri," recalls Hiatt."There was this two mile stretch of road, and Ethylene was the name of the wife of the couple who had adopted this stretch of highway. The song was a combination of a few situations. I remember going to a gas station, and this guy was asking me questions, and running me through the wringer.

"In this gas station, there were a bunch of stuffed heads of hunting trophies, and he mentioned that he and his wife bowhunt. He says, `Oh, my wife's a better bowhunter than I am. She can bag her limit.' I thought it was a great saying, so that found its way into the song.

"I think Ethylene sounds like TED NUGENT's dream date."

Hiatt says song characters such as "Ethylene" and the mysterious Jimmy in "Wrote It Down And Burned It" are often composite characters drawn from unrelated situations and individuals.

"It's not so much that I get an impression of the person, but it's more like they're a shard or a remnant that says something. I'll overhear a conversation in a restaurant, or a turn of phrase that'll catch my ear. My first reaction will be, `Am I in the Twilight Zone?' It's something that just jogs you out of your own reality."

Why the name Walk On?

"Well, I had to name the record something," he laughs. "I just sort of cheated and named it after the song. I picked Walk On  just because it was something in motion. A lot of songs were written on the road during the last tour, and there's a sense of transition, that you have to walk on."

John Hiatt's boots will be doing a lot of walking over the next couple of months, as he performs throughout North America and Europe, with tentative stops in Australia, New Zealand and Japan also pending. There's also talk about reuniting LITTLE VILLAGE -- the supergroup including Hiatt, RY COODER, NICK LOWE and JIM KELTNER -- for an album, although that won't happen for a few years.

As for the previous tour that sparked the majority of songs for Walk On, it also yielded his final album for A&M: a live set loftily entitled John Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan.

Get it? Frampton Comes Alive? Cheap Trick Live At Budokan?

"I'm glad you got the joke," he chuckles. "You wouldn't believe the number of people that come up to me and go, `John, I don't see any Budokans listed in the credits. And why are you wearing that karate outfit?'

"As to why I called it Comes Alive At Budokan, I figured: Why be modest with our expectations?"

-30-

 

 

DISCOGRAPHY

1974 -- 001. -- Hangin' Around The Observatory -- Epic

1975 -- 002. -- Overcoats

1979 -- 003. -- Slug Line -- MCA

1980 -- 004. -- Two Bit Monsters

1982 -- 005. -- All Of A Sudden -- Geffen

1983 -- 006. -- Riding With The King

1985 -- 007. -- Warming Up To The Ice Age

1987 -- 008. -- Bring The Family -- A&M

1988 -- 009. -- Slow Turning

1989 -- 010. -- Y'All Caught? The Ones That Got Away 1979 - 1985 -- Geffen

1990 -- 011. -- Stolen Moments -- A&M

1992 -- 012. -- Little Village  (as Little Village, with Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and                        Jim Keltner) -- Reprise

1993 -- 013. -- Perfectly Good Guitar -- A&M

1994 -- 014. -- Hiatt Comes Alive At Budokan (with The Guilty Dogs)

1995 -- 015. -- Walk On  (Capitol)

1997 -- 016. -- Little Head

1998 -- 017. -- Greatest Hits

COLLABORATIONS

1989 -- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 2

1986 -- Various Artists, Vintage '80s

1995 -- Various Artists, Til The Night Is Gone -- A Tribute To Doc Pomus

1996 -- Various Artists, Q107's Concerts In The Sky

 

COVERS

1974 -- Three Dog Night, "As Sure As I'm Sittin' Here"

1976 -- Tracy Nelson, "An Arm And A Leg"

1976 -- Rusty Weir, "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance"

1979 -- Maria Muldaur, "(No More) Dancin' In The Street"

1980 -- Ry Cooder, "The Way We Make A Broken Heart"

1980 -- Amos Garrett, "Everybody's Girl"

1981 -- Herman Brood, "(No More) Dancin' In The Street"

1981 -- Dave Edmunds, "Something Happens"

1981 -- Three Dog Night, "Sure As I'm Sitting Here"

1982 -- Rosanne Cash, "I Look For Love"

        -- Rosanne Cash, "It Hasn't Happened Yet"

1982 -- Ry Cooder, Freddy Fender, "Across The Borderline"

        -- Ry Cooder, "Too Late"

        -- Ry Cooder, "Skin Game"

1982 -- Albert Lee, "Pink Bedroom"

        -- Albert, Lee, "Radio Girl"

1983 -- Frankie Miller, "If I Can Love Somebody"

1985 -- Asleep At The Wheel, "The Way We Make A Broken Heart"

1985 -- Jeff Healey Band, "Angel Eyes"

        -- Jeff Healey Band, "Confidence Man"

1985 -- Rosanne Cash, "Rhythm & Romance"

1985 -- Steve Earle, "The Crush"

1985 -- Tracy Nelson, "She Don't Love Nobody"

1986 -- Lou Ann Barton, "Pink Bedroom"

1986 -- Suzy Bogguss, "Drive South"

1986 -- Rodney Crowell, "She Loves The Jerk"

1986 -- Bonnie Raitt, "Thing Called Love"

1986 -- Mitch Ryder, "Where's The Next One Coming From"

1987 -- Blues And Trouble, "I Got Your Number"

1987 -- Rosanne Cash, "The Way We Make A Broken Heart"

1987 -- Gary Chapman, Amy Grant "Love Like Blood"

1987 -- Ry Cooder, "Across The Borderline"

1987 -- Bob Dylan, "The Usual"

1987 -- Nick Lowe, "Love Gets Strange"

1988 -- Al Anderson, "I Got Your Number"

1988 -- Desert Rose Band, "She Don't Love Nobody"

1988 -- The Everly Brothers, "Any Single Solitary Heart"

1988 -- Marti Jones, "If I Can Love Somebody"

        -- Marti Jones, "The Real One"

1989 -- Johnny Adams, "Lovers Will"

        -- Johnny Adams, "She Said The Same Things To Me"

1989 -- Marshall Crenshaw, "Someplace Where Love Can't Find Me"

1989 -- Chris Daniels & The Kings, "Riding With The King"

        -- Chris Daniels & The Kings, "Two Hearts Like Ours"

1989 -- Don Dixon, "Love Gets Strange"

1989 -- Dr. Feelgood, "I'm A Real Man"

        -- Dr. Feelgood, "Where Is The Next One Coming From"

1989 -- Emmylou Harris, "Icy Blue Heart"

1989 -- New Grass Revival, "Angel Eyes"

1989 -- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Hiatt, Rosanne Cash, "One Step Over The             Line"

1989 -- Jo-El Sonnier, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

        -- Jo-El Sonnier, "I'll Never Get Over You"

1990 -- Ann Richmond Boston, "Learning How To Love You"

1990 -- Earl Thomas Conley, "Bring Your Love Back To Me"

1990 -- John Doe, "The Real One"

1990 -- Dave Edmunds, "I Got Your Number"

1990 -- The Forrester Sisters, "Drive South " (with The Bellamy Brothers)

1990 -- Jeff Healey Band, "Let It All Go"

1990 -- Fred Koller, "I Got Your Number"

1990 -- Kris McKay, "Any Single Solitary Heart"

1990 -- The Mellow Fellows, "Feels Like Rain"

1990 -- Katy Moffatt, "When We Ran"

1990 -- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "Just Enough Ashland City"

        -- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "The Rest Of The Dream"

1990 -- Maura O' Connell, "When We Ran"

1990 -- Iggy Pop, "Something Wild"

1990 -- Kelly Willis, "Drive South"

1991 -- Paula Abdul, "Alright Tonight"

1991 -- Jann Browne, "Where Nobody Knows My Name"

1991 -- Desert Rose Band, "She Don't Love Nobody"

1991 -- Buddy Guy, "Where Is The Next One Coming From"

1991 -- Ronnie Milsap, "Old Habits Are Hard To Break"

1991 -- Aaron Neville, "Feels Like Rain"

        -- Aaron Neville, "Icy Blue Heart"

1991 -- Bonnie Raitt, "No Business"

1991 -- Charlie Sexton, "Tennessee Plates"

1991 -- J.J. White, "The Crush"

        -- J.J. White, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

1992 -- 29 Palms, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

1992 -- Joan Baez, "Through Your Hands"

1992 -- Suzy Bogguss, "Lovin' A Hurricane"

1992 -- Robben Ford & The Blue Line, "I'm A Real Man"

1992 -- Flaco Jiminez, "Across The Borderline"

1992 -- Delbert McClinton, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

1992 -- Greg "Fingers" Taylor, "New Fingerprints"

        -- Greg "Fingers" Taylor, "Old Habits (Are Hard To Break)"

1992 -- George Thorogood, "The Usual"

1992 -- Kevin Welch, "Train To Birmingham"

1993 -- Johnny Adams, "Back To Normal"

1993 -- David Crosby, "Through Your Hands"

1993 -- Bill Frisell, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

1993 -- Albert Lee, "Pink Bedroom"

1993 -- The Magictones, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

        -- The Magictones, "Love Like Blood"

1993 -- Ronnie Milsap, "True Believers"

1993 -- Willie Nelson, "Across The Borderline"

        -- Willie Nelson, "The Most Unoriginal Sin"

1993 -- Chris Smithers, "Memphis In The Meantime"

1994 -- Suzy Bogguss, "Drive South"  

1994 -- Joe Cocker, "Have A Little Faith In Me"   

1994 -- Buddy Guy, "Feels Like Rain"

1994 -- Hank Flamingo, "Tennessee Plates"

1994 -- New Grass Revival, "Angel Eyes"

1995 -- Rosanne Cash, "It Hasn't Happened Yet"

        -- Rosanne Cash, "Pink Bedroom"

1995 -- Mark Collie, "Tennessee Plates"

1996 -- Stephanie Bentley, "Permanent Hurt"

1996 -- Don Henley, "Through Your Hands"

1996 -- Jewel, "Have A Little Faith In Me"

1996 -- Marti Jones, "If I Can Love Somebody"

1996 -- Tracy Nelson, Mother Earth, "Thinkin' Of You"

1997 -- The Searchers, "Back To The War"

 

TV HOST

1999 -- Sessions At W. 54th

 

THANKS: Liz McEleheran, Keef Whiting

©1997, 1999 Nick Krewen, Octopus Media Ink.

 

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