“Riding With the King” / John Hiatt
JOHN HIATT WEEK
Today, August 20th, Mr. John Hiatt turns 54, so you’d better believe he’s getting a full week on my blog. I love Hiatt to the very depths of my soul and I always will.
This past week the media have been obsessed with the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so why not start with Hiatt’s own Presley tribute, from his 1983 album Riding With the King (which, by the way, was the first collaboration between Hiatt and producer/bassist Nick Lowe -- you know I’ve got to love it). You may have heard Eric Clapton’s cover, or B. B. King’s (those guys know a good song when they hear one), but Hiatt’s own version is the one that really smokes.
He opens the track with a lazy strutting guitar riff that sounds to me exactly like the way Elvis walked, taking his time, knowing that he had the stuff. This riff dominates the song, butting in again at every major moment, but there’s also emphatic drums (Robert Treherne, a.k.a. Bobby Irwin) and a shimmering organ flourish (the divine Paul Carrack – Lowe definitely brought in his A-team for these tracks). It's a supremely confident track, just like Elvis himself.
But it isn’t Elvis talking in this song, it’s just an ordinary guy – Hiatt writes ordinary guys so well – whose mundane life is inspired by Presley. “I dreamed I had a good job and I got well paid,” he drawls, then defiantly adds “I blew it all at the penny arcade./ A hundred dollars on a kewpie doll./ No pretty chick is gonna make me crawl.” I can’t say which one, but I imagine this as a scene from an Elvis movie – can’t you just see it?
The chorus is wonderful, the way it mashes together gospel and modern life: “Get on a TWA to the promised land. / Every woman, child and man / Gets a Cadillac and a great big diamond ring. / Don't you know you're riding with the king?” Later on in the bridge, he adds one of my favorite lines of all time: “Tonight everybody's getting their angel wings.” It perfectly evokes A Wonderful Life, and also makes me see those little pins the airlines used to give kids on their first flights. I still want a set of those wings.
Okay, so it’s only a dream – but it’s a GREAT dream, the kind of dream that gets you through daily life. And that’s why Elvis mattered. Hiatt, that good Catholic boy, reels out all his Messiah imagery in verse two: “He's on a mission of mercy to the new frontier, / He's gonna check us all on out of here. / Up to that mansion on a hill / Where you can get your prescription filled.” There’s Graceland as Heaven, right down to the pharmacopia Presley must have kept on hand. In verse three, he’s a superhero, too (“A red cape and a shiny cold 45 / I never saw his face but I saw the light”). Whatever you needed Elvis to be, he was, somehow, like magic.
But in verse four, again it’s not about Elvis, it’s the guy grooving on the dream of Elvis: “I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old / With a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold. / I had a guitar hanging just about waist high / And I'm gonna play this thing until the day I die.” Hiatt pulls that line out in his most passionate raspy goddam howl, the same one he uses on “Perfectly Good Guitar” or “Master of Disaster,” two other iconic song about man and his guitar. When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll, John Hiatt is a true believer – and he makes me one too.
Riding With the King sample