Thursday, August 23, 2007

“The Tiki Bar Is Open” / John Hiatt


There was a time when John Hiatt’s career nearly ran down the drain in a stream of alcohol. It’s no coincidence, I think, that his breakthrough album Bring the Family happened after he got sober -- one of its most moving songs, “Stood Up,” offers this poignant verse:

Now they give last call for alcohol
And no one has to carry me home
You see I only work here now, man
My drinking days are long gone
I couldn’t stand up after one, no,
‘Til twenty had me down on the floor
Now the first one doesn’t get me
Even though I’m still the last one out the door.

Like the AAers say, you take sobriety one day at a time. These things aren’t easy; anybody who tells you different is lying. Several years down the pike, the title song on Hiatt’s marvelous 2001 album The Tiki Bar Is Open updates us on his progress, with a characteristically Hiatt blend of irony, flint-eyed honesty, and courage.

Tiki bars – any American kid born in the early 1950s remembers the tiki bar craze of the early 60s, Polynesian knock-offs of Trader Vic’s sprouting along commercial strips in every sprawling suburb. Most likely the Hiatt family went to the same hokey mai-tai palace in Indianapolis that my family did. And the exotic flavor of the arrangement works into the metaphor too, its slouchy jump-blues rhythm sparked up with a slide guitar (god bless Sonny Landreth) and minor-key honky-tonk piano (ditto David Bianco). Its howling, passionate spirit is perfect for the grit and wail of John’s vocals. “Thank god the tiki bar is open,” John growls for dear life in the chorus, “Thank god the tiki torch still shines.” I can see that fake torch flaring by the heavy carved teak doors, smell its lighter-fluid aroma, even now.

The song’s set in Daytona Beach, but I’m not fooled -- Daytona, Indianapolis, switch one car town for another. But Daytona’s a little tawdrier than Indy, and that tawdriness works here – “My suntan dream is out of reach / And the strip malls are robbing me blind.” Life has a way of letting you down; nothing’s ever like what we hoped. He's a lost soul -- "I was out on a leave of absence / From any resemblance to reality" -- and even when redemption is offered, he can't recognize it ("I was driving by His Majesty's Court Hotel / Where the sign said 'praise his name' / I was tired and alone, I couldn't see too well").

A spirit of disappointment and loss dogs this song from start to finish, embodied in verse four’s vanished hero: “Well his name was Mr. Dale Earnhardt / And he drove the black number three / Now the King is gone but he’ll not be forgotten / Nor his like will we ever see.” Just like Elvis in “Riding With the King,” Earnhardt stands for a dream, a lost grace, that’s missing in our pallid modern life.

It’s verse five, though, that gets to the heart of things: “Well, I know a drink ain’t no solution / I ain’t had one in seventeen years / But if that tiki bar was closed tonight ./ Well I might just disappear.” And just like that, in a flash, the metaphor makes sense – the tiki bar is one of those ubiquitous church basement AA meetings, on tap any night of the week. Even seventeen years down the road (Hiatt sings it as “twenty-three years” on the current tour), you never know when you might need to stop in and get your ass redeemed all over again.

Let’s be honest – we all have a pit of some kind yawning under our feet. We all need to find a tiki bar that stays opens 24/7. This is why John Hiatt’s one of my absolute favorite artists: he grapples with those Meaty Questions, but never gets preachy – and never forgets that the song still has to rock your soul.

The Tiki Bar Is Open sample

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