“What Do We Do Now” / John Hiatt
JOHN HIATT WEEK
John Hiatt can rock out on an electric guitar with the best of them, but he doesn’t need to switch on the amps to satisfy me. Case in point: his 2000 album Crossing Muddy Waters, which is basically an acoustic album, with all the other stuff stripped away to let his songwriting shine. Since this is John Hiatt, of course, don’t expect “acoustic” to translate into “soft and folky” – no, Crossing Muddy Waters simply vibrates with passion. The title song alone will break your heart, and if you forced me to pick my favorite John Hiatt song of all time, it probably would be “What Do We Do Now” – this one slays me every time.
Hiatt sings wonderfully about love and commitment and family, but he also knows the flip side of those things. “What Do We Do Now” is an anguished cry from the heart, as two partners face each other, seething, realizing that this just may the The Fight That Ends It All. “When it’s lying there with a busted heart / Like a piece of glass – where do you start? / Do we pick it up, or say goodbye? / Is there one tear left for us to cry?” This hasn’t been the first knock-down-drag-out argument between these two, clearly, but maybe this time they’ve crossed the line. And it’s SCARY.
“What if I can’t stay?” he wonders, voice scraping in pain, “What if you can’t stay? / What if I can’t leave? / What if you can’t leave?” All the songwriting courses in the world can’t teach this kind of poetry – it doesn’t rhyme, the language is so plain, but I can just feel these two people slamming back and forth between these wretched choices. They’re hurting too bad for fancy poetry.
The melody is deliberately circular and descending, with a weary thudding rhythm that perfectly captures this couple’s private hell. The pitch rises, though, for this heart-breaking verse: “Do we call the kids / Or call the cops / Can you hold me ‘til / This howling stops?” It comes down to these choices: that numb civilized “family meeting” or a window-smashing screamfest. And in the middle of all his rage and pain, she’s still the place he instinctively turns for comfort – that’s the wrenching irony of the whole damn thing.
There’s other great lines here – “Gimme back my steel / Gimme me back my nerve / Gimme back my youth / For the dead man’s curve”; or “Cause we rode it long / And we rode it hard / And we wrecked it in / Our own back yard.” Those dogged repetitions, how perfectly they summon up the mindset of someone who can’t see his way forward. There’s no answer here; these people can’t find an answer right now. Will they finally split? Will they get back together? Will they ever be happy?
I don’t know, and they sure as hell don’t know. Which is the point of this song – to capture this edge-of-the-knife emotion. Anybody who’s ever tried to make a relationship work can recognize this moment, whether it’s ever gone quite that far or not. The pain, the raw passion, the horrible honesty – it’s not easy stuff. But then life isn't all easy, is it? That's why we need truth-tellers like John Hiatt, to light our way through the valley of the shadow of death. Amen.
What Do We Do Now sample
PS. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOMORROW, ELVIS COSTELLO – NEXT WEEK IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU!