"Your Dad Did" / John Hiatt
I'm not waiting for the Thursday Reverb to dredge up this old post -- no sirree. Not when I've just come home from watching John perform at the City Winery, pulling out great song after great song, blowing all our minds with how damn good he can be. Oh, there were many epiphanies tonight -- during "Cry Love" and "Thunderbird" and, ohmigosh, for the first time ever I've heard live "Crossing Muddy Water" . . . but there's really no question what the highlight of the evening was for me.
Yes, it was old "Your Dad Did" again. Read my old post and you'll get where I stood on this track before this evening. (But don't get lost! Come back to this post! I've got something new to add!)
Nobody I know parses the family man thing as well as John Hiatt does; that in itself is reason to give him a MacArthur Genius Grant, in my opinion, if not a Nobel Prize. But tonight -- well, he surpassed himself. In the middle of the song, he went off on a simply brilliant monologue, a memory trip about his dad, back in that old brick house on Central Avenue. (Unh-hunh, I know that's a line from "Seven Little Indians" -- but he did say it again tonight, and as a native of that same North Side of Indianapolis, I know the house he's talking about.)
He had us all mesmerized as he set the scene -- the family gathered around the old Philco television set, on a Sunday evening in 1964. (He may have said 1965, but you and I know the evening he's talking about.) The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on, and while I can't vouch for the rest of the world, I can tell you from personal experience that every good little kid in Indianapolis knew what was going to happen on the show that night: The Beatles, straight from Liverpool, England, were making their debut appearance on American TV. The Good Guys DJs on WIFE-AM had gotten us all whipped up into a pre-Beatles frenzy; every kid in town was tuned into that CBS station.
As John noted, with a twinkle in his eye, the television remote only needed to have three buttons in those days -- one for ABC, one for NBC, and one for CBS. And there is old man Hiatt, monopolizing the Philco remote like any good dad would. But just as Ed Sullivan is working up to his climax -- after Topo Gigio, after the guy with the spinning plates -- Mr. Hiatt blithely punches a button to switch channels. The Hiatt girls go crazy; little Johnny is going crazy. But Dad is Dad, and he's got the power of the remote. Johnny is seized with desire to slither up to the set and turn the knobs himself -- but does he dare risk overriding the Master of the Remote Control?
Of course, at the very last minute (John is strumming tense chords on his guitar, building to the story's climax), Mr. Hiatt casually flips back to CBS, just in time to hear Ed Sullivan intone, "Here are -- the Beatles!" And it's only now, in retrospect, as a father himself, that John can understand what his father was doing that night. He was simply doing his job as a father, obeying the Number One Parental Mandate -- "to fuck with your kids' minds." The audience erupted into howls of laughter, as John swooped into the last verse of the song.
Now, that is why I love John Hiatt. Sure, I own all his albums, and I listen to them regularly, pore over them with the zeal of a true obsessive. But this is why I go to see him every time he's in town (and sometimes when he's not in town, too). Because no matter how perfectly crafted a song may be -- and for songcraft, you'd be hard pressed to surpass John Hiatt -- still, when you hear it live, a song can take on a life of its own.
As he was working through that story, I was totally there with him, in the little brick house on Central Avenue, sitting on that living room carpet with the all the Hiatts, waiting for the Beatles to come on Ed Sullivan. For me, too, that night's television show was one of the formative moments in my musical life. The idea that Johnny Hiatt was just a few blocks away, experiencing it at that very same moment -- it's almost transcendentally wonderful.