Sunday, August 21, 2011

Adios to California / John Hiatt 

Happy Belated Birthday, John!

I threw my back out last week -- we're talking big time pain here -- but I wouldn't let that stop me from getting down to the City Winery to see John Hiatt.  I mean, this is Johnny Hiatt we're talking about -- no one's work runs closer to the bone for me. And halfway through the show, watching John groove around the stage (love the little fedora, by the way, John), it occurred to me that underneath that billowing white linen shirt, he could have been hiding a back brace just like I was. Somehow this was comforting, to imagine that John could have the same knowledge of pain that I have.

John not only has a birthday to celebrate -- his 59th! -- he has a new album, which selfishly I've been listening to for a week now without sharing it with you.  Oh, but it's a magnificent thing, a vintage Hiatt stew of country blues and folk-rock and R&B, restless and pissed-off and smart.  I hesitate to rank these things, but I think it's stronger than either of his two most recent CDs, Same Old Man or The Open Road.  Both of which, by the way, I love, but still. While those were both wonderfully personal statements, on Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns I feel as if Hiatt's now widening the picture, throbbing with anger about modern American society.  It's a righteous howl from Middle America, from the have-nots who've waited long enough for their due. Incendiary stuff, and I love to hear a guy pushing 60 taking risks like this.

Having said all that, this particular track seems to me less political and more autobiographical.  My new buddies Carrie and Guy, who shared my table the other night (this is what I love about the Winery), picked up on the same storyline. Long ago John Hiatt was a struggling rocker in L.A.., until his life went south -- his ex-wife's suicide was probably the last straw -- and he tore up stakes and relocated to Nashville, taking his abandoned baby daughter with him, and turning his life around for the good.  Seen in that light, this song is about the moment when he realized he had to quit L.A., and its woeful melancholy and sense of loss really get under my skin.

Take a listen:

That gently rollicking beat, the slide guitar -- there's surely an echo of California rock there. I'm not saying the Eagles, but you know what I mean. Now, Hiatt's SoCal years are not a big part of his biography, but he did live on the West Coast for a while in the late 70s and early 80s, and here he touches a few points of local color ("Living in the Canyon," and "Pasadena in the rain / Eating doughnuts and reading Twain. . . "). There's even a sly reference to his own early hit ("You said, 'That's it for me' / Have a little faith it will set you free"), or at any rate a 1989 hit for Bonnie Raitt, which helped to kick Hiatt's own star into a new orbit.

And the refrain crystallizes that moment of realization: "So Adios to California / Nothing to do but turn around / I always thought there's someone coming for you / The only way you'd leave this town."  ("Adios," of course, because California is Spanish -- that's the kind of instinctive detail that rivets a good song.)  I'm mixing Hiatt's story up with John Mellencamp's -- our other fellow Hoosier -- but really, there's a point at which dealing with the knives of the L.A. scene must have become counterproductive.  It's a real "who needs this shit?" moment.  And apparently, for John it was enough to drive him back to Nashville.

But there's one other element to the story, which he touches on only obliquely.  Who is the "you" of this song?  Part of it is John himself, finally rejecting the L.A. scene; but it's also the tragedy of his ex-wife -- "the only way you'd leave this town" being in a pine box.  And in verse three, she seems to take over the song.  "Two cigarettes from the package gone / You must have thought about it just that long." Wow, is that a forensic detail or what?  And here's the killer line:  "I never knew you were so strong" -- because, yes, it takes guts, incredible guts, to kill yourself.  That line sends chills up my spine.  "I guess I never will," he adds, a wonderfully ambiguous line -- meaning I guess I never will understand what happened?  or "I guess I never will be that strong?  Either way, it's a devastating verse.

It's interesting that John is still writing about this, when it happened over 25 years ago. But then, he's still singing "Crossing Muddy Water," from his 2000 album of the same name, which has got to be about this same life-shattering incident ("Left me in my tears to drown / She left a baby daughter"). I'm such a sap, I cry every time I hear him sing that song.  And this makes me love his work even more, that he's been through tragedy and back.  (Although, come on, Eric Clapton -- did you have to write "Tears in Heaven" when your young son died?  Is it right that you should have turned that heartbreak into a major hit record?  Dear readers, I await your comments.)

Anyhoo, another thing I noticed -- the album's title is embedded in this song.  All the cool kids are doing this lately., naming their albums not after the hit single from the album, but after a line hidden in one track. Presumably that's an important flag, a code that signifies "this is the most essential song on this album." So is this the most essential song on this album?  I really don't think so -- my choice would be the truly searing track "Down Around My Place," in which a man miserably growls about his economic woes.  (Best line: "While the kids crowd round the table, down around my place / Bitchin' there's no cable, down around my place.")

On the other hand, that line about "dirty jeans and mudslide hymns" is way too arresting NOT to use it as an album title. Without getting all pretentiously poetic, John Hiatt knows an evocative image when he hears it.  But the older he gets, the more judiciously Hiatt wields that imagery.  This guy's still coming into his prime . I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly exciting.

PS  I just have to mention this -- I love the new song "Detroit Made" (despite its similarity to "Thunderbird" from Master of Disaster) but I'm convinced that John ripped off the guitar riff from Greg Trooper's "Green-Eyed Girl" from his 2005 album Make It Through This World.  Listen and let me know.  After all, they share the same drummer, Kenneth Blevins, and John has stolen riffs in the past -- specifically, the opening riffs from "Waterloo Sunset" into the beginning of "Buffalo River Home" on 1993's Perfectly Good Guitar.


Greg ANB said...

Nice song and as always lovely review. As to Clapton and Tears of Heaven, he wrote in his autobiography that the songs he wrote in the aftermath of his sons death never meant for publication they were just what he did to stop himself going mad (he had been sober for 3 years). Later when composing for the film Rush the producer heard the song and insisted it be included in the movie persuading a reluctant Clapton on the basis the song may help someone some time, which he agreed to.

As to song lines being used as Album titles, Graham Parker did this (sort of) back in 1979 with Squeezing Out Sparks & Elvis Costello did so also in '79 with My Aim is True. I am sure that weren't the first either.
Best wishes with the back

wwolfe said...

My take on "I never knew you were so strong" and "I guess I never will": He's saying to his ex-wife that, because she's no longer here, he won't have the chance to know first-hand how strong she is (or was). And, taking it one step farther, he's implicitly adding that he wishes that she had shown him how strong she was when he could have seen it, and he's criticizing himself for not having been able to see how strong she was. (The song has a very nice feel, by the way - it feels like a good old comfy pair of dirty jeans ought to feel.)