John Hiatt: Talking about How Things Are

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John Hiatt: Talking about How Things Are

John Hiatt  has been planning his old age for a long time. He hadn’t even cracked 40 in 1987 when he wrote “One Kiss”:

Let’s outlive our usefulness, baby
Let’s stay in our own skin too long
Till we’re so wrinkled all the hatchlings just laugh at us
As they crack out of their eggshells at the break of dawn
We’ll say “Oh are y’all just getting home
From a long night of self-abuse?”
Well me and the missus we were just getting
The coffee pot to perk
Yeah, it’s a dirty job, but ya know
We’re still living it and loving it
You kids let us know when you’re finished with your artwork

Now, more than thirty years later, he’s released his 23rd studio album and has fully embraced his codgerhood. Few would argue that it isn’t well earned.

It was 1962 or so, when eleven-year-old John Hiatt, inspired by the curves of an early bloomer in his fifth-grade class, wrote his first song:

Beth Ann oo-oo-oo,
she’s a woman.

Not an auspicious beginning for a career, but a decade later, his song “Sure as I’m Sitting Here” would hit #16 on the Billboard Charts for Three Dog Night. “I was pretty much talking about how things were, and that’s what I’ve done ever since,” Hiatt says, sitting the offices on New West records, the distributor for his new album The Eclipse Sessions.

More than any other songwriter of his generation, John Hiatt has chronicled the life of an everyday guy, wild in his youth, joyful in the happiness of family, and then, finally, settling into the wisdom of age.

If Bob Dylan is the Poet Laureate of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era, then John Hiatt is its novelist. In fact, he’s John Updike in lyric form. Updike won every major American prize in literature, but he was best known for a series of four novels: Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. Hiatt’s 23 studio albums cohere into a musicians’ equivalent of Updike’s Rabbit series.

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When I was 16, I worked at the Record Exchange, in Williamsville, New York, outside Buffalo. I had a complete Pink Floyd collection, including the first two albums on Tower Records, and I had a complete Led Zeppelin collection, including a Japanese seven-inch single of “The Immigrant Song” with the non-lp b-side of “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do.” I was working hard on getting a complete run of LPs from the Stones and the Who.

Most of the current stock the Record Exchange sold was promo copies—mainly stuff Bob the owner scored off the radio stations and other outlets. There was one album that we had a big stack of, but no one bought. There were 12-inch promo singles that went with it too. It had a black and white cover of a guy leaning on a ridiculous looking motorcycle. One night after Bob went home, I dropped it on the turntable and played it. Then played it again. And again. And again.

The album had a swagger, a pigeon-chested arrogance that a 16-year-old could only dream of, but it also had wit and humor unlike any of the classic rock bands I was listening to. Soon, I was no longer interested in being a tortured artist like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. I wanted to be funny, like John Hiatt.

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Although Hiatt’s style has evolved and shifted, there’s a steadiness to his voice and perspective that comes together into a cohesive 50-year narrative.

It’s a mistake to read too much autobiography into anyone’s writing, but the story of Hiatt’s masculine bravado and self-destructive youth is laid out clearly in his early albums. Seven album is a career for most acts, but for Hiatt, it was just a warm-up.

I didn’t understand that all those copies piling up at my record shop were a sign that Geffen Records had thrown a lot of money behind an album that didn’t hit. And if David Geffen spent a lot of money trying to break an act, and the act didn’t break, the act didn’t have much future. When Geffen refused to release Hiatt’s duet with Rosanne Cash “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” as a single, Cash put the song on her next own album and it ended up topping the country chart, just one of many hit songs Hiatt has written for others.

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On Columbus Day, 1986—three years after first hearing that Hiatt album and a year before his breakthrough with Bring in the Family—he made a mess of me again. The Record Exchange was a used record store, but we also sold concert tickets, and I’d often get the comps. I went to a lot of shows, at least I did for a teenager in Buffalo, NY—Stones, Who, Roger Water, ZZ Top, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel.

I thought concerts happened mostly in stadiums or auditoriums, so when a friend told me that John Hiatt was playing a place called Jazzberries in Rochester, I expected something bigger. Jazzberries was a coffeehouse, 50 seats at most, with an upright piano on the tiny stage. Hiatt claimed he was touring in a 1978 Buick LeSabre that night, and although I didn’t see the car, I have no reason to doubt him.

My friend hid a cassette recorder under a paper napkin on the table. I still have the recording, and it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. Hiatt played his heart out on the songs that would become his two breakthrough albums—Bring the Family and Slow Turning. He whistled what would become Ry Cooder’s haunting slide guitar solo on Lipstick Sunset, and he belted out “Have A Little Faith In Me” on the out-of-tune piano. When his guitar string breaks in the middle of “Pink Bedroom,” his third encore, he sits at the piano and tries to pick up where he left off, only to forget the words and instead slip into a sing-a-long cover of Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry.”

After that, the pyrotechnics and light shows in a 15,000-seat arena felt like gimmicks to me.

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With a baby girl named Lilly at home with his new wife, Hiatt toured all over the country, eventually hitting legendary Los Angeles picker/songrwriter venue McCathe’s Guitar Shop. The manager, John Chelew, was blown away by Hiatt’s new batch of songs, and asked him to name his dream band. Hiatt shot for the moon—Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, Jim Keltner. A few months later, they were in a studio, and Bring The Family soon followed. It’s a rare thing to see an artist redefined so dramatically after seven albums, but Bring the Family did just that. It was an album that took on the consequences of those years, coming to terms with regret and pain, eventually finding a way to redemption.

Both Bringing in the Family and its follow-up, Slow Turning, charted, and the single of “Slow Turning” even became a minor hit as a single, but the strength of his writing gathered even more attention. Bonnie Raitt’s cover of “Thing Called Love” helped her earn a Grammy and Jeff Healey’s cover of “Angel Eyes” hit number five on the singles charts. Even Bob Dylan covered “The Usual on the Hearts on Fire soundtrack.

For college kids like me, those two albums were something of a users’ manual for adulthood. The arrogance of his earlier albums had been seared off, and the songs were windows into consequences, regret, pain, and redemption. There are lessons in those records, and I took them to heart. They helped me grow up.

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Over the last 10 years, Hiatt’s has taken on the mantle of the grizzled veteran, with album titles like Same Old Man and Terms of My Surrender. And with the Eclipse Sessions, he’s clearly entered his Rabbit at Rest phase. The four years since 2014’s Terms of my Surrender marked the longest stretch without an album in his career and coincided with slowing down from decades of touring.

“I’d typically been doing 100 to 120 shows a year, equated to 200 days gone,” he says. “I’d been married for 32 years and been gone for most of it. I had developed a kind of a hard outer shell that allowed me to conduct myself out there in relative safety. But when I came home, that didn’t necessarily allow me to conduct myself in an open manner as a human being. So that was the change I was going through, less touring and more living like a human being.”

Coming off the road and staying out of the studio, it wasn’t clear if there was another record at all. “I was getting older, and I was just kinda wondering what’s next,” he says. “I had no clue—I just really didn’t know what kind of record to make or if I wanted to make one or when or how or any of that stuff, then the songs started coming.”

A band of friends—and friends of friends—came together, and gathered in a small studio in Wilkinson County, outside Nashville. “I didn’t really know I was making a record at the time,” he says. “I had some songs, and they just came together.”

Hiatt’s wit is still there, and the Eclipse Sessions highlights the writer’s heart. But there’s a sense of finality that permeates the record, nowhere more than the final cut, “Robbers Highway.” The new set doesn’t quite rage against the dimming of the light so much as an acquiesce.

Can’t feel the fingers of one hand,
Last night felt like a three-night stand,
Mouth full of cotton, feet of clay
I didn’t plan on waking up today
I had heart, wheels, and strings
Now I don’t have any of these things
Come and get me, Jesus, I don’t know
Come and get me, cause I can go.

“It feels consoling to me somehow. There’s a lot of darkness on it, but I feel it’s comforting as well. And I hope people out there don’t feel it’s one big giant Tuinal. I think there’s plenty of hope, but I think it’s unflinching in it’s a look at things like old age and, the usual suspects.”

The record is far from a sedative, and Hiatt’s pigeon-chested bluster still shines through now and again, in songs like “Cry to Me” and “Over The Hill.” “I just liked the notion that we keep thinking we’re learning things and yet seem to know less anyways,” he says. “I like the guy who is still, willing to go all in, put his chips in on the table: ‘I’m long in the tooth. What can I say? I take huge bites of life and I eat the bone,’ kind of says it all.”

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