Wednesday, August 19, 2009
There are singers and songwriters and singer/songwriters. Then there's John Hiatt. The masterful Americana performer celebrates his 57th birthday on August 20th.
The exceptional John Hiatt
What makes John Hiatt unique is his ability to tear your heart to a million pieces in one song then make your sides hurt from laughing so hard in the next. He has a way with lyrics that paint pictures worthy of hanging in a museum. Consider the opening line of "Lipstick Sunset:" "There's a lipstick sunset smeared across the August sky." He can also tell you a lot by omission. The final line of "The Night That Kenny Died," a song about an unpopular geek who became a hero because of the way he met his end (a motorcycle wreck), is such a case: "They kept the casket closed."
Hiatt has known his share of trouble and heartache, and he has turned these into songs. The title song from his 2000 Grammy-nominated album Crossing Muddy Waters deals with the suicide of his second wife shortly after the birth of their daughter. Now clean and sober, he deals with his alcoholism in both serious ("The Back of My Mind") and comical ("these days the only bar I ever see has got lettuce and tomatoes" from "Stolen Moments") ways.
Hiatt produces some of the best love songs of the last three decades, all of which were, as he proudly proclaims, inspired by his love of wife Nancy. And yet he can also write a hearbreak song so intense that fans write him and ask if his marriage is in trouble. Perhaps the reaction in the latter case is because Hiatt writes such intimate, autobiographical songs ("Two kids up and at 'em, one more left at home" he reported in "Circle Back," or the third person "Your Dad Did" that is obviously Hiatt's own paean to domestic bliss, "you love your wife and kids just like your dad did") that some automatically assume every song is a chapter out of his life. Of course, that does not seem to be true: it's hard to think Hiatt ever poked pins in a doll out of teenage sexual frustration such as the way the heroine of "Pink Bedroom" did.
That is part of the magic of John Hiatt. He is everyman -- very nice in person, funny, thoughtful, intelligent. He can translate the feelings of a shattered relationship (which he has known) into a masterful song just as easily as he can extol the joys of marital bliss that he has experienced for the past two and a half decades. It is truly sad that, while many of his songs are well-known ("Sure As I'm Sittin' Here," "Angel Eyes," "Thing Called Love"), he is not.
If you're unfamiliar with Hiatt's material, celebrate his birthday by treating yourself.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Les Paul didn't invent rock and roll, but it's hard to think where rock and roll would be without him. He gave the world the solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording techniques that have become synonymous with rock and roll.
The great Les Paul died Thursday, August 13 of pneumonia.
Paul had a drive to play guitar. His right arm was permanently paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1948, so he had the doctors set his arm at a 90 degree angle so he could continue to play. and play he did. Les Paul was a guitar player, and then some. He won numerous Grammy awards, including one he shared with country music's version of "Mr. Guitar," Chet Atkins, for the album Chester and Lester. His career spanned eight decades and included both instrumental albums and great pop standards recorded with his wife, Mary Ford, who passed away in 1977.
A sad farewell to one of the greatest performers of our time, Lester William Polfuss -- Les Paul. He was 94.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
SONG: Out to Sea
ARTIST: J.D. Souther
SONGWRITER: John David Souther
ALBUM: John David Souther
YEAR/LABEL: 1972, Asylum
Thank you. I really enjoy singing it.
(J. D. Souther, March 9, 2009, regarding the greatness of "Out to Sea")
John David Souther has had an interesting career, to say the very least. He began nearly 40 years ago on a small label called Amos with a fellow Detroit native by the name of Glenn Frey in a duo called Longbranch Pennywhistle. That act folded when Frey joined a drummer in another band on Amos Records, an outfit called Shiloh, to back Linda Ronstadt. The drummer's name was Don Henley. Souther ended up dating Ronstadt and being good friends with Henley and Frey in their new venture, the Eagles.
As with numerous singer/songwriters in L.A. in the early 70s, Souther found no trouble getting a record deal with Asylum Records. As other Asylum acts such as the Eagles, Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne went from cult acts to multi-platinum superstars Souther lagged in the background in terms of sales. His songs were well-known: he co-wrote a number of Eagles hits and wrote several songs that Ronstadt recorded (including "Simple Man, Simple Dream," the quasi-title track of her 1977 album Simple Dreams). Asylum dropped him in the late 70s and Souther found a new home on Columbia, where he scored his only top 40 successes: a duet with James Taylor, "Her Town Too," and his own 1979 hit, "You're Only Lonely" (which, to this day, people continually confuse with Roy Orbison's song "Only the Lonely").
One more album followed, 1983's spectacluar Home By Dawn, before Souther turned to acting for the better part of 20 years. He was a semi-regular on thirtysomething and appeared in numerous made-for-TV movies (including the one about the miraculous survival of the Pennsylvania miners after a cave-in). Then he came back to music in 2008, releasing a very unique album titled If the World Was Yours. The CD featured his typical sardonic lyrics, this time backed by a jazz ensemble instead of the country or rock flavor his music had always enjoyed.
When one analyzes Souther's material, the starting place is with his self-titled Asylum debut in 1972. The Eagles called attention to this masterpiece when they chose as the initial single from their first album in 28 years the song "How Long," a cover of one of the songs off John David Souther.
The outstanding feature of Souther's first album is the song that follows "How Long," the superb "Out to Sea." Just over five minutes in length, it is one of Souther's longer songs, and every second is delicious. Souther takes the listener on an autobiographical trip that begins where he "used to sing in Texas" and moves on "to California by the shining sea." His motive is fame ("I thought I'd write the song of songs") but he is quickly brought back to earth by "my baby's goodbye voice ringing out to me, 'Dear David, I hope you live that long.'" That is one of the great lines of Souther's career -- or anyone's.
All of the struggles of trying to become a success requires "a refuge where the holy winds are strong," and Souther claims that's the ocean. "We will bathe in the white foamy water and be pure as God's driven snow," he sings. He gets grounded in reality in the last verse where he realizes, "I might never sing a song that's good enough a thing to chase the doubts and fears away." All of these philosophical gems are augmented with harmonies from Souther's Longbranch/Pennywhistle duet partner Glenn Frey.
Souther might never give the world "the song of songs," but with "Out to Sea" he certainly came close.
OTHER J.D. SOUTHER MUSIC TO INVESTIGATE:
The entire Home By Dawn album -- a duet with Linda Ronstadt ("Say You Will"), sarcasm ("Bad News Travels Fast"), and marvelous rock (the title track and "Night"). If Souther was going to stay away from music for a quarter century, he certainly picked a high note on which to leave.
The entire John David Souther album -- some people save their best for first. Souther's debut album displayed all the promise that he lived up to.
"Roll Um Easy" (from Rock and Roll Doctor: A Tribute to Lowell George) -- a terrific version of a great Little Feat song.
Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Anymore
My Book of Memories
Lost to a Stranger
A Little Bitty Heart
Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs
Life is Too Short
I Want a Home in Dixie
I Lost Today
Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
One More Song
New Delhi Freight Train
Long Way Home
Heart of Rome
Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)