You know in Benny & Joon where earnest/odd/directionless Sam (Johnny Depp) and earnest/odd/imbalanced Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) are about to kiss, much to the chagrin of Joon’s careworn brother, Benny? It’s a recipe for disaster, it can’t work out but it should, and you’re filled with hope and dread. And during that scene, in the background, this guy is singing, “When the road gets dark/ and you can no longer see/ have a little faith in me.”
The song makes the scene. It’s a longing, inspirational pledge to someone hovering just above rock bottom. It sticks with you. But for some reason, I never bothered to learn the identity of the artist.
Then my sister started bugging me about this guy John Hiatt. She has abysmal taste in music (love you, sis), so I blew her off. But she wouldn’t let up. Finally, one payday years ago when I was picking up new music, I came across Hiatt’s 1987 album Bring the Family (A&M). I’d so thoroughly ignored my sister’s recommendation that I thought I was taking a chance on this guy, whose grainy grayscale gaze seemed to beckon me. I left Sound Off in Sugar House with it, hoping I’d chosen well.
The first song, the chooglin’ “Memphis in the Meantime,” was oddly familiar. Ditto the sultry bump & grind of “Alone in the Dark.” And buoyant track three, “Thing Called Love.” I didn’t know the fourth song, “Lipstick Sunset,” but I was gripped by its ache. My mind took me to a lonely road somewhere beneath a gorgeous sky that was fading into darkness. I’d never been so transported by a song. Except maybe once.
I knew that fifth song right away. Its simple introductory piano chords sparked a memory that Hiatt’s honking, soulful croon fully illuminated. I sat up in my banana chair. My sister, who listens to a capella vocal groups and thinks The Forgotten Carols is the height of creativity, was right?
When the CD spun to a stop, I knew I’d experienced something rare. I made a cassette copy for the car, ordered Hiatt’s then-current album, Perfectly Good Guitar (A&M, 1993), from Columbia House, and did likewise with that. A louder, more rocking record than most of his output, Perfectly Good Guitar still bears the same sharp eye for human failings (the fictional domestic-abuse lament “Old Habits”) and yearning (the wistful, cinematic “Buffalo River Home”). Its title track also introduced me to Hiatt’s sly, curmudgeonly sense of humor. “Perfectly Good Guitar” indicts rock stars for smashing guitars—a move they’ll regret when they’re “whistling every note [they] ever played.”
So, I read everything I could about Hiatt, and bought every album I’d missed. I learned he’d been a songwriter for a Nashville publishing company before landing his own record deal in the ’70s—achieving critical, if not commercial, success. He became a songwriter’s songwriter, with Willie Nelson, Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan covering his songs. It was Bring the Family, informed by Hiatt’s substance abuse and recovery, that finally got commercial traction. The list of artists who’ve covered Hiatt tunes has since mushroomed—and it’s why I knew “Memphis in the Meantime” and “Thing Called Love.”
The covers frenzy, along with his addiction, is one of the most-discussed aspects of his career. That’s fine, except it obscures the fact that Hiatt’s songs are best coming from the man himself.
I learned that when he played the Zephyr Club on the Perfectly Good Guitar tour. Backed by members of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, Hiatt was all class, exuding confidence, humility and wry humor throughout a set that crackled with electricity and emotion. I watched, transfixed, mouth agape, as I’ve done many times since because every album (including his latest, Mystic Pinball) and every show is consistently that good. If ever there were an artist who hits the note smack on the head, it’s John Hiatt.
JOHN HIATT & THE COMBO
The State Room, 638 S. State
Saturday, July 20, 9 p.m.