years, many have covered John Hiatt songs, from Rosanne Cash to Iggy Pop
and from Bonnie Raitt to Dr Feelgood. In fact, there are so many covers
out there, there's even a compilation album of them all, called Love Gets
Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt.
But when the greatest songwriter the world has ever seen, the man who
penned like A Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man and Visions Of Johanna
and a thousand other classics, says he's taken such a shine to one of your
songs that he wants to put it on his next record...well, then you know
that you've got to be doing something right. It's like Tiger Woods asking
your advice on his golf swing or Picasso wanting your assistance because
he can't quite get his brush strokes right. But while Bob Dylan's reaction
to hearing John Hiatt's Warming Up To The Ice Age on its release in
January 1985, was to decide to cover one of its songs, over at Geffen
Records, they had a different reaction. They decided to drop John Hiatt.
At the time the label was also involved in a bitter dispute with Neil
Young over the allegedly 'non-commercial' albums he was delivering, so
there was hardly any shame in that.
But it came at a difficult juncture in Hiatt's career. Around the time of
Warming Up To The Ice Age, a chill blast was blowing through his life. Not
only was he about to be dropped by his record label (for the third time in
his career), but his second wife had committed suicide and by the end of
1985, he was in a rehabilitation programme.
Fortunately, there was a happy ending. By 1986, he had remarried and
signed a new deal with A&M Records. With a backing band that featured Ry
Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner he recorded the superb album, Bring The
Family, and the line-up went on to record and tour in its own right as
Little Village. And true to his word, Dylan did his bit by putting Hiatt's
song, The Usual, on his 1988 album, Down In The Groove.
Yet despite - or perhaps because of - his difficulties, Warming Up To The
Ice Age found John Hiatt at his most potent. To make the album, he turned
to the veteran Nashville producer Norbert Putnam (who had played in Area
Code 615, who recorded Stone Fox Chase, better known as the theme for The
Old Grey Whistle Test). Despite Putnam's country background, he gave Hiatt
a punchy, hard-rocking sound.
The core band of Jesse Boyce (bass), Randy McCormick (keyboards) and Lenny
Louden (drums) were a perfect foil for Hiatt's elastic vocals and his
crunching guitar playing. And there is no doubting the quality of such
compositions as The Usual and She Said The Same Thing To Me, which
includes a guest appearance from Mac Gayden on guitar. Burning Down The
Zero, the title track and I've Got A Gun are further characteristic
examples of Hiatt's passion. Tracy Nelson is among those providing backing
vocals and the album also includes a duet with Elvis Costello.
The appearance of the British 'new wave' singer-songwriter was intriguing
for in the late 1970s, Hiatt had been much touted as 'the American Elvis
Costello'. In many ways, it was a silly comparison. Hiatt had actually
begun his recording career in 1974, three years before Costello's debut
album had made him the darling of the London punk scene. Yet, as can be
heard, there clearly was a close musical affinity between the two
songwriters - even if , ironically, the song they duet on, Living A Little,
Laughing A Little, is actually a cover of an old Spinners' hit.
Growing up in Indianapolis in the 1960s, Hiatt began his career playing in
local garage bands and was heavily influenced - as was just about everyone
else at the time - by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. By the end of the
decade, he was in a band called The White Ducks, who attracted a bit of
attention. But at the age of 18, he relocated to Nashville where his
burgeoning songwriting skills landed him a job with Tree Publishing. Over
the next few years, those his songs were placed with included Tracy Nelson,
Conway Twitty and Three Dog Night, who took his Sure As I'm Sitting Here
to number 16 on the Billboard chart in the summer of 1974.
Hiatt kept his hand in as a performer playing in Nashville clubs and bars
and eventually, in 1974, at the age of 22, he signed a recording contract
with Epic, for whom he recorded Hangin' Around The Observatory (1974) and
Overcoats (1975). But when neither sold well, he was dropped and in 1978,
he relocated to Los Angeles. There he signed to MCA and recorded the
albums Slug Line (1979) and Two Bit Monsters (1980). Although he was
promoted as an American version of Costello or Joe Jackson, again the
albums failed to sell. Again he found himself dropped.
After a spell playing in Ry Cooder's band (he appears on his Borderline
album), Hiatt next signed with Geffen, whose first move was to team him
with David Bowie's producer, Tony Visconti. The result was the 1983 album,
All Of A Sudden. It was followed the following year by Riding With The
King, which featured a superb backing band which included Nick Lowe and
Paul Carrack. Next up was the rather fine album you have in your hand.
After Warming Up To The Ice Age failed to thaw the people at Geffen, Hiatt
teamed up with his old friend Cooder and made a string of albums for A&M.
Bring The Family in 1987 was followed swiftly by Slow Turning (1988) and
Stolen Moments (1990). Between them they constituted a trio of fine albums
that took him in a more roots-based direction.
Next up was 1993ís solo effort Perfectly Good Guitar, a more overtly rock
album on which Hiatt was joined by members of alternative rock bands
School Of Fish and Wire.
1995's Walk On, which included guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt and the
Jayhawks. Little Head came two years later in 1997. Since then, there's
been the excellent The Tiki Bar Is Open and, most recently, Beneath This
Gruff Exterior, the first album to give his band The Goners equal credit.
His sales figures may never have' matched his reputation or his talent as
a songwriter, guitarist and powerful singer. But that's rock'n'roll. When
Bob Dylan covers your songs and Ry Cooder asks you to play guitar in his
band, then whatever the man in the suit from the record' company says, you
know you're doing something right.
John Hiatt has been doing it right now for the best part of 30 years. Long
may he run