people who know what they want, find what they're looking for, you can
usually tell by the way they lean back in their chair, cross their arms
and grin that certain grin of long sought satisfaction.
That's what John Hiatt is doing right now, sitting amidst amps,
instruments and mixing boards in a San Fernando Valley rehearsal hall
gearing up for an upcoming spring tour keyed to the release of his Geffen
Records debut, All Of A Sudden.
Those who know Hiatt, even by reputation, are aware of his near-manic
quest for that sound somewhere inside his skull-- a sound that apparently
has not escaped intact until now. Never mind the fact that Hiatt's last
two albums, Slug Line and Two Bit Monsters received near-unanimous
critical praise from the terminally jaded rock press corps. To Hiatt they
are only well-intentioned failures—some solid songwriting to be sure, but
a sound that fell, on. the whole, something short of adequate.
Never mind the burgeoning cult following the 29 year-old Indianapolis
native has attracted over the past few years with a galvanic live show, a
scene-stealing guest slot on the recent Ry Cooder tour, soundtrack
contributions to several films, including, most recently, The Border, and
some VIP song covers. Hiatt is really only interested in one thing--
success on his own terms. "All I ever asked for was a shot," he insists.
And like the one heard 'round the world, All Of A Sudden could well be the
broadside Hiatt’s been waiting to deliver.
With the generosity of a man who's finally gotten what he wants, Hiatt is
not at all opposed to sharing the credit for All Of A Sudden, which
certainly does sound, from first listening onward, like the singer/writer/guitarist's
most assured offering to date. "Music is a totally collaborative art," he
says." And this time. i made a real effort to hook up with people who knew
what they were doing so that together we could pull something off and make
Those hookups included Hiatt's present band; Jesse Harms (keyboards,
background vocals), Darrell Verdusco (drums, background vocals) and James
background vocals), who, along with newly added guitarist Jack Sherman,
will form Hiatt's touring group as well. But the real catalytic factor in
the All Of A Sudden success formula was producer Tony Visconti.
On the subject of the expatriate American producer, celebrated for his
T. Rex, David Bowie and Mrs. Visconti (Mary Hopkin)among others, Hiatt
waxes positively rhapsodic. "I was delighted,” he confesses. "Tony didn't
let me down. It was my first experience working with a bona fide record
producer and it was a good one. It took us a while to know how much we
could each get away with, but by the end I felt we'd really only scratched
the surface of what we could do together." Smoking a modest chain of
Marlboros, Hiatt muses on the essential nature of a producer's role in
record crafting. "It’s a lot more than just turning dials,” he asserts. "A
real producer can help you weed out the stupid stuff in your music and
really inspire you. That's exactly what Tony did. I was anxious for
someone to be really honest about what I was trying to do. Tony was a
great help vocally as well as musically. When we first started recording
I’d wanted to bring in another guitarist. He advised against it and was
able to draw things out of me on guitar that I didn't know I had. In terms
of style, I wanted to try and change things up a bit and I needed a
producer who wouldn't be thrown by the diversity. Tony was able to take
the material and present it coherently. It's pretty slim pickings as far
as producers go,” Hiatt asserts. "You either get something completely
overblown or have to settle for pot luck. Tony knew what he was doing.”
So, from all indications, did Hiatt. From the evidence of All Of A
Sudden's twelve selections, his songwriting skills have kept pace with his
own escalating demands. Hiatt's attention to the craft of tunesmithing
should, if there's any justice in this world, earn him the thanks of a
grateful listening public, a public Hiatt feels he has a lot to say to.
“No one's writing songs anymore,” he asserts. “At least I haven't heard
any on the radio I've been listening to. All I hear is a lot of groans and
grunts over a four beat bar,” Hiatt sighs. “Sometimes I don't know why I
bother. A lot of the so-called avant garde slag the Tin Pan Alley
tradition of songwriting, but that's what it's really all about -- it's
got to get back to the average person somehow. I really believe that my
music can be understood and appreciated by a whole lot of people.”
All Of A Sudden is certainly a mix of moods and methodologies and that
rarest of commodities, an album with no bad cuts. Picking three cuts at
gives a spot of capsule exposition. “Doll Hospital was a song suggested by
my wife,” he remarks of the album's unquestioned rave-up. “She's always
had a standing invitation to come up with titles and lines and that one
took about twenty minutes to write after she gave me the idea. 'Marianne,'
he continues, recalling the origins of the rollicking, Tex-Mex spiced
tune, "is about going home and looking up some girl you always had the
highest respect for -someone you knew was cut out for the best in life--
only to find out she's married some total jerk and is completely mired in
a miserable life." On “Some Fun Now," Hiatt has put a new twist on one of
his favorite themes: What Price Glory? “'Some Fun' is really 'Slug Line'
part two. It comes from personal experience-- what it's like to hover at
the edge of success and what it may do or may already have done to me.".
Whatever Hiatt's position vis-a-vis his own. rigorous creative standards,
it's obvious the guy's not looking back. A pause, another Marlboro, and he
plunges into some speculation on the future. "This album marks an end of a
certain kind of songwriting for me,” he explains. "I'm trying to get out
of certain song structures. I hope to get my lyrics even more pared down,
the idea being that, by simplifying, you ultimately get something more
weird; maybe I'll call the next LP Plain Talk,” he muses.
Hiatt's already way ahead of himself, out beyond the rehearsal studio, the
interview, even All Of A Sudden. It's kind of scary really, as when he's
asked to sum up his feelings. on the long-player in question. “it's the
first album I’ve made that's not an overall disappointment." he states. At
the thought of a John Hiatt LP that would totally satisfy its creator, the
"AII Of A
Sudden" was surely an ironic title. By the time John Hiatt's fifth album
was released in 1982, he'd been making records for eight years, toured as
a member of Ry Cooder's band, written songs for other artists from Conway
Twitty to Three Dog Night and been branded the new Elvis Costello.
Into the bargain, he'd also been signed and dropped by two major record
labels - which is how in the early 80s he came to sign for Geffen Records,
whose flamboyant, fast-talking head man, David Geffen, promised fame and
glory to match Hiatt's already considerable critical acclaim.
As part of this game plan, Tony Visconti, legendary producer of David
Bowie and T Rex, was brought in to add a glossy production to Hiatt's
roots-based sound and, hey presto, the results were - all of a sudden -
meant to make him a household name.
Of course, it didn't quite work out like that. More than 20 years later,
John Hiatt is one of popular music's great cult figures. But the big
commercial breakthrough that AII Of A Sudden was meant to herald has still
pretty much eluded him. Instead, he has built an enviable reputation as
the 'songwriter's songwriter' revered by his fellow musicians and
connoisseurs alike. Which, let's face it, is not a bad place to be.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1952, Hiatt's strongest early influences
were the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. After playing in a succession of
youthful garage bands, he moved to Nashville in 1970, working as a
songwriter and performing in local clubs until he signed his first
recording contract with Epic, who released his debut album, "Hang in'
Around the Observatory" in 1974. It was followed a year later by
"Overcoats" before Hiatt headed west and relocated to Los Angeles. There
he became good friends with Ry Cooder, playing rhythm guitar in his
touring band and playing on his 1981 album Borderline.
In the meantime, Hiatt had also signed to MCA, who released his third
album "Slug Line" in 1979. The record cemented his reputation not only as
a songwriter of rare insight into the human condition but for
uncategorisable genrehopping between guitar rock. gruff troubadour ballads,
off-kilter country and potent folk-blues. It was followed in 1980 by "Two
Bit Monsters" a sharp collection of guitar tunes accompanied by his most
acerbic lyrics yet and which had the critics making excited comparisons
with Elvis Costello.
Yet sluggish sales resulted in him 'being dropped a second time, before
Geffen decided to pick him up and give him the makeover treatment. His
first album for the label was “AII of A Sudden" and it marked a dramatic
departure. Backed by Jesse Harms on keyboards. James Rolleston on bass,
and Darrell Verdusco on drums, the techno-pop production values Visconti
brought to the record arid the new wave synth sounds predictably appalled
some of his
die-hard fans who regretted the abandonment albeit only temporarily - of
the gritty fusion of American roots styles that had characterised his
Yet listening to All Of A Sudden today, the quintessential qualities of
Hiatt the consummate singer-songwriter are still self-evident.
The sound is undeniably pure 80s., Yet, on one level. the glossy
production merely serves to illustrate how adaptable and illuminatingly
vibrant Hiatt's songs are, capable ,of transcending any musical setting.
Which also explains why his songs have covered by everyone from Bob Dylan
to Iggy Pop via Bonnie Raitt and Dr Feelgood.
The album's best-known two songs are probably the opener, "I Look For love"
a knowing dissection of the dating scene, and the much-anthologised "My
Edge Of The Razor", which still ranks as one of the finest song Hiatt has
ever penned. But the rest are almost as memorable, with Hiatt's dark
humour fully operational on "Doll Hospital," his social observation as
acute as ever on "The Walking Dead" and his classic loner's' perspective
pungently expressed on "Getting Excited." Yet needless to say, chart
success once again proved elusive.
After "All of a Sudden" came 1983’s "Riding With The King" with a cast
that included Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack. The title track was later
recorded by Eric Clapton and B. B. King, who adopted the song for their'
collaborative 2000 Grammy-winning album, which shared the same title. The
release of Hiatt's third and final album for Geffen came in 1985 with
"Warming Up To The Ice Age" (also available on lemon Recordings as CDLEM
8), by which time he was having 10 deal not only with his own alcoholism
but with the tragedy of his second wife's suicide. Then, to add to his
woes, Geffen lost patience and he was unceremoniously dropped again.
After a spell in rehab, Hiatt next signed to A&M, where he called on old
friends Ry Gooder and Nick Lowe as the backing band on his 1987 album,
"Bring The Family" It was followed just a year later by 1988's excellent "Slow
Turning" helmed by Glyn Johns, whose production credits incJuded The
Rolling Stones, The Who, The Eagles and countless others. In the early
90’s Hiatt formalised his loose but long-standing association with Cooder
and Lowe in the band Litlle Village, which released one self-titled album
in 1992 before Hiatt resumed his solo career with the 1993 album
"Perfectly Good Guitar", featuring guest performances by the Jayhawks and
John Hiatt has carried on releasing fine albums at regular Intervals ever
since. He transferred yet again to EMI/Capitol for 1995's "Walk On", Then
two years later came "Litlle Head". More prolific than ever, the new
millennium opened with “Crossing Muddy Waters" and was followed by 2001's
"The Tiki Bar Is Open" and, most recently, 2003's "Beneath This Gruff
Over a recording career lasting 30 years, 'John Hiatt may not have become
the household name that" All Of A Sudden" was meant to make him. But he
has' become one of music's most respected elder statesmen whose trenchant
observations on life and love place him among the most powerful
singer-songwriters of his generation.