Living Hiatt Off the Hog

When you talk with John Hiatt, it becomes glaringly obvious the man knows how to laugh. A robust and hearty howl almost constantly precedes his answers, as if it's his hammy way of announcing that he's about to speak. Listening to Hiatt's music, it's also evident that he knows when to laugh. Since receiving critical hosannas for his shimmering 1987 album Bring the Family (A&M), Hiatt has established himself as a songwriter on the fringe, a man with a knack for cracking wise at life's little fuckups as a way of putting everything in perspective. And with the just-out Walk On (Capitol), his thirteenth album overall, Hiatt's biting tongue remains firmly nestled in his cheek, although these days he seems less troubled.

In keeping with his track record, the new album seems unlikely to mark a sudden green day for the songwriting veteran, who has been spouting tales of love and confusion for twenty years. After unsuccessful stints at the Epic and MCA labels in the Seventies, Hiatt moved over to Geffen Records in 1982, where he released a series of albums that received minimal notice. During this time, many of his most memorable songs gained attention only because they were covered by other artists. In fact Hiatt's biggest commercial success to date is Bonnie Raitt's cover of his song "Thing Called Love," from her Nick of Time album. It helped propel Raitt to a Grammy-winning fest (Best Album, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the song "Nick of Time," and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for the whole album) in 1990, and left Hiatt walking on clouds. "I went to the Grammys for the first time," he says, speaking over the phone from his home outside Nashville, "and every time Bonnie won -- she won like five times -- they played my song. I was sitting there with all the glitteratti. And I just looked at my wife and beamed. Bonnie did a great job with that song. I was thrilled."

After his frustrating stint at Geffen, Hiatt hopped over to A&M Records in 1987, where he released the celebrated and admittedly semiautobiographical Bring the Family. "I don't know what the equation is," he admits now, "but I'm in there somewhere." Demonstrating a powerful new maturity in his writing, the album was recorded in just four days with the stellar lineup of bassist Nick Lowe, drummer Jim Keltner, and guitarist Ry Cooder. It was a therapeutic outpouring for Hiatt, as he dealt with the themes of fatherhood and married life.

Both a commercial and artistic high-water mark for Hiatt, the album spawned 1989's Slow Turning and 1990's Stolen Moments. Through this trio of records, Hiatt cemented his reputation as a trenchant and insightful songwriter who looked at the world through morose-colored glasses. (Hiatt's rep as a songwriter culminated with a 1993 tribute album, Love Gets Strange, which features Rosanne Cash singing "Pink Bedroom" and Dave Edmunds doing "Something Happens," as well as tracks performed by the Neville Brothers, Jeff Healey, and Nick Lowe.) A dark star was born.

Hiatt remains comfortable with his somewhat twisted approach to songwriting. What often start as jangly upbeat anthems slowly evolve into audio Twilight Zone episodes. For example, on "Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari," from 1993's Perfectly Good Guitar, Hiatt playfully recounts a Sunday morning hangover during which a man blows up Barbie dolls while his wife and kids are attending church. He sings, "He finds them huddled by the toy box/and splatters them all/the Ken and the Midge and the Skipper doll," at which point the song's protagonist turns the gun on himself. On Slow Turning's "Trudy and Dave," Hiatt spins an America's Most Wanted yarn about a young couple's bank robbery spree with child in tow: "Shot up an automatic teller machine/Took the money for the laundry and drove away clean." On Walk On, Hiatt sticks out his red neck on "Ethylene," as he proclaims, "I'm sitting on the toilet with my sunglasses on/wondering what you're up to/This hotel's got bathroom telephones." Meanwhile on the new record's "Good as She Can Be," he sings about a teenage millionaire who married young and was beaten up by her husband, who wanted money and sex.

"That's some sick stuff, huh?" asks Hiatt, followed by that laugh. "I love to do that and have 'em go, 'Oh my God.'" Hiatt gets a charge out of what he terms "getting the piss out," particularly when he's performing live. It seems a sense of humor has clearly gotten him through some difficult times. On 1990's "Stolen Moments," he jokes, "These days the only bar I ever see has got lettuce and tomato."

"Humor is good stuff," he explains. "If you start taking yourself too seriously, and you can't laugh at yourself, well . . ." he trails off. Walk On touches on Hiatt's fondness for talking trailer trash, although it adds another dimension: Its songs were written while Hiatt was on the road trying to get home. "All of the songs on this record seemed to be about movement, and/or longing, displacement, being somewhere and wondering how you got there, or missing someone, all in a stranger-in-a-strange-land sort of vibe. And Walk On seemed to be a good title, like things will work out."

The new album features an array of themes, ranging from poetic injustice to pure Hiatt whimsy. On the exhilaratingly sarcastic tirade "Shredding the Document," with its contagious chorus, acoustic guitar flourishes, and whiny ELO-loaded harmonies, Hiatt steps back with hands on hips and shakes his head in disbelief as he skewers everything from daytime talk shows to the Eagles reunion. Then he riddles the middle of the song with a sumptuous harpsichord solo courtesy of Benmont Tench, a long-time member of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers: "I don't know who killed who/I'm having a sex change," Hiatt sings as he stacks up a random sampling of Montel and Ricki topics. The song began, he describes with a chuckle, as "one of my rants. It was an answer to the premise that these people come on these shows and tell these amazing stories. It's just whacked out." And as for his dig at Henley, Frey, et al.: "I threw that in because they said they'd never get together again, and here they are charging a hundred bucks a ticket."

Elsewhere, the rollicking "Cry Love" finds Hiatt evaluating a friend's relationship with a loser beau: "Throwing up ashes on the floor/If this is a lesson in love/well, that's what it's for." As he explains now, "This guy kinda walked, stomped on her, ripped her heart out, stomped on it, and my wife and I were fond of her and just put up with him to an extent." Finally, "I Can't Wait," a soulful ode to loved ones back home that Hiatt sings with Raitt, wraps up the recurring theme of life on the road.

Hiatt's skill at setting his sometimes caustic lyrics to a panoply of tempos and rhythms continues apace on Walk On. Overall, he never strays too far from the rustic timbre that dominates his recent albums. But here and there he dabbles: You'll hear David Immerglck's convivial mandolin along with Hiatt's own harmonica on the Band-inflected "You Must Go" (with backing vocals by Jayhawks principals Gary Louris and Mark Olson); a little electric noodling on the Ex-Laxic "Wrote It Down and Burned It"; and eerie steel guitar, Platters-like "she-bop-she-bops," and even the sound of some rattling trains on "Mile High," which closes out the album as an unlisted track. "There's really no such thing as a hidden track," Hiatt contends. "It's just a matter of stuffing one down the road a bit. Like a little bonus for the listener that goes searching."

After all this time, Hiatt's happy to be where he is these days, and likens the whole songwriting shebang to taking a picture. "There's therapy in that," he notes. "It alleviates a lot of my insanity. I love it as a form of expression. And I wouldn't know what to do if I couldn't write songs so I can take a picture of them. To look at them and warp them -- that's how I think of it. If I couldn't do that, let's just say I'd be severely bummed.

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