Master of Disaster
There are so many milestones in this life that will push you over the edge from the tail end of youth's enthusiasm and the steadfastness of old age. For me, I thought they would be having a child or buying a house, but no, 4 years down the road from the former and I don't see that my daughter has torn the punk rock merit badges off my uniform. The gray hairs on this cultural head came when I discovered I really like rock-n-roll. And by that, I don't mean punk, or garage or even (gasp) oldies. I'm talking about that nebulous category inhabited by the likes of Tom Petty, Delbert McClinton and the subject of this missive, John Hiatt. I'm not sure that this qualifies at roots-rock, since these guys, all long seasoned professionals, have not particular interest or habit of "keepin' it real." My wife is partly to blame for my interest in this music - early on in the dating process, she looked with an understandable cringe at my record collection and bluntly asked, in not so many words, if I had any good music, and turned me onto a yet another head of the rock hydra.
John Hiatt is one of those names that you've heard for ages, but probably are hard pressed to name a song. He's been covered by everyone from Conway Twitty to Iggy Pop, but listing off those songs would be of no help either. Let's just suffise to say he's one of those characters like Neil Young that has kept at it, producing honest and rootsy music through a variety of stylistic filters regardless of being in or out of vogue. His 2000 acoustic album Crossing Muddy Waters was the one that really turned my head around on ol' John, and though I think his two records since then have been a little uneven, he comes back raring with the slyly devastating and self-deprecating Master of Disaster.
The opening title track, blows in like a desert wind his calm voice intoning
Over there, choking in green underwear
Bleeding tongue, eight ball pounding in my lung
Ship to shore, I can't see the coastline any more
Shouldn't be here. I thought I made that loud and clear.
where you aren't sure if he is talking about soldiers oversea, or is he just as surprised he's still here after so many years on the road. Right there is why John Hiatt kicks ass, he pulls off that mix up we have with ourselves and the rest of the poor saps on the globe with a laugh, without having to be a raging bull or a self-righteous prophet.
His more folky side is given a turn on "Howlin' Down the Cumberland" where me mentions he's "caught like a deer in his own headlights" while his nostalgia gets the best of him on "Thunderbird." I had a friend that had a little band in high school that had a very good axiom. Until you reach a certain age, you are not allowed to talk about Love or the Past in a song. but John has lived enough lives to talk about the subjects deftly, knowing them in a first-name basis. This album is rife with great tunes on the subject, like the Band-like slow burner "When Love Crosses Over" and the vindictive "Love's Not Where We Thought We Left It"
My favorite is the should-be-a-slow-dance-classic "Ain't Never Goin Back" with his voice just gruff enough, the pedal steel swooping just right, but not too much. His voice has a rough hewn blues rasp (without being a cartoon like Tom Waits or that guy from the Screaming Trees now that he's "bluesy") that can say lines like
I see her face at every shitty bar
I have to play to pay for this guitar
I ain't ever goin' back no more
with decided authority. Even his hokier, more corn pone country moments like "Old School" and "Wintertime Blues" make for quality listening. His yelpy voice helps to shave some of the seriousness off his songs, which helps his ease the take "less-cool" moments and wraps his lethal ones in a camouflage, so you don't know you've bitten until after his teeth are sunk in deep. The final song, an acoustic blues-slapstick of "Back on the Corner" seems like a comedy routine about aging blind bluesmen, until he starts to talk about the medication it takes to get up in the morning, how he lost houses and wives and years, you see the character and narrator have had some convergent paths.
John Hiatt is a hard sell on those who still need to have that approval of the cool police. And I can dig that. The beauty of Hiatt and all the other great artists like him is that they persevere for when you grow up enough to latch on. They have never really been all that cool to begin with, and isn't that supposedly the definition of cool in the first place? Who knows. All I know is that this is a great album and everyone I've played it for has loved it, and when you are ready, you will too.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com