..."it's just the Wreck Of The Barbie Ferrari."
My little self-imposed alphabetical-by-artist sojourn through my CD collection that began in late January is now well into the H’s, and I’m up to my man John Hiatt, one of the dandiest songwriters you’ll ever hear. "Beyond soulful", as his one-time cohort Nick Lowe once deemed him, Hiatt is one of the most underrated people in the music biz. Let me put it this way: anyone with the balls to incorporate amoebas and porcupines into the same song ("Thing Called Love") and make it work is a better man than I am...
Big John’s first taste of success was way back in the nether year of 1974 when Three Dog Night had a minor hit with his composition "Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here". He bounced around for a while in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s trying to find his niche (with varying degrees of success) and began to hit his stride musically in the mid-to-late ‘80s, ironically while his personal life was falling apart. John’s long battle with alcoholism, coupled with his first wife’s suicide in 1985, might well have done him in, but he sobered up and emerged with the most creative period of his career, which lasted through the mid-’90s. Lowe co-produced John’s 1983 LP Riding With The King, and the two reconvened for 1987’s Bring The Family, which was a turning point for Hiatt in his career. That album featured the lineup that would later become the short-lived supergroup Little Village, with Lowe on bass, Ry Cooder on guitar and Jim Keltner, the greatest session drummer in Rock history this side of the legendary Hal Blaine.
John’s signature song "Thing Called Love" appeared on BTF, and was later successfully covered by Bonnie Raitt, royalties from which would subsequently "keep fresh tires on the tour bus," as Hiatt would quip onstage, as did the Jeff Healey Band’s version of "Angel Eyes". BTF also featured the nostalgic "Your Dad Did", plus another signature track, "Memphis In The Meantime." John’s next album, 1988’s Slow Turning was even better, with standout tracks like "Drive South" (also a hit for Country singer Kelly Willis), "Paper Thin", the title song, and "Tennessee Plates", all about two small-time crooks on the lam who break in to Graceland and steal one of Elvis’ Cadillacs ("…anyway he wouldn’t care—hell, he gave ‘em to his friends!").
I first came to know John Hiatt’s work via the self-titled 1992 Little Village album. I got that CD mostly to hear what Nick Lowe had to say, but it was Hiatt who handled most of the vocals therein, and his gentle good humor was evident to me right away. The following year, JH released his finest album of all, Perfectly Good Guitar, and I’ve been a convert ever since. I must have played that tape from start to finish at least four times during a lengthy 1994 road trip—it was that good. PGG came out during John’s really edgy period, which echoed some of the stuff you heard on the radio from alternative bands at the time, and the writing on it is top-notch, including songs like "Something Wild", "Loving A Hurricane", "Buffalo River Home", "Permanent Hurt", and the awesome title track where John sings, "Oh, it breaks my heart to see those stars smashing a perfectly good guitar..." Obviously he ain’t too keen on the likes of Pete Townshend or Paul Stanley!
It’s hard to describe John Hiatt’s music because he’s dabbled in so many different styles over the years—folky acoustic stuff, straight-ahead Rock, a little country twang, some calypso even (one song he did in 1982 even sounded kinda techno-pop!), but I guess you could say that he’s kind of a cross between Jim Croce and Jimmy Buffett, with a little Bruce Springsteen edge and Bob Seger growl mixed in. And like Croce, Hiatt excels at story songs and character portraits like "Tennessee Plates" (see above), as well as "Rock Back Billy", all about a struggling guitar player who "took a gig playing bass for Sonny & Cher/He took it on the chin, but never got it off his chest/He wouldn’t be caught dead wearin’ that vest!" Another song that almost takes you to the actual scene is "Icy Blue Heart", all about a lonely jilted woman looking for true love at a bar: "She came on to him like a slow-moving cold front/His beer was warmer than the look in her eyes…" John has a way with words that is incredibly descriptive, and perfectly-tinged with humor too.
Many of his songs are about real life in general, and John is outstanding at getting to the heart of the matter about emotions and such, yet does so in such a colorful way. A prime example is "Permanent Hurt", all about those inevitable times when you get burned by someone else: "What is that fallin’ out of your eye?/What is that rollin’ on down your shirt?/Thunder and lightning from the bloodshot skies—this time it’s gonna be a permanent hurt." Another poignant one is the Little Village track "Don’t Think About Her (While You’re Trying To Drive)", which features beautiful guitar work from Ry Cooder. "Buddy, you’ll be alright…" John reassures this poor guy who’s broken-up while pining for his ex-girlfriend who has moved on.
Then there are times when John goes a little loco, like on my favorite Hiatt tune of all, "The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari", a humorous look at a beleaguered family man who’s been pushed to the edge and wants to end it all, but doesn’t have the guts. "Wreck" also features Cooder playing the sitar (credited as "Ravi Oli"), which enhances the overall trippiness of the song. Songs like 2002's "The Tiki Bar Is Open" and 1995's "Shredding The Document" also display John’s slightly-warped side.
This dude belongs in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame too, but I won’t bother going down that road again at this time…
My All-Time John Hiatt Top Five:
1) "The Wreck of The Barbie Ferrari" (1993)
2) "Tennessee Plates" (1988)
3) "Perfectly Good Guitar" (1993)
4) "Rock Back Billy" (1990)
5) "Permanent Hurt" (1993)