The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame should copy the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and give out an Honorary Award for a body of work, basically a combination of consolation prize and apology for never recognizing a great career. John Hiatt had his first song (“Thinking of You”) recorded by Mother Earth (featuring Tracy Nelson) in 1972 when he was 20; 49 years later he released an album called Leftover Feelings. John very well could have been in the R&R Hall of Fame if he only had a few Top Forty hits—and didn’t hit the bottle so much.
After being signed to Geffen Records in 1982, Tony Visconti, producer of nine David Bowie albums between 1969 and 1980, was hired to work his money-making magic on John and finally get him a hit. Hiatt laughingly admitted, “I don’t think I’m capable of delivering. But God bless him for trying. Tony is such a world-class producer. I was just kind of out of it most of the time.”
In author Michael Elliott’s Have a Little Faith, an excellent biography of Hiatt, the singer stated he didn’t even remember making his 1985 album, Warming up to the Ice Age. Its producer, Norbert Putnam, noted: “He made that record and he was great on it but he said, ‘Norbert, I was drinking a quart (of vodka) a day and you never knew.’ And I didn’t know. He certainly never appeared inebriated in any sense. So he took a vow that he wouldn’t drink again.”
The two wake-up calls that made him change his drinking ways were spending two days in jail for drunk driving, and the suicide of his estranged wife, Isabella, a year after giving birth to their daughter Lilly. Just as he was getting his life together, Geffen Records, tore up his recording contract, something that MCA Records had done five years earlier.
But what John couldn’t do for himself, he did very well for others, writing hits like Three Dog Night’s “Sure as I’m Sitting Here” ( #16 in 1974), Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love,” and “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” for Roseanne Cash (#14 on the Country charts). He adapted his “Riding With the King” for B.B. King and Eric Clapton, and “Something Wild” as snarled by Iggy Pop.
His steady success was something that songwriter-singer, Marshall Chapman, a contemporary of John’s when both lived in Nashville in the early 1970s, once could not envision. She recalled in her autobiography, They Came to Nashville: “Hiatt was writing songs with titles like ‘We Are Hungry for the Magic Christ,’ ‘I Killed an Ant with My Guitar’ and ‘Since His Penis Came Between Us,’ and quite frankly, I didn’t know what to make of him.”
But in 1994, one of the Indianapolis native’s songs made the world sit up and notice when Jaime Lee Curtis stripped to her skivvies and sexily danced to his “Alone in the Dark” in the film True Lies. Jaime Lee recalled appreciating Hiatt’s body of work: “There was no rehearsal, there is no choreographer. Jim [director Cameron] said to me, ‘What do you want to dance to?’ It was when John Hiatt’s ‘Bring the Family’ album was out and I said, ‘There’s a song called ‘Alone in the Dark’ that has this really funky rhythm. I really like that song.’ And that’s what they played.”
Bring the Family, which has been praised as Hiatt’s best album, was made after Geffen Records told Hiatt his services were no longer required. Indeed, John’s recording career looked to be dead in the water only for England’s Demon Records to enthusiastically put up $30,000 for a new album. In an interview with Rocky Mountain News, Hiatt joked that Demon would release an album “if I farted in a bathtub.”
Four years later, Hiatt and three stalwart musicians who played on this classic LP regrouped to form the group Little Village. The LA Times’ Jean Rosenbluth succinctly summed up the one-and-done career of this super-group: “Little Village’s new debut album adds up to less than the sum of its parts: Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe.”
Today, John, who has composed over 600 songs, is still going strong. He noted, “I’ve always written songs, whether I was making records or not. I’m good at working by myself; it’s therapeutic.”
Indeed, heartbreaking events of his life have been fodder for his songs. His brother Michael, a gambling addict who worked for their father, killed himself when John was eleven. John explained, “The story is that he had my father’s payroll and he went out and gambled it all away.” Michael’s death may have inspired the Johnny Cash-like opening line to John’s fantastic “Damn This Town” tune: “They killed my brother in a poker game.”
Hiatt and his long-time band, The Goners, performed at the New Orleans Jazz Fest on May 6, 2023, proving that you can’t keep a great singer/songwriter down. Long may he rock.
Photo: John Hiatt (Getty Images)