I’ve been a John Hiatt fan ever since I saw the cover of Slug Line in a record store in 1979. The oddball facial expression on the cover – gaunt, haunted, intense – was only outdone by the song titles. “Sharon’s Got A Drug Store”, “The Negroes Were Dancing”, “The Night That Kenny Died”…how could I not put this on the turntable? The beauty of working in a record store was the ability to move from piqued interest to playing it on the store sound system in under thirty seconds).
What happened next was, to pinch a line from Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship“. I’ve remained a fan thirty years and counting, have seen him in concert dozens of times both solo and with his various bands, and have had his wonderful songs help me celebrate and ponder and grieve and reflect. Although (unlike most fans) I prefer the early albums, the ones whose songs he doesn’t play anymore, there isn’t a record he’s released that I don’t enjoy and savor at some level, and having a tune of his pop out of the speakers always brings a smile to my face.
I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about Mr. Hiatt over time, but I just wanted to set the stage for this first recollection, because only after knowing what he had been through to get there can one appreciate why Hiatt chose to release a record like this at the time.
Here’s my original 1997 review from Consumable Online:
John Hiatt’s life has taken him down some dark roads, the results of which have been captured in many powerful and emotional songs. The earnest pain in such classics as “Have A Little Faith In Me” can only come from that deep well, Hiatt salving his wounds in song and allowing us to voyeuristically share his bared soul. His long and mostly under appreciated career has seen him progress from Midwestern folkie to New Wave “angry young man” (many at the time foresaw him as the American answer to Elvis Costello) acoustic troubadour and everything in between. Even long time die hard fans knew that no matter how good each successive record was, radio didn’t have time for people like John Hiatt, and hoped that the label would somehow give him another shot at the brass ring.
1987 and Bring The Family changed all that, a bonafide bottom-of-the-ninth game winning home run for Hiatt. Newly remarried and finally sober, BTF combined the anguish of a tortured past with the joy of a man finding peace within himself and struck a chord with everyone. His voice had evolved into a unique bluesy timbre; his guitar playing more assured and strident, his songs capturing slices of life we take for granted yet can’t seem to put into words. The world was let in on this great secret that only his fans and peers knew about – John Hiatt was one hell of a songwriter. Subsequent records sealed the deal.
With Little Head, a relaxed and confident Hiatt has probably released his most comfortable – dare I say “fun“? – record, and ironically is suffering a critical backlash because it isn’t stuffed with angst-ridden masterpieces. Imagine the irony of toiling for twenty plus years, finally getting the respect and credibility you deserve, and then having your own “high bar” used against you! As if there aren’t great songs here…check out the lyrics of “Graduated” or the sweetness of “Far As We Go” and “Runaway” and name three people who could write like that. Didn’t think so.
Those surprised by the bawdy humor of the title track must not know Hiatt very well; “Since His Penis Came Between Us” was a staple of his live shows for years. Okay, so it isn’t poetry – so what?
No, there isn’t a “She Loves The Jerk” or “Angel Eyes” or “Faith” on Little Head, but they would seem out-of-place if they were. This record gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “greasy”; thick with Memphis soul and lathered with funk. Hiatt drops numerous audio tips of his cap to the 1970’s, from the Barry White-ish intro to “After All This Time” to the send-Zevon-a-dollar rip of “Werewolves Of London” in “Sure Pinocchio”. All those Spinners and Del-Fonics and War records John heard on the radio have come back out years later in “My Sweet Girl” and “Woman Sawed In Half”.
Dave Immergluck’s mastery of the stringed instrument supports this stylish mix with a sonic potpourri; cat-like moans, fat greasy gee-tars and lilting mandolins among the stew’s best features. “Pirate Radio” is a radio hit that never will be for self-explanatory reasons; ditto “Sure Pinocchio” and its horn-powered killer refrain. But Hiatt fans are used to savoring his best moments away from the airwaves, and thankfully there are enough fans to allow him to indulge his muse. This is Capitol’s first shot at marketing John, a marriage he seems to feel positive about because they want to promote his career, not just his record. We’ll see – Hiatt seems to last two to three records at each label, but each time he leaves there’s a bidding war. He’s gone through a few bands also, but seems to have settled on a musical soul mate in Davey Faragher, bassist and co-producer.
Little Head is the sound of John Hiatt enjoying this moment in his life, cruising down the road in that big-ass pink Cadillac, smiling and waving and hoping you can wave back. Let this one grow on you and reap the rewards.