Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pain to the Nth Degree

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

In my 35 years of listening to rock and roll, I have only had four songs literally knock me on my rear end the first time I heard them. All but one of those songs ("Sam Stone" by John Prine, which is just too painful for me to listen to) appear in the "50 songs" project. This song is one of the four.

SONG: Crossing Muddy Waters
John Hiatt
ALBUM: Crossing Muddy Waters
YEAR/LABEL: 2000, Vanguard

I could never have dreamed of being where I am.
(John Hiatt)

John Hiatt is a survivor in many ways. He lives a clean and sober life today after many years of intentional self-destruction. He has done what many great songwriters have done over the years: taken the lessons learned from many years of hard knocks and put them to music, often with excellent results. Hiatt released a trilogy of autobiographical albums between 1987 and 1990 (Bring the Family, Slow Turning, and Stolen Moments) that dealt with the pain of his past, including his alcoholism ("I used to drink a lot in those days, you see," he admitted in the title track, and in "The Back of My Mind" he sang, "I took to a bottle of wine").

Suicide is another pain in Hiatt's past: his brother took his own life, and his estranged wife died in 1985 while Hiatt was completing work on his album Warming Up to the Ice Age and shortly after the birth of their daughter. As with his alcoholism, Hiatt has been forthcoming about that subject as well, dealing with it in the Stolen Moments gem "Thirty Years of Tears." That pain also comes to the foreground in one of the greatest songs, not only of Hiatt's career, but of the new century, the title track from his Grammy-nominated 2000 acoustic album Crossing Muddy Waters.

Hiatt wrote the song with incredible symbolism and in such a manner that one unfamiliar with his personal history could interpret the song as about a runaway mother instead of a deceased one. However, it is obvious that something is amiss in the story with the opening line, "Baby's gone and I don't know why." The chorus emphasizes this fact: the woman who has gone has "left me in my tears to drown, she left a baby daughter." The concluding verse tells of a woman seemingly leaving against her will ("crying for her baby child, crying for her husband, crying for that river's wild to take her from her loved ones") instead of choosing to end her life.

Throughout the song Hiatt does not seek to blame the departed soul nor himself for what has happened. Instead, he is looking at the shattered pieces of life around him amid the rotting tobacco in the field and trying to heal the "bitter heart" of the second verse.

For the past 23 years Hiatt and wife Nancy have enjoyed domestic bliss (as evident by the fact that Hiatt once said, "Every love song is for my wife"). His decision to revisit one of the most horrible moments of his life must have been a painful one, but the exorcism of a demon of his past resulted in an exceptional masterpiece. If you only listen to one song on the rock list, make it this one.


The entire Stolen Moments album -- the third album of his autobiographical trilogy deals deeper with the pains of the past (the death of his brother and father in "Seven Little Indians") than the other two albums, but still celebrates the joy of married life ("you know it's a dirty job but we're still living it and loving it" he sings in "One Kiss") and sobriety (as he proclaims in the title song, "These days the only bar I ever see has got lettuce and tomatoes").
"Lipstick Sunset" (from Bring the Family) -- a beautiful song with a lovely visual opening ("there's a lipstick sunset smeared across the August sky") that is one of the many highlights from the Bring the Family album.
"Tennessee Plates" (from Slow Turning) -- showing off his great sense of humor, Hiatt weaves a tale of a man and his girlfriend who go on a cross-country crime spree in order to steal a Cadillac from Graceland.
"The Night That Kenny Died" (from Slug Line) -- Hiatt has more in common with the late Warren Zevon than an escape from the bottle: he also shares Zevon's wickedly morbid sense of humor. That is on display in this great rocker about a booger-picking nerd who becomes a hero after his death in a motorcycle accident reveals another life that his high school classmates knew nothing of.
"Something Broken" (from The Tiki Bar is Open) -- a goregous lost-love song that conveys the pain of separation so realistically that Hiatt said fans were asking him if his marriage was on the rocks.
"Perfectly Good Guitar" (from Perfectly Good Guitar) -- Hiatt stands up to the guitar-smashing rock (and country) musicians in this song that says any performer who destroys his axe should be locked up "with no chance of early parole, you don't get out until you get some soul." You go, John.

Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

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