If you believe the old adage that you can judge people by the company they keep, singer-songwriter John Hiatt comes highly recommended indeed.
By his side Thursday night on stage at the Roxy were three of the most respected figures in rock: guitarist Ry Cooder, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Nick Lowe. Their credentials include sessions and/or tours with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and the Rolling Stones.
So it's a tribute to Hiatt--a veteran musician whose critical acclaim has always been far greater than his commercial success--that the three agreed to back him on his new album ("Bring the Family") and at the show--a private event that was part of A&M Records' 25th anniversary celebration.
The musicians punctuated Hiatt's songs masterfully. Cooder's soulful guitar licks infuse a song with the sense of character and history that are contained in the pages of our finest Southern novelists. The musicians brought a rowdy roadhouse spirit to "Memphis in the Meantime," a playful "grass is greener" number, and projected the lonely anguish and alienation outlined in "Alone in the Dark."
Remarkably, Hiatt's most gripping moment came when Cooder, Keltner and Lowe left him alone for an impassioned version of the key song from the new album. "Learning How to Love You" is a tender and endearing statement of love from the point of view of a man who has never been able to express that feeling. At the end of the show, Hiatt did another solo number and the theme was again love: "Have a Little Faith in Me."
For anyone who prizes passion and craft, those solo moments were moving. For those familiar with Hiatt's history, however, they were even more telling.
Hiatt has frequently been described by critics as the Elvis Costello of American rock--and it wasn't just because of the quality of his songwriting and the intensity of his singing. He, too, was an angry young man.
Hiatt's cynical and even vindictive songs frequently dealt with such matters as romantic manipulation and betrayal. So it took a moment of adjustment Thursday as he sang song after song about the virtues of such wholesome and traditional values as family and love.
"I think it is pretty much due to changes in my life the last two to three years," he said of the new tone in his music. "There is a lot more me in these tunes than there has been. I think (the old songs) had a lot to do with my alcoholism and fear. I think I was too afraid to let anybody get close to me and at the same time, I wanted everybody to love me. That's a terrible conflict.
"This album was really much more of an attempt to speak from my heart rather than from my head," he continued, sitting in a Hollywood restaurant the day before the Roxy show. "That clever stuff that (critics said) I was so good at. But I don't (disown) the old stuff because I think a lot of that stuff, ironically, was very accurate.
"I didn't know it at the time, but there was a lot of me in those songs. A lot of the times when I was pointing a finger at someone or putting them down, it was me I was pointing the finger at and putting down."
"It was either stop or die."
Hiatt, 35, chuckled aloud at the seriousness of his words as he described his almost 20-year struggle with alcohol, and a somewhat shorter involvement with drugs.
"It's a funny thing with alcohol," he said. "It served me well for many many years. . . . (It helped) me go from being a fat kid who always felt less than everybody else to getting up on stage and singing my songs. I got into music real early--when I was just 11--and I started putting bands together by the time I was 13.
"It was painful for me to get up in front of people because I was so fat, but then I discovered alcohol and when I drank I wasn't fat anymore. I was cool."
Unhappy at home in Indiana, Hiatt headed for Nashville before finishing high school to pursue rock 'n' roll. He made a couple of eccentric but critically acclaimed albums for Epic Records before moving to Los Angeles, where he put out a series of LPs for MCA and Geffen Records. They, too, were cheered by critics, but largely ignored by radio programmers and consumers.
The fat had long since disappeared by the time Hiatt settled in Los Angeles in the late '70s, but the alcohol dependence hadn't. A lot of the anger in the songs came straight from his life.
"When I was drinking and drugging, I completely subscribed to the tortured artist deal," he said. "You know the old story. . . . All writers drink and all artists suffer, therefore I must drink and suffer. I'm sure that affected the kind of songs I was writing."
Three years ago, he realized that he had to stop. His body told him it was time. "Funny enough, the doctor had warned me six months prior to my stopping that if I didn't stop, I'd probably be dead by the time I was 40.