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HIATT TIME FOR A CHANGE : This Rocker Journeyed Inward and Came Out a Winner

September 13, 1990|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POP MUSIC CRITIC

"I'm the kinda fella needs a second chance," John Hiatt sings in the title song of his latest album, "Stolen Moments."

It's not a plea for mercy, but a happy, forthright declaration. Hiatt desperately needed a dispensation a few years ago, and life handed it to him, for reasons the veteran rocker doesn't claim to comprehend.

Stories of decline and redemption, of second chances seized, are always gratifying. But the way in which Hiatt, 37, has puzzled out the arc of his life over the course of his three most recent albums has been special.

Hiatt's tools were always impressive. His knack for the sharp lyrical phrase and the catchy melodic hook earned him considerable respect in the songwriters' guild. Elvis Costello has lavished praise on Hiatt and recorded a duet with him, and tunesmiths as accomplished as Bob Dylan, Rodney Crowell and John Doe have covered his songs. More recently, Bonnie Raitt, with "Thing Called Love," and Jeff Healey, with "Angel Eyes," have had big hits with Hiatt songs.

The new wrinkle that Hiatt introduced, starting with "Bring the Family" in 1987, and continuing with 1988's "Slow Turning" and now "Stolen Moments," was a fresh subject: himself.

Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Nashville, Hiatt said it's a subject that he tried for many years to avoid.

"It seems like I spent a lot of time prior to these last three records not willing to do that at all," he said of his turn toward autobiographical song writing. "I didn't want to look at myself, and I didn't want you to look at me, either. I hit a point where I needed to check out just who the hell I was, period."

Hiatt's 1985 album "Warming Up to the Ice Age" told a great deal about the state he was in then. Songs like "The Usual" (the one Dylan recorded a few years ago for a movie soundtrack) described a desperate character so used to dosing himself with booze that the bartender doesn't even have to ask him to name his drink--he'll have the usual.

"Zero House" was a harrowing curse of a breakup song that wallowed in spite and self-loathing as Hiatt assessed a shattered relationship, concluding that it had never amounted to anything in the first place: "Nobody lived here, no woman, no man. Just a couple of flies, circling a garbage can."

Before the spiral ended, Hiatt's wife had committed suicide. But the spiral, and his drinking and drug abuse, did end.

"I don't know why some people wake up and go, 'Oh,' and other people go all the way to the grave," Hiatt said. "Divine intervention. Certainly nothing that I earned. Anyway, that was then and this is now."

Far from letting the past go, though, Hiatt has explored it over his troika of post-recovery albums.

There's a sense of the past being pieced together, considered, and examined for its present implications.

At times, Hiatt raises the fear that the worst of his past might still lurk about, threatening to reassert itself. "It'll Come to You," from "Slow Turning," comes wrapped in a humorous, gruff R & B package that's akin to Randy Newman's style. But the chill is there:

Now you're happily married with a wife and kids of your own,

But sometimes in the closet at night you can hear them rattlin' bones

Takin' bets on on your future and your current postal zone.

It's a spooky equation, but check yourself out, Jack,

You're the great unknown.

With his new album, though, Hiatt sees a way to use the past constructively, as an inspiration, rather than as a hovering threat.

"Listening to Old Voices," a lovely elegy that sounds like an up-to-date reunion between Bob Dylan and the Band, is sung from the perspective of a maturing artist who trusts in his increasing ability to understand what's gone before.

Now is it true we are possessed by the ones we leave behind,

Or is it by them we are inspired?

It's a new light, new day, listening for the meaning, learning how to say

It' s a new place, but you've always been here

You're just listening to old voices with a new ear.

"The past is always there until you deal with it," Hiatt said. "I think your actions in the past can very much and very easily come back to haunt you, that what you resist persists. If you're running from something, you better believe it can catch you. Once you make peace with it, you can draw strength from it."

Often, past and present overlap in Hiatt's songs. Memories of childhood give way to observations about a more hopeful present in which he strives to fulfill the responsibilities of being a husband and a parent (Hiatt is married again, to a woman who inspires him to write fervent love songs. They have a 12-year-old son and two daughters, ages 6 and 2).

Judging from the affirmative, sometimes ebullient tone of songs such as "Real Fine Love," "The Rest of the Dream," and "One Kiss," the warmth of the hearth has taken booze's place as Hiatt's tonic. But Hiatt also isn't afraid to confront the chill that lingers in his memory.

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