Ignored Obscured Restored
Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor Michael Paquette. This is Michael’s 8th SotW essay since 2020.
John Hiatt grew up in the Indiana cornfields as the sixth of seven children in a Roman Catholic family. When he was 9 years old his brother committed suicide and two years later his father died after a long illness. He took up the guitar at the age of 11 and began listening to blues, Elvis, and Bob Dylan.
At the age of 18, he moved to Nashville where he became a staff writer for Tree Publishing. One of his recordings, “Sure As I’m Sitting Here”, was recorded by Three Dog Night and became a hit (#16) in 1974. As a solo artist, he first worked with the Epic label before moving to MCA and then recorded four albums with Geffen Records in the early eighties until they dropped him because none of them charted. When financial problems drove him out of Nashville and out on the road, he became influenced by the edgy music of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello.
His dependence on alcohol and drugs nearly ruined his career until he was offered an opportunity by Andrew Lauder, who ran the British label Demon Records in association with Elvis Costello and his management. Andrew promised him he would put out any album he recorded and asked him who he would like to work with. Hiatt replied Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe, never imagining they would accept the invitation. He returned to Nashville and worked with those two artists. Given only four days in the studio to work together, he managed to cut one of the finest albums of his career — Bring the Family (1987). He finally had a minor Billboard hit with “Thank You Girl” (#27). Bonnie Raitt brought some attention to the album by including “Thing Called Love” on her multi Grammy winning album Nick of Time (1989).
The song I chose from this breakthrough work is “Lipstick Sunset”. A song, like many of his works, that is about heartbreak and lost love. Ry Cooder lays down a terrific slide guitar accompaniment on this recording.
This is a song about how love is hard for the artist. He sings:
And Lord I couldn’t tell her
That her love was killing me
By the end of the day
All her sweet dreams would fade
To a lipstick sunset
The song continues and it appears that he ”can only see as you take away the light.” And then it seems that he left his lover waiting, and calls out:
So hold me in the darkness
We can dream about the cool twilight
Til the dawning of the day
When I make my getaway
To a lipstick sunset
It is uncertain whether the lovers will meet or part. Maybe another day.
A prolific songwriter, many of his compositions have been covered by other artists. “Have A Little Faith In Me” was covered by Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton, Jewel, Mandy Moore, and Bon Jovi. But “Lipstick Sunset” remains solely his own. He breaks it out in concert on rare occasions. Having seen him a few times over the years I would say that his shows remain some of the best I have ever witnessed. His storytelling is captivating and his rapport with his audience makes it a pleasure to attend.
In 2000 and 2001 Hiatt recorded two albums with Vanguard Records — Crossing Muddy Waters and The Tiki Bar Is Open. These two albums were critical successes and earned him Grammy nominations. Like “Lipstick Sunset”, all of Crossing Muddy Waters was recorded without a drummer. It is a raw and spare album with elements of bluegrass brought into his Americana sound. He has had considerable artistic success and he is highly respected in the industry but has never enjoyed commercial success beyond what he achieved with Bring the Family.
Enjoy… until next week.