Wow In Music – Thing Called Love
Editor | On 15, Jan 2020
This section of the ezine feels more and more like a Hall of Fame for under-appreciated musicians. We continue the theme this month with John Hiatt, surely one of the greatest American singer-songwriters of the last fifty years. And almost definitely the one that, relative to talent has sold the smallest number of records. That said, in more recent years he has at least become something of a go-to songwriter for some of the biggest names on the planet.
It sometimes feels like there are two songwriters coexisting in John Hiatt’s body, one magnifying his quirky charm and the other swelling his bank account and raising his profile. On the one hand, Hiatt has a propensity for writing incredibly personal songs, brimming with intimate details of his life and populated with his patented brand of challenging phrasing, loping syncopation and breathless lyrical content, all shoehorned into his inventive and accommodating melodies. On the other hand, Hiatt is a brilliantly universal writer with an almost supernatural ability to concoct songs that blend like a chameleon into the set lists of everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Three Dog Night to Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. When Hiatt writes personally, it’s almost impossible to cover him, and when he writes universally, it’s almost impossible to resist covering him.
Bring the Family is John Hiatt’s eighth album. It was his first album to chart on the Billboard 200, and featured his first single entry on the mainstream rock chart with “Thank You Girl”. It features Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass guitar and Jim Keltner on drums. The four would later reform as Little Village and release an album in 1992. “Thing Called Love” later became a hit for Bonnie Raitt, and “Have A Little Faith In Me” is among Hiatt’s most popular songs, although it wasn’t released as a single in America. It’s ‘Thing Called Love’ that gets the nod as our musical wow of the month.
The album was recorded in four days after McCabe’s Guitar Shop booker John Chelew convinced Hiatt that these were some of his best songs. Hiatt was recently sober but had burned so many bridges in the music industry he did not think he had a chance of continuing. He had been dropped by his label and “wondered if I was worth a damn.” Hiatt had played some solo acoustic shows at McCabe’s in January 1987 just prior to recording where he debuted songs such as “Lipstick Sunset,” “Your Dad Did” and “Memphis in the Meantime.”
Demon Records in England still loved his work and had pledged about $30,000 if he wanted to record (“Demon Records said I sing in the shower and they’d put it out,” Hiatt says. He later told the Rocky Mountain News that Demon would release an album “if I farted in a bathtub”). A&M Records in the U.S. eventually picked up the finished disc. Recording was done in Studio 2 of Ocean Way Studios, Los Angeles over four days. These songs were all that were recorded – there were no leftovers or outtakes and Hiatt had to complete a couple of songs in the studio. “I remember Ry walking out the door on the fourth day and me coming after him and going: ‘Ry, I’ve got one more song. Could you stay?’ Literally, we’d done nine and I needed one more,” Hiatt has said. Budgets were so tight that Hiatt and Lowe shared a Holiday Inn room in the San Fernando Valley during the recording sessions. Lowe, an old friend of Hiatt’s, took no payment for his contribution. Chelew’s prediction turned out to be correct. “Bring the Family” is one of the cornerstones of Hiatt’s career, a critical and financial success, and not a Hiatt performance goes by without a generous helping of its songs. Yet another music industry example of triumph out of crisis.
And so to ‘Thing Called Love’, in many ways a simple song, but at the same time a virtual panoply of Inventive Principles. First up the killer syncopated (Principle 2) guitar riff, with its not-quite-disappeared, choked ‘hic’ of a missing note (Principle 22). Then not just one but two middle-eight sections (Principle 1). Then the way the riff becomes inverted (Principle 13) in the latter part of the song. And I’ve not even begun to focus on some of the magic-trickery of Ry Cooder’s acoustic and electric playing. Or Jim Keltner, who – Principle 2 – serves as the no-frills anchor, there to keep everything ship-shape. Or Hiatt’s lyrics. Here’s my (Principle 13) favourite, from the first of the middle eights:
The ugly ducklings don’t turn into swans
And glide off down the lake
Whether your sunglasses are off or on
You only see the world you make
No, wait a minute, it’s this (Principle 37) one, from the second. This, per our discussion last month, is where we hear the real meaning of the song…
Before the laws of God and the laws of man
I take you for my wife, yeah
To love, honour, cherish and obey,
Now, I didn’t have no plans to live
this kind of life, no
It just worked out that way