Friday, November 10, 2006
In September, 1971, I was a freshman at Windham College in Putney, VT. Not very happy, didn't really know anyone, was in the middle of a slow but painful break-up with my girlfriend.
One weekend, I got a call from my friend Michael, who worked for a company that supplied the sound equipment for most of the rock concerts that were produced in the New England area. He was coming to Windham to do the sound for a Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen concert and wanted to know if I would help him out. Which I was, of course, happy to do, since it meant I could hang oout backstage and act cool. (Even if it was a Commander Cody show, and I was definitely moving from a hippy, San Francisco/Allman Brothers thing to a Velvet Underground/Stooges/Alice Cooper thing.)
So Michael showed up Saturday afternoon in a big truck with the PA, and I met him and we unloaded the equipment into the student union, and then hung out while the Cody band sound checked. While that was going on, a slight wiry-haired guy wandered into the studen union with a battered guitar case and a little Fender VibraChamp amp. I asked Michael who that was and he said that it must be Tim Hardin, the opening act.
I had heard of Tim Hardin; I knew of him as a 2nd generation New York folkie, but I don't think I'd heard any of his songs. I knew he'd written "If I Were a Carpenter," which had been recorded by both Bobby Darin and Joan Baez. But I didn't know he also written "Reason to Believe," and "Misty Roses," and "How Can You Hang On to a Dream?" and "Black Sheep Boy" and "Lady Came from Baltimore" and "Red Balloon."
Hardin went and sat on a metal chair in the corner of the backstage space (which was just a curtained-off area to the side of the stage.) He kept his head down, didn't speak to anyone, just sat there. Even in the midst of the Commander Cody band's stoned vibe and hippy-commune antics, he remained completely isolated.
At the time I didn't know about Hardin's drug problems. I don't even know if he was high. All I remember thinking is that he was a very sad, lonely person. I remember being puzzled by that, because I thought of performers as incredibly cool and therefore incredibly lucky. But at the same time, I had had enough experience with both sadness and loneliness to feel a certain amount of empathy with him.
I don't really remember his performance, although I have the feeling it probably wasn't very good. (Turns out he suffered from stage fright.) It certainly didn't make me go out and buy a Tim Hardin album. But the image of him, isolated and miserable, haunted by demons I didn't know but could imagine, has stayed with me ever since.
It wasn't until 20 years later, when I bought a greatest hits compilation, and then a couple of years later a live album, that I began to appreciate his songwriting ability, and to make a connection between that small sad man sitting on a chair waiting to go play for an unappreciative audience and the performer who so profoundly expressed that sadness in his songs.
Tim Hardin's songs bridge the gap between folk music and its antecedents - blues and country - and American popular songwriting, with it's roots in jazz and European lieder. (It's no accident that the two most popular covers of "If I Were a Carpenter" were by the leading folksinger of the time - Joan Baez - and the 50's pop idol who most resembled a throwback to Frank Sinatra - Bobby Darin.) At the same time, they are entirely personal. Once you listen to his versions of his songs, it's impossible hear them as anything but Tim Hardin songs, no matter who sings them.
Tim Hardin - Misty Roses
Okkervil River released an album called "Black Sheep Boy" this year. The title song is a great cover of Tim Hardin's song.
Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy
Tim Hardin last released an album in 1973. He died of a drug overdose in 1980.