Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tim Hardin

My first exposure to Tim Hardin came on my second weekend at Windham College in Putney, Vt, in the fall of 1971. I was a miserably lonely freshman with no friends and nothing much to do. A friend of mine, Michael, who worked for a sound system company that rented out PA's for concerts throughout New England, called me that Saturday and said he was doing a Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen show at Windham that night, and did I want to help him unload, set up and then hang out. Which, given my lack of friends and feelings of isolation, I was happy to do. (If for no other reason than that all the other students who seemed to have easily slipped into collegial familiarity with their dorm- and classmates would see me hanging out with rock stars and be very envious.)
Michael arrived in his rental truck full of PA equipment and we began to unload. He mentioned that Tim Hardin was opening the show. I was vaguely aware of Hardin as a New York folkie who had written "Reason the Believe," the flip side of "Maggie May," Rod Stewart's huge hit the year before, as well as Bobby Darin's comeback hit, "If I Were a Carpenter." (I guess I was a music geek even back then.)  But honestly I could just as easily have confused him with Tim Buckley, who probably had more FM cred at the time.
Commander Cody and his band and hangers-on arrived and immediately started partying. I had seen them a few years before at a People's Park benefit in Berkeley, CA, but I was moving away from  that 2nd generation Bay Area hippy music, and I was mainly interested in them because there were a couple of very pretty, long haired, long dress-wearing hippy chicks floating around blowing bubbles and smiling beatifically. (Cody himself was an overweight, mustached man who didn't say much and didn't dance very well)
Sometime after Cody and his band arrived, while Michael and I were pushing speakers around and uncoiling cable, a slight, shaggy-haired, slope-shouldered guy slipped through the back door, carrying a guitar case and a small Fender amp.  He didn't speak to anyone, just walked by us, and then up the stairs to the performer's dressing area in a roped off section of the student union. I figured that was Hardin, but he didn't make that much of an impression. I went back to plugging in powers cords.
Later, after we had finished, Michael and went upstairs to the dressing room area. Commander Cody and his whole entourage were at the far side of the room, laughing and partying. Hardin, clearly separating himself from everyone else,  sat in a folding chair near the stairs, leaning over his Gibson SG, which was plugged into his Fender Vibrachamp amp, softly strumming chords, not looking at anyone, not saying anything, obviously feeling dark and miserable.
That image of him has been frozen in my mind ever since, if only because, wallowing in my own loneliness-induced depression, I believed I understood perfectly how he was feeling.  I  wish I had spoken to Hardin at the time, but I didn't. Way too shy, and frankly, his obvious misery was so palpable it created a negative force field around him that screamed, "Stay away!"
I don't remember his performance at all, but I've held onto the picture of the sad, pinched face rock star hunched over his Gibson SG ever since.  He seemed to me to be the epitome of the haunted, tortured artist, and I'm sure I subconsciously adapted a bit of that into my own attempt at creating an artistic persona in the years that followed.
Given my fascination with what I observed about Hardin that night, I'm not sure why I didn't listen to his music. It probably had something to do with my dislike of anything that smacked of the singer-songwriter. I was angry that James Taylor and Carole King and Cat Stevens were riding high, and I took great pleasure in skewering them any chance I got. I was into the Allman Brothers and the J Geils Band, and headed rapidly towards Lou Reed and the Stooges and Alice Cooper.
So while that snapshot of Tim Hardin the artist stayed with me, his music remained unknown. And I went my way, eventually dropping out of Windham and making my way to NYC to become part of the '70's punk movement. Hardin remained a touchstone, but only for what he represented.
It was no surprise to me when I read, some years later, that Hardin had died of a heroin overdose. I was saddened to hear the news, especially since I had already taken a few steps down that slippery slope, but not surprised.
Fast forward more than 15 years, and I read an admiring review of a Tim Hardin greatest hits package. The critic pointed out that Hardin had written some of the greatest songs of the previous 25 years.: "Reason the Believe," "If I Were a Carpenter," "Lady Came from Baltimore," "Red Balloon," "Black Sheep Boy," "How Can We Hang On to a Dream?"
I bought the compilation and  quickly realized that Hardin was indeed a brilliant songwriter. (Not to mention a moving, expressive singer.) Listening to his songs unroll, one classic after another, led me to the conclusion that Hardin deserved  a place in what Stephen Holden and others call the Great American Songbook, along with songwriters like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
A few years ago, one of my favorite American indie bands, Okkervil River, released an album called Black Sheep Boy, which opened with a very short version of that brilliant Hardin song. This only reaffirmed Hardin's current relevance. The song fit perfectly with Okkervil River's post modernist take on family, love and (un)happiness.
In many ways, Hardin is America's Nick Drake, without the sympathetic fan-based hype. Both Hardin and Drake were intensely shy, intensely private, intensely (I think) unhappy men, whose outlet for their misery was their songwriting. Drake's imagery was more poetic and mythic, while Hardin's writing reflected his love of American blues and Southern folk songs. But ultimately, the power of the music is the same.
My image of Hardin, going back to that Saturday night in 1971 remains, still clear and still tragic, but it's now buttressed by the evidence of his songs, painful and beautiful in their stark honesty.
I highly recommend any one of the several compilations of Hardin's music. Rather than posting any of his songs here, I put together a mix of covers. I've always felt that you can tell a lot about the quality of a song by the nature of the different versions that have been recorded. In this case, the covers run the gamut, from the Carpenters to Okkervil River. It upsets me a little that most of the covers date back to the 60's and '70s. Still that doesn't detract from their power to shine a light on the genius in the songs themselves.
The Mix:
Tim Hardin Cover Mix

The Playlist
1. Hang On to a Dream  - The Nice
2. Black Sheep Boy - Okkervil River
3. If I Were A Carpenter - Bobby Darin
4. Reason to Believe - Carpenters
5. You Upset the Grace of Living Whe...  - Heidi Berry
6. The Lady Came from Baltimore - Scott Walker & Reg Guest
7. How Did the Feeling Feel to You - Karen Dalton
8. Don't Make Promises - Beau Brummels
9. You Got A Reputation - The Byrds
10. Reason To Believe - The Dillards
11. If I Were a Carpenter - The Four Tops
12. Black Sheep Boy - Scott Walker & Reg Guest
13. Red Balloon - Small Faces
14. Misty Roses - Colin Blunstone


Anonymous said...

Nice, but sad, story.
I was living in London in '75-76 and Tim H was playing in a pub not too far away. I REALLY wanted to go, knowing he probably wouldn't be around much longer (it was that obvious). My girlfriend persuaded me not to. I still regret it. Much more than I regret losing the girlfriend.

Anonymous said...

I've been listening to Tim Hardin for a year or so, and each song just reinforces my idea that he was so underrated. You could tell he was full of troubles, yet wisdom as his songs kind of got more depressing over time, which is sometimes what made them great.

Anyway, It really saddens me because I have a similar demeanor as the one you described, so knowing that he never got the credit he deserved, and that drugs lead to his demise is a shame...

Raymond Bally said...

Great story! I love Tim Hardin. Playing an SG wow? Never seen a picture of him with an electric guitar. Incredible voice. Is this photograph from that gig?