If September 11 had not happened, had not gone down the way it did, I probably would have spent many hours of the following days and weeks listening to Bob Dylan's new CD. Yet I haven't really felt much like listening to any music. As it is Love and Theft is the only CD I've been in the mood to play of late. Music tends to connect me with things both inside and out. I'll be the first to admit to being guilty of what Carl Frie's heartbreaking article chastised last week- being numb to the tragedy of it all. The most prevalent feelings I've noticed through the numb people around me are fear and anger and helplessness rather than compassion.
Maybe it was the distance, not knowing anyone directly killed or injured in the attack, maybe it was all too big to comprehend, but I don't think it all sunk in until I watched David Letterman's first show back when Dave gave such a moving account of the mood of New York City, the town he has had so much fun making fun of the past 20 years. To see him so saddened, so stunned by it all made me cry for the first time. Then there was the celebrity telethon held last week with a wealth of good music performed- it really touched a place inside reserved for the expressions of art.
So kinda lost in the mix was the fact that one of my other all time favorite artists also released a new CD on September 11. I finally got around to buying it last week and unfortunately it is a major disappointment.
I admire John Hiatt as a writer because he has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry- all in the same sentence. I admire his performing ability because despite being an artist whose songs have been covered by a myriad of artists, none of the covers quite express the mixture of family, love, inner demons and fears, cynicism and pure joy as effectively as Hiatt himself. His work over the years has been consistently rewarding yet his new CD, The Tiki Bar is Open fails to ignite much of a spark or connection inside.
It's not as if the music is bad, indeed Hiatt is working with his old band, the Goners, for the first time in a dozen years and the sound is impressive (particularly the playing of guitarist Sonny Landreth). But none of the songs linger, resonate and remain like Hiatt's best work. The weakness of the new material is demonstrated by the fact that probably the most memorable song of the set, "I'll Never Get Over You" was written eight years ago and has been performed live on occasion since then.
Hiatt is a master craftsman who has a stunning number of great songs in his catalog. Yet the new CD sounds totally crafted and by the numbers and it lacks any palatable inspiration. We do get a glimpse into his songwriting prowess with the song "All the Lilacs in Ohio." Hiatt said the song's motivation came from one of his favorite movies, Ray Milland's Lost Weekend. That movie of course is a dark look at an alcoholic self-destructive writer but it's a joyful line that caught Hiatt's artistic eye. He recalls the sweet scene in which Milland's character is talking with Sam the bartender about his true inspiration:
"You take her home. She goes up to her apartment and opens her window and waves goodbye. You notice the way the light hits the gray of the drainpipe on the side of the building. Or she's supposed to meet you the next day for lunch but she can't come and she sends you a little note. You open it up and it smells like all the lilacs in Ohio."
In Hiatt's hands the scene is translated- "You pin her handkerchief to clean white linen sheets/And you unmake the bed and crawl in/You imagine her there and you're tangled in her hair/And she smells like flowers again/And it's springtime and you are just a boy..."
I was listening to the song in a cubicle with a broken chair outside of the office of a person who I had forgotten I had gone with to see a Hiatt concert a few years back. I so wanted to like the CD, I so wanted the music to be memorable so I could remember that exact wondrous moment of where I found myself and who I was with but it wasn't to be. She came out of her office for a moment and grabbed a handful of caramel covered popcorn from a bag in my cube, and I had to admit to her that the CD was nothing special.
Perhaps the most sterling song of the set is the title track which shows Hiatt's cutting wit along side some expressive playing by Landreth. It's a somber song that is a nice reflection of the times we are living in. "I was driving by his majesty's court hotel/Where the sign said praise his name/I was tired and alone, I couldn't see too well/But I don't think that he was to blame..."
The workmanlike Tiki Bar is Open is a reminder of just how great Hiatt's last CD, Crossing Muddy Waters was. That CD's smoky acoustic blues was a powerful personal statement from an artist who specializes in those. The disappointing follow up lacks not only the intimacy but the power of Crossing Muddy Waters and the customary mastery of much of Hiatt's other work.