[This is first in a series of pieces I will be writing on American singer/songwriter John Hiatt, whose enduring songs have a way of speaking to the listener in profound ways.]
The songs on John Hiatt’s 1988 masterpiece Slow Turning possess an unending capacity to arrest my brain in a singular mood of reflection, fascination, and of course really bad attempts at hitting those soulful, yearning high notes that only Hiatt can truly wail with a hillbilly intensity rivalling that of Hank himself.
I recently realized after buying a vinyl copy of this album and reading the liner notes that my favourite producer, British genius Glyn Johns (The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones), produced this (and Hiatt’s next record Stolen Moments – another favourite). This explains the continuity of sound and direction throughout this monumental series of songs, the most incredible of which is Track 4 on Side 1: “Icy Blue Heart.” First of all, this song has always been an easy sell to me because it’s in 3/4 time. I’ve always found ballads to be extra-potent in 3/4 time. As a songwriter I’ve utilized this time signature myself on a few songs, including one that many tell me is their favourite, called “Your Voice” from the Brothers in Stereo album. There’s something about the way it pushes and pulls that accentuates an emotional lyric so eloquently.
I’ve always liked “Icy Blue Heart” from the time I heard Newfoundland singer Sean Harris doing it in a St. John’s nightclub back in the ’90s. Harris has the range to do it justice. Of course, possessing a very limited range and shaky intonation, I’ve always appreciated a vocalist who could professionally yet emotionally perform a great ballad. Over the years I’d hear the song now and then, but other Hiatt material had always superseded it for me: “Dust Down a Country Road,” “Back of my Mind,” “You Must Go,” and others.
This Christmas my wife surprised me with a turntable (my old one was broken by household movers and as yet not replaced). I went to Fred’s Records to take a look through the vinyl, and I found a tattered copy of Slow Turning for $10. Getting home and throwing it on, I was brought back in time to the ’90s when I was a bachelor living alone, writing songs like a factory worker, and listening incessantly to all the great Americana songwriters: Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Towns Van Zandt, and of course Hiatt. In 1990 I bought Stolen Moments and saw Hiatt in concert at Barrymore’s cabaret in Ottawa. The show remains in my top five concerts of all time.
Over the last few weeks, Slow Turning has become my “shower” album – rattling the speakers on blistering volume while I scrub away and win imaginary arguments. Of course the inconvenience of vinyl had me at one point streaking naked with a face full of shaving cream across the carpet to put the needle back to “Icy Blue Heart.” The more I listened to this song, the more I realized the amount of elbow grease that had gone into its creation and fruition. First of all, the intro is uncharacteristically strummed on an electric guitar instead of the traditional choice of acoustic. On a Hiatt record, everything is supporting the lyric. Therefore, repeated listens made me realize that the staccato tremolo and trebly tone of the electric matches the frigid imagery throughout the song. It also supports the emotional ambivalence of the couple as they talk in a bar:
She came onto him like a slow movin’ cold front
His beer was warmer than the look in her eyes
She sat on a stool, he said, “What do you want?”
She said, “Give me a love that don’t freeze up inside.”
He said, “I have melted some hearts in my time dear
But to sit next to you, Lord, I shiver and shake
And if I knew love, well, I don’t think I’d be here
Askin’ myself if I’ve got what it takes.”
To melt your icy blue heart
Should I start?
To turn what’s been frozen for years
Into a river of tears
“These days we all play cool, calm and collected
Why, our lips could turn blue just shooting the breeze”
But under the frost, well, he thought he detected
A warm blush of red and a touch of her knee
He said, “Girl, you’re a beauty like I’ve never witnessed
And I’ve seen the Northern Lights dancin’ on air
But I’ve felt the cold that can follow the first kiss
And there’s not enough heat in the fires burning there.”
For the whole first verse all we hear is the loosely-strummed electric and Hiatt’s delightfully nasally, reverb-drenched vocal. For the second verse, the drums and bass come in with a mix of gentleness and authority. This sparseness carries through the first chorus, which sets up the intro to the second verse where we hear virtuoso Sonny Landreth’s tasteful bottleneck slide. Landreth punctuates the whole second verse, weaving underneath Hiatt’s poetry and infusing it with shiver-inducing emotion. If that’s not enough, Bernie Leadon shows up in the third verse with his chugging mandolin. Both he and Landreth intertwine under the second chorus, displaying a mutual respect for each other’s style of instrumental expression. This is popular music arrangement at its very best, under the watchful eye of Johns and executed by veterans accustomed to injecting their magic into an already-great song and pushing it into the emotional stratosphere.
This lyric is on par poetically with anything I’ve ever taught as an English professor. I often impress on students the power of contrasting language, and in the first verse we get expert examples right off the top. “She came onto him, like a slow moving cold front.” Coming on to someone is usually expressed in terms of warmth and speed. Hiatt flips it around, using ominous weather to symbolize the interaction. He follows it up with an image of a cold beer in the man’s hands, which all of sudden appears warm in comparison to her cold, unfeeling eyes.
The man is faced with a woman who’s been hurt so much that she’s been “frozen for years.” When something is frozen, it’s in limbo. It’s sometimes dead. It doesn’t have any circulation. It is shut down. This is not a adolescent break up. This is very much an adult hurt, the kind that changes people’s lives and often dictates their fate. Hiatt sets up a man who’s questioning whether he’s “got what it takes” to melt the layers of ice that separate (and also protect) her from the pain of romance. The “river of tears” that the man is endeavouring to induce is the torrent of repressed inner turmoil. Hiatt sings, “These days we all play cool, calm, and collected. While our lips could turn blue just by shooting the breeze.” This is assumedly spoken by the man, but it’s also pointed at the listener by the songwriter as a commentary on modern romance and the tendency of people to keep their cards close to their chest. But then he follows up these lines with the best ones of the song: “But under the frost, well, he thought he detected a warm blush of red and a touch of her knee.” Using the warm “red” to counteract the cold “blue,” Hiatt starts to tip the scenario in favour of the thaw. “The touch of her knee” is a specific, magnified image that makes the listener picture the couple getting closer as they talk – eventually touching knees under the bar. Lyrical magic.
In the third verse the man gives her a compliment on her looks: “Girl, you’re a beauty like I’ve never witnessed, and I’ve seen the Northern Lights dancin’ on air.” The beauty of the Northern Lights in a freezing cold climate has always been a great juxtaposition, and Hiatt uses it beautifully here. Following it up with a line about the coldness of a first kiss, he articulates the fear of rejection a person can experience before going in for that kiss. The nature of the first kiss always speaks volumes about the feelings of the recipient. The last line of the third verse works in several ways. When he sings, “There’s not enough heat in the fires burning there,” is he referring to the man or the woman? Probably both. There’s not enough in her to sustain the heat needed to thaw the ice, and he may not have enough in himself to thaw it either. He seems unsure whether not he even wants to attempt it. Like many great songs, we are left to decide for ourselves what happens. Are they able to melt the ice? Is it just a brief encounter that leads nowhere? It doesn’t matter. Hiatt’s goal is to place the listener right there on the bar stool next to the couple and observe the fused exchange. Some of this dialogue could be internal, some could be spoken aloud. Either way, it’s an expertly crafted song that does its job of capturing a common human experience.
Those who minimize the importance of imagery and metaphor in song lyrics are missing a key component in the enjoyment of popular music. Those who love John Hiatt love him for his uncanny ability to paint a scene so vividly with words that we are compelled to listen over and over as the genius unfolds line after line. It’s been years since I’ve repeatedly put the needle back to a track on a turntable, much less mid-shower or mid-shave. Although I have to admit, as I write this I’m taking advantage of the “repeat” function on my Ipod as the song plays over and over. I do need to shower right now, though, so I think I’ll switch back to the turntable, set up Track 4, and turn it up loud enough to be heard through the shower curtain. Plus, the falsetto in the chorus sounds way better bouncing off the bathroom tiles as I act like I’ve got what it takes to sing this song with authority. No one’s home, so perfect.