John Hiatt
Published July 15, 1979


Our Milwaukee Summerfest visit continues at the ungodly hour of 10:30 Sunday night. To the Peaches rock stage . . . Peaches, a record store chain, paid for the lakefront area set aside for high-decibel music. The seating consists of rows of plank bleachers. The stage is not much bigger than the front porch of a Fond du Lac square [house]. . .

Finally, the band's equipment is tuned and balanced. A local FM disc jockey announces the object of my six-gas-gallon trip: "Ladies and gentlemen, John Hiatt."

The "ladies and gentlemen" who give the California recording artist a rowdy, warm welcome, number a few hundred. Summerfest promoter Bob Babish, in his white 1930s hat, leans against the backstage fence. mouth agape. Babish, as much a fan of Hiatt's Slug Line album as I, is stunned at the wide expanse of empty planks.

Maybe Hiatt doesn't notice since the audience has already jammed to the front and is standing on the dozen bleachers in front of the low stage. 

Waves of Music

Summerfest's advertising has billed John Hiatt and band as "New Wave rock." Wow, New Wave! Visions of electric chimes, laserized harps, and robot backup singers must have filled ad readers' heads.

But what's this? Why, the instrumentation appears to the Classic Foursome: three guitars and a set of drums. In the after-concert interview, Hiatt would easily admit to the definition, "good Old Wave rock."


The singer strides quickly to the microphone. The music begins as the Slug Line album begins. Two fast chords shoot from the giant speakers. "You Used to Kiss the Girls" is off and running. I am surprised to see so many in the audience mouthing the words to a cut from an album barely in the Top 100. Those unfamiliar with Hiatt's music are either transfixed or bopping on their planks. I see people frozen in the acts of lighting cigarettes, talking to friends or beginning a cough. Thirty seconds into the performance, the headliner has won his audience.

The singer/guitarist, the bassist, the lead, and the drummer ramble through most of the LP songs. Peppered into the repetoire are compositions for their next recording session: titles and melodies characteristically fresh, like "Pink Bedroom" and "New Numbers."

Up to showtime, I had wondered if the polished energy of the record would lose anything translated live. It doesn't. Hiatt and band dress plainly, by modern rock standards. There is no purple smoke, no eight-inch tongue, no smashing of instruments. The energy is in Hiatt's eye contact and eye rolls (see photo). It's in the drummer's excellent timing. 

It's in the defiant concentration of the guitarists and in their fret-to-fret "shootouts." And, of course, there is electricity in the music itself.

The performance "ends." The four 'bandsmen stagger toward their dressing trailer. But the audience of hundreds makes the encore demands of thousands. Sweating and exhausted, Hiatt calls to the other three: "Hey, let's give it a shot. We owe it to 'em!" Two encores later, the band seems to be out of material. They play "Kiss the Girls" again and pull the plugs on their amps. 

An Inner View

For little old Earwaves to scoop every other Wisconsin newspaper with a John Hiatt interview seems peculiar. I suspect the Journal and Sentinel gang is lying in wait at the after-midnight Peaches party. Nevertheless, the only writers gathered at the Hiatt trailer door are two women from a small Chicago music paper and yours very truly.

There are slight delays. The burned-out band members need a few minutes' recuperation time. And a Milwaukee artist named Peter Paris (with beret!) wants to finish a sketch of me. He has a son who played on Slug Line.
 
Hiatt pops open the trailer door and invites the three press persons inside. Seated or reclining on the jammed-in sofas are amplifiers, guitars and the sleeping son of bassist Howard Epstein. Epstein is a Milwaukeean. So is Danny Schmitt, the drummer. It is immediately revealed that, with Hiatt and lead guitarist Steven T., this band is just two weeks old. 

I won't say they sound like they've been playing together for years, but it is certainly a surprise. No wonder they ran out of tunes. The days between the album's April release and tonight have been crucial. As you read this, they'Il have completed a one-week West Coast tour with Ian Hunter. The next recording session [for Two-Bit Monsters] will be in late November. In between is a European tour. 

Stacks of Wax

First question: Have you been getting many double encores? Caught off guard. Hiatt hesitates, then beams, "Yes. I guess we have." So much for cheery, opening questions. Time now for, Are you disappointed with the album's sluggish sales start?

"Yeah, I am, a little. I'd really expected it to be doing better by now. It's too early, though, to start blaming the promotion, the advertising, yet. Cash Box has it at 140 or 130, so it's headed in the right direction."


On the 45 release, "Radio Girl:" "I'm convinced it's a hit single." When one of the Chicago women and I suggest that
other Slug Line cuts are superior; Hiatt retorts,
"Well, maybe. But I don't think AM [radio] would
ever touch something like 'No More Dancing.' "

The other Chicagoan agrees by launching into the verse with "all of you idiots are dancin' with the BeeGees."

We learn that John Hiatt was, at first, "terrified of playing onstage." He started out as a Nashville lyricist. His cure for that terror? "Just play clubs 11 out of 12 months for three
years," he chuckles.
 
I quote him from the record company's bio sheet: "The album sounds great over a little, tinny speaker, so I'm pleased."
 
Does that imply that your real fantasy is to become a Top 40 idol, rather than an FM cult figure?

Another not-oft-asked question, evidentally. He hesitates again, smiles sheepishly and replies: "I think so. And I don't see anything wrong with it, really. To me, a good song is one that pops right out of your car radio; gets you going. But who knows? Maybe I'll be on K-Tel by January."

A few quick specifics. He writes most in the morning. The obtuse 'Washable Ink" was inspired by a roof leaking on a friend's handwriting. Hiatt will be 27 on August 20. I ask what I think to be a technical question. For a moment, Hiatt becomes a little boy. The question is, How do you create atmosphere in your caribbean songs?

Softly, but immediately, he answers, "I just imagine it." 

Adios
After handshakes and goodbyes, he stops me with: "Hey, I wanna thank you for your [Slug Line] review. I read it a few weeks ago, you know."

I risk asking, "Was I really off on anything in it?"

"Well, 'Madonna Road' takes place in L.A., not
some island somewhere."

I defend my column, but only momentarily. It is
Monday morning, the sky is black, the freeway
calls.

-----

Twenty-one albums later, John Hiatt continues his successful career. His latest LP is  Here to Stay.

Photos by Joe Kowalski

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