The blog Saidthegramophone asked me write this piece in 2005. I’m republishing it from them, with some edits, on the anniversary of Hardin’s birthday.
Because Black Sheep Boy, the most recent record by my band, is written around a Tim Hardin song and occasionally references Hardin’s life, I’ve been asked many times this year to hold forth on the topic of Tim Hardin. People have questioned me about the connection between our record and Hardin during interviews, or they’ve requested that I explain what specifically and in detail what about Hardin and his music inspired Black Sheep Boy. These are annoyingly difficult questions to answer because I’m not sure that I have any straightforward answers, or that I could even explain what the connection is. Interested fans, on the other hand, merely want to know what Tim Hardin records to buy. This is a much easier question, so I’ll answer it first:
Buy Tim Hardin 1 and/or Tim Hardin 2. They’re available individually on vinyl and together on several different CD collections. From Polygram you can also buy a decent and very affordably-priced no-frills CD entitled Reason To Believe (The Best Of), assembled almost entirely from Hardin’s first two records. Both of these collections contain little-known Hardin gems alongside Hardin’s original versions of songs that other artists covered and made famous.
These famous songs were my first exposure to Tim Hardin, and I knew them long before I knew the name of the man who’d written them. I knew them mostly in covers by artists whom I thought of as a little cheesy, like Bobby Darin, with his hit versions of “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Lady Came from Baltimore,” or the insufferable (I thought at the time*) Rod Stewart rasping “Reason to Believe.” When I heard Hardin’s original versions, though, I found that had a different spirit than those covers. Their arrangements were largely acoustic and elegantly simple, mixing the earnestness and earthiness of singer-songwriter folk with the sophistication of cool jazz artists like Chet Baker. And Hardin’s voice – though possessed of a tremolo quality that’s different from what’s in style today** – was startlingly intimate, emotional, and direct. Hardin’s music transported me to the same tender, warm little world that I associate with artists like Nick Drake and Van Morrison, and I realized that both of these artists were probably in fact deeply influenced by Hardin and his then-famous, jewel-like little songs. (These days, Van Morrison is a legendary figure and Nick Drake has achieved a posthumous fame as perhaps the definitive treasured cult songwriter, but Tim Hardin’s revival has been slow in coming.)
As I listened to Hardin’s first two records over and over again, I also started having that weird proprietary feeling that I get towards Drake and Morrison: no matter how famous their music is, I have this odd and comforting sense that each time I cue up the record they’re singing just for me. I became obsessed with Hardin’s songs on Tim 1 and Tim 2, with the halting, jazzy rhythms of Hardin’s acoustic guitar playing, with the economy of the language in his songs, and with their swooping, lyrical string arrangements (though it turns out Hardin never wanted string arrangements on Tim 1; they were added without his permission and reportedly he wept angrily when he heard them). At first, my favorite Tim Hardin song was “It’ll Never Happen Again.” Then, it was “Don’t Make Promises,” and after that it was “Misty Roses.” But before long I became especially obsessed with the song “Black Sheep Boy,” with its mysterious lyrics and darkly confident theme, which, as far as I could figure out, could be summed up thusly: “I know I’m fucking up – leave me alone.”
One night on a stop along a particularly draining solo tour, I spent the night on the bedroom floor of Chris Swanson, the co-owner of our record label Jagjaguwar. Before going to bed, I scanned briefly through Chris’s CD collection – spanning floor-to-ceiling the entire wall next to my sleeping bag – and I came across a Tim Hardin box set. I already loved Hardin’s music but I didn’t know much about his life, so I started flipping through the liner notes and I learned that Hardin had written “Black Sheep Boy” while visiting his family back in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. During the visit, an old friend offered heroin to Hardin, an ex-junkie who had been clean for several years. Hardin started using again and, as I understand it, didn’t really stop until 1980, when he died of an overdose.
In 2003, I was trying to make my rent working as a video store clerk in Austin, TX. Our store was located right next door to a porn shop and the guy who night-managed the porn shop was a friendly, genial musician. He’d spent much of the 1970s and 1980s as a touring musician and a session guy, doing everything from big arena tours to European specialty gigs with lesser-known footnotes of 1960’s surf rock, and, it turned out, he’d done some session work backing Tim Hardin near the very, very end of Hardin’s life. Thrilled that I’d encountered someone who’d met Tim Hardin, and wanting information that might eventually help with Black Sheep Boy, I pumped him for information about what Hardin’s personality was like during the sessions. He answered, “Man, I couldn’t even tell you. He was just really gone.”
The song “Black Sheep Boy” appeared on 1967’s Tim Hardin 2. It was the third track, sandwiched between “Red Balloon” and “Lady Came from Baltimore.” “Lady Came from Baltimore” was a love song – one of the simplest, purest, and more affecting love songs you’ll ever hear, written about Hardin’s new wife Susan Morss, who is referred to as “Susan Moore” in the lyrics. “Red Balloon” could also be described as a love song, though, the object of Hardin’s affection wasn’t Susan Morss, but heroin:
Bought myself a red balloon and got a blue surprise –
hidden in the red balloon, the pinning of my eyes.
You took the love-light from my eyes. Blue, blue surprise.
We met as friends and you were so easy to get to know,
but will we see each other again? Oh…I hope so.
The sleeve for Tim Hardin 2 contains my favorite picture of Hardin, seen through the window of his house with Susan Morss to his right. Morss is pregnant with her and Hardin’s first and only child, Tim Damion Hardin. Tucked inside their cozy little house in Woodstock, NY, Morss and Hardin look so wholesome and so happy.
After Tim Hardin 2, both the quality and the quantity of Hardin’s songwriting began dropping off noticeably. Tim Hardin 3 was a sloppy but fiery live record; after Tim 4 Hardin took a two-year absence and then began work on a home-recorded concept album. Entitled Suite for Susan Moore and Damion – We Are – One. One, All In One, this very ambitious piece was supposed to be Hardin’s testament of his enduring love for his wife and son, a sort of album-length sequel to “Lady Came from Baltimore.” However, Hardin’s escalating drug use and increasingly unstable mental state caused Morss to leave him in the middle of it, taking Damion with her to L.A.
Suite for Susan Moore and Damion – We Are – One. One, All In One is an unbearably sad record, and its sadness comes not from contemplation or from clear-eyed and hard-won wisdom but from how empty Hardin’s pronouncements on romantic commitment and fatherly love ring. There’s a sense of despair to the album, but deeper than that there’s a sense of disconnectedness, not just of Hardin from his message but of Hardin from his muse and maybe from himself. It’s one of the most enervating records I’ve ever heard, full of directionless melodies, words that seem vulnerable and sincere but that barely add up to anything, vapid noodling, songs that strain to mean everything and end up meaning less than nothing. Here and there, though, Hardin stumbles onto lyrics as great as in his heyday, as in “Magician,” when the clouds seem to part and Hardin presents the listener with what’s probably a warped self-portrait:
You should see the troubles that he goes through
to free his house from sin.
Magic wands and weapons together in a room…
Maybe the best answer I could give to the question of why I decided to make a record somewhat inspired by Tim Hardin is that, if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have had the amazing opportunity to meet Tim Damion Hardin, Hardin’s only child.
A few months after Black Sheep Boy came out, I was stunned to receive an e-mail from Hardin’s son; he had heard through the grapevine about our album and he’d ordered it off the internet. Then he’d looked up our website and found a contact address. He and I e-mailed back and forth a little bit; he seemed really excited that there were younger musicians out there making music that referenced his father. When he saw that our next tour would take us through Florida – where he currently lives and works as a painter – we agreed to meet in Orlando. I put him on the guest list and, shortly before we sound-checked, this stout and friendly-looking and soulful man in a florid green shirt walked up and introduced himself to me.
I was startled at the ways in which Damion Hardin (he has dropped the “Tim”) resembled the pictures I’d seen of his father, and I was shocked to realize that – for as much as Hardin’s music had naively convinced me that in some way I knew him – in the heat of my fandom and my abstract appreciation of Tim Hardin’s story I really hadn’t seriously considered Tim Hardin as a real human being. Now I was faced with evidence of Hardin in the person of a man who not only resembled him but who had loved him and struggled with his legacy as a human and as an artist in ways far more serious and meaningful than I had.
It wasn’t too long into our conversation that Damion and I discovered that we’d spent a significant portion of our lives living only a handful of miles away from each other. Susan Morss was from Vermont, not Baltimore, and after she’d permanently separated from Tim Hardin she moved back up to the Northeast with Damion, and he enrolled in high school in Hanover, New Hampshire. My father was an administrator at Hanover’s Dartmouth College and my family lived two towns over – about a 20 minute drive away – in Meriden, New Hampshire. Hanover was my favorite haunt; the only town nearby with a cool video store, a real coffee-shop with passionately inept art on the walls, a movie theater that would occasionally show foreign films. I had friends who went to Hanover High. During a sizable period of my life, Tim Hardin’s son lived a short jaunt down the road from me and I hadn’t had any idea.
On the subject of his father, Damion Hardin speaks with the kind of wisdom that betrays an entire life in the cool long shadow of those classic recordings, stung by ghastly stories of his father’s heroin abuse and by harsh judgments on Hardin’s later work – like my verdict on Suite for Susan Moore and Damion… – filled with a kind of bitter disappointment in Hardin’s failings as a father that I could only imagine, warmed by stray memories of Hardin’s kindness and love that I could never be privy to, possessed of an understanding of Hardin’s drug addiction that comes from decades of battling serious drug problems himself (he’s now been successfully clean and sober for eight years).
As it happens, my parents are friends with one of Damion Hardin’s high school teachers, another thing I only found out after I’d released Black Sheep Boy. When my mother told their friend that I’d met Damion Hardin, she expressed her surprise before adding, “Well, I’m glad to hear that he’s still alive.”
Talking to Damion before that show in Florida, I found that he even had somewhat of a sense of humor about his father. I mentioned that Hardin seemed, in the Woodstock documentary, like perhaps he on something; his son looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Ya think?” Before long, though, the jokes got grimmer. Damion told me that his mother had told him stories about when Hardin and Lenny Bruce roomed together that were too disturbing to repeat. “Drugs ruined him,” he added, matter-of-factly.
I agree with Damion that drugs ruined his father’s work. We too often associate drugs and heavy drinking with wild creativity, but in the case of Tim Hardin – and in many more cases than I think people realize – all of his great work was done in spite of drugs, not because of them. Drugs ruined Tim Hardin as an artist, and they ruined him as a human being. Still, as he makes clear in “Black Sheep Boy” and, as I guess is part of the point of our record of the same name, that was his choice.
When Lenny Bruce died, Hardin wrote a song for him, and included it on the live album Tim Hardin 3. It’s called “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” or, alternately, “Lenny’s Song,” and it’s one of Hardin’s longest and loosest songs of the period – stretching to six minutes where most of Hardin’s songs barely exceeded two, and rambling and sloppy where most of Hardin’s songs were tight and concise – but, unlike Suite for Susan Moore and Damion…, every second of “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce” throbs with vitality. Driven by a dirge-like waltzing piano, the song circles and circles around itself, sounding like, with every go-round, it’s drilling deeper into, and cracking through, a new layer of Hell. Hardin repeats in constantly more anguished tones his tribute to his beloved drug buddy, alternating Dylan-influenced lines like “and Honey Harlow, gypsy burlesque queen / how did she know you needed morphine?” with more direct language like
I have lost a friend and I don’t know why,
but never again will get we get together to die.
Why, after every last shot, was there always another?…
You kid, those teardrops glisten – I know it’s hard to listen.
The song pounds and pounds at you and spins around itself interminably, a funeral march soaked though and dripping with pain and sympathy. Maybe too much sympathy. Definitely too much.
Of course Hardin sees himself in Bruce, but he’s not strong enough to recoil, to keep there from being, after every last shot, always another. Through the song, he seems to reach out to the fallen Bruce with the understanding and the indulgence of someone who’s falling faster and faster himself. Appropriately, even this relatively rare song of Hardin’s has been covered by another artist: Nico, who obviously saw herself in Hardin seeing Bruce, and who felt, maybe for both men, all the tenderness that someone unable to repent can feel.
Damion Hardin also told me that, when he was a kid and still living with his father and his mother in the little house in Woodstock – out of whose window Tim and Susan peered happily on the cover of Tim 2, before Susan left, before Damion lost track of his Dad for awhile, before Suite for Susan Moore and Damion – Nico stopped by one day for a recording session. I love Nico. I’m curious about what she was like, what the session was like, and I asked him about it. He answered, “Man, I couldn’t even tell you. All I remember was her arm.”
*I no longer think that.
**When I wrote this piece, a voice like Hardin’s was very much out of step with what people – especially in the “indie” world – seemed to want out of male vocalists. That has changed. I’m not sure why. I think people became less suspicious of “beauty” in men’s voices. But Matt Berninger reminds me quite a bit of Hardin, and Hardin’s style is not at all incompatible with Antony or with Zach Condon from Beirut.
Originally published on Saidthegramophone, 2005. Edited.