Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tim Hardin: Close Enough

Tim Hardin in Colorado with Karen Dalton________

It was 1962, I was that decade's equivalent of a teen runaway, and had just washed up on the shores of New York City. Through peregrinations long since slipped through the dim recesses of time, I found myself living at 417 E. 9th Street in New York City. "417" has since taken on a kind of historic notoriety as ground zero for the nascent hippie movement. It was a basement apartment, chockablock with guitars, autoharps and dulcimers. This late 19th century five story walkup served as a kind of dormitory for performers appearing at Gerdes Folk City, located to the west in Greenwich Village.

At the time I was strictly a jazz guy---MJQ, si, Weavers, nyet! I should have kept my eyes open. It took author David Hajdu and his 2001 book on the Village folk music scene of the 1960s, "Positively 4th Street," to fully open them to the fact that I had been plunked down square in the middle of one of the major cultural and political movements of the century.

Gerdes Folk City was where: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel first tried out their post-Tom and Jerry act; Mary Travers tested her mettle long before there was a Peter or Paul; Joan Baez, while a student in Boston, made her first New York, appearance; and it was where John Hammond first heard Bob Dylan and signed him to a recording contract. It was Gerdes that drove one chronicler of the era to write of: "Young artists. . . strumming their guitars, singing old folk, new folk, old blues, and new blues [who] would become the immortals of the pop music world of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement; their words and music would be the tender conscience of a generation, daring to question the nation's political drift between Hiroshima and the Vietnam debauchery." (Whew!)

All of which might have been true, but most of the Gerdes regulars I knew were at least equally as intent if not more so, on scoring their next kilo of grass. Most Gerdes folk who hung at "417" are long-forgotten, such as Karen (Dalton] and Richard Tucker. One among them, however, became very famous, very fast. A complete unknown when he was living there in the mid-sixties, five years later singer-guitarist-songwriter Tim Hardin, if not quite an international pop star, was famous enough.

"With his sobbing voice and introspective, almost reticent compositions," so goes one internet bio, "Tim Hardin was one of the more memorable singer-songwriters of his day. A cult figure who never really broke through to a wide following, he is now chiefly remembered via cover versions of his best songs, especially "If I Were A Carpenter" and "Reason To Believe."

By the early 1970s, however, his life and career were reduced to rubble due to a daily intake of a substance abuse cocktail of heroin, booze,cocaine and pills. Someone once calculated---factoring in Hendrix, Lennon, Joplin, et al--- that the median age of death of rock and roll musicians was thirty-nine and that is exactly how old Tim Hardin was when he died in 1980.

Tim Hardin never won a Grammy, but if they ever gave a prize for service above and beyond the call of duty to drugs, he would have won the equivalent of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. One night in '62, someone at the local Lower East Side hangout, Stanley's (which has also since come to have taken on some amount of hippie historical resonance) had tried to turn me on to my first grass. But I didn't even get a buzz. Later that night, Tim, recently blown in from Boston heard my tale of woe that I Couldn't Get High, and insisted that he could get me high.

He then proceeded to reach over the requisite Lower East Side tub in the kitchen to the ledge between that room and the kitchen from which he plucked an empty Scott towel roll. This!," he said, "is called a bong." If he had been Mister Rogers, he would have added, "Can you say 'bong"'? He stuck a joint he had just lit up into a hole in the device and proceeded to demonstrate its proper use. Which, as at least two generations of savvy, substance abusing American teens since then are aware of, calls for placing your hand over one end of the roll and then drawing in the smoking that has begun building up in the chamber. Thus, causing the narcotic to blast into the lungs, and speed to the brain. . . well, you know.

After he had taken a toke, Tim handed it to me, and with all the country mouse sincerity I could muster up I said, "Oh, no, Tim, don't waste your drugs on me. There is apparently some sort of chemical imbalance. . ."

Still holding in the precious smoke he had just inhaled, he shook his head negatively, withdrew the bong, and forcefully thrust it at me, miming that I should copy his actions. "Well, if you insist, but it's just a waste of . ..." And with that, I put the crude but highly effective homemade device to my lips, puckered up, drew in the smoke, held it in just like my sensamilla sensei had just demonstrated, and before I had even had a chance to take it away from my lips, ker-blam, I was flat on my ass on the floor. That was the first time I laid eyes on Tim.

Tim Hardin was always very generous with his drugs. Shortly before he died 1980, in a fine example of his ability to varnish the truth to a high gloss, he told a reporter that his management team had stolen 22 million dollars from him during his fast and furious flirtation with fame, circa 1965-1970. The truth was, that the amount he had earned was probably far less than this, and in all likelihood most of the money didn't go into the pockets of his management but into the lungs and veins of himself and various friends and hangers-on.
Tim Hardin was born in Eugene, Oregon on December 3, the same year as me, 1941. When asked about his family, of his father, Hal, he said, "He was a fool," and let it go at that. His mother Molly, was musically literate and had pursued a career in classical music at one time. His father was also musically inclined, but mostly worked at the lumber mill owned by Molly's family. Tim once boasted that he himself had taught musicology at Harvard. Well, ummm. Not bad for someone with just a high school diploma. No doubt about it, Tim marched to his own inner autobiographer.

Perhaps the most well known of Tim's embellishments on factuality, was the one about how he was descended from John Wesley Hardin, the wild west "friend to the poor," celebrated in Bob Dylan's song of nearly the same name, "John Wesley Harding" In fact, Tim was no more related to Robin Hood figure Hardin than the man in the moon.

He oft-averred that he was a "better singer than Ray Charles," and that Brother Ray himself had told him so. More mythomania? Tim once asked me, before he had even gone into a recording studio for the first time, who I thought was a good jazz singer. "Mel Torme," I rather unimaginatively replied, at which point Tim became positively apoplectic; "Mel Torme is not a jazz singer, I am a jazz singer." No question about it, for whatever reason, Tim HATED being called a "folk singer." Blues singer. . .maybe. Today he is still stocked in CD bins as a "folk" artist. In keeping with Tim's wishes, I prefer to remember him as a jazz artist. A perusal of the credits on nearly all of his albums, consisting of a great number of solid jazz musicians ---Joe Zawinul, Warren Bernhardt, Mike Manieri, Gary Burton et al---would lead one to the conclusion that if Tim's albums weren't the real thing, they were as they saying goes, Close Enough for Jazz.


Anonymous said...

I met Tim in 1969, backstage in his dressing room after a one night gig in a bar. His performance, on piano and guitar with just a drummer backing him up, was very powerful. When I went backstage, I found him alone with his face completely buried in his hands. He jolted up and welcomed me, and was very pleased to hear some compliments. The next day I was walking through town, and Tim came running up to me. He said he had spotted me and ran a few blocks to catch up to me. He said he really liked my hat (he wore one like it on his next album). I thought it was strange that a big star like Tim seemed so desperate for some contact that he ran blocks to catch up to a young (18)guy like me. Several years later, I received a strange letter from Tim, scrawled around the margins of pages torn from a Motor Trend magazine on an airplane. He had met a friend of mine in the airport who told him about my encounter with him, and Tim remembered it and got my address from her and wrote me the letter on whatever was available. Tim was a genius as a singer and songwriter. He considered himself a jazz musician more than a folk singer.

A very nice post, Bill.


Anonymous said...

P.S. You got the song titles reversed. Dylan's song was John Wesley Harding, not Hardin. Dylan added the G to the real character's name Hardin, because he thought it worked better in the singing.

Unknown said...

Tim's music eclipses all else said about him. I lived in Woodstock last decade and Tim is still listened to and thought of very highly as a tortured but wonderful artist. In a way he was the Van Gogh of transcendant music around Woodstock and the NY city area back then.