What did Bob Dylan do when we retreated to Woodstock after his motorcycle accident? Well, we know that he wrote and played with the Band, painted and edited Eat the Document, but what else might have been doing? I reckon he was listening to Tim Hardin.
Hardin, a marine veteran who had come back from Vietnam a heroin addict (and dealer; he brought back enough to make himself a tidy sum of money), was signed to Columbia in 1964 but was later dropped and picked up by Verve (best known for their strong jazz roster) in 1965, who released his first four albums, 1, 2, 3 Live in Concert and 4 on their Verve Folkways imprint. On these four records nearly all his best work is contained, and the first record in particular struck Dylan hard enough for him to proclaim Hardin the greatest living songwriter in an interview around 1966 or ’67.
It was an overstatement (anyone who wasn’t Dylan himself or Burt Bacharach or Lennon or McCartney had no business being cited as the greatest living songwriter in 1966), and until recent years Hardin has been reciprocally undervalued – one hears covers of If I Were a Carpenter and Reason to Believe relatively frequently, but Hardin’s own recordings never get played on the radio and he rarely seemed cited as an influence by contemporary writers. He should have been; he has much to teach a young writer. But now it seems that he is getting his due. Smoke Fairies, Okkervil River, Alela Diane and Mark Lanegan all contributed to a recent tribute album, and general interest in Hardin seems higher than at any point I can remember. It’s a little late, but it’s well deserved.
From the covers I’ve heard, though, there’s one, almost intangible, element missing. Hardin wasn’t just a fine writer and singer. He was a great recording artist. He had faith in his songs and felt no need to arrange them elaborately. When one considers the starkness of his work in the context of its time (the psychedelic mid-sixties), it can only properly be considered as revolutionary. Hardin, after all, was not really a folkie but a pop songwriter, albeit one with the confidence to speak quietly when everyone else was shouting. And as stark as they are, his records would have been more sparsely arranged still if Hardin had had his way, without any orchestral overdubs. Only some recording artists can communicate atmosphere (and not being able to do it doesn’t necessarily invalidate an artist’s recorded work); Hardin was a master at it. When I listen to a good Tim Hardin performance (and there are many but I think of Speak Like a Child and It’ll Never Happen Again most particularly), the spatial and temporal distance between him there and then and me here and now are dissolved and I’m there in the room with him while he sings in his sleepy baritone and picks his spare, syncopated acoustic guitar.