Tag Archives: Reason to Believe

More thoughts on Tim Hardin

If that title makes this post sound like a sequel, it is – to a piece I wrote four years ago and wasn’t all that pleased with.

Last night I played Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe for an audience. I’ve never performed Hardin’s music in front of anyone before, and I picked it not because I thought anyone would know his version, but because they might know Rod Stewart’s, and Mel and I were looking to leaven a long duo set of our original stuff with a few songs people might know. I mentioned that Hardin’s recording was a smaller, more intimate record than the version Stewart cut for Every Picture Tells a Story, and that I would be playing Hardin’s take on the song, just in case they thought I’d stopped because I’d forgotten how it went.

Many artists who take on Hardin can’t resist the urge to urge to elongate and inflate the original text. Hardin’s songs in this day and age can seem alien – so terse, so concise. Five of the 10 songs on Tim Hardin 2 are less than two minutes long. When the average pop song is at least 90 seconds longer than that, Hardin’s ultra-minimal work can come over a bit like a demo that someone else will be taking and polishing up: repeating some bits here and there, raising the key, pushing the tempo.

Yet few versions of Hardin’s songs improve at all on the originals in any respect. Brief as they may be, Hardin’s recordings aren’t short of emotion or ideas; quite the reverse. It’s more that he refused to repeat hooks or choruses for the sake of catchiness if there was no emotional reason to do it. The bit that everyone remembers from Reason to Believe (“Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else”) only happens once in Hardin’s recording; the second time it comes round, Hardin doesn’t sing and lets the orchestra carry it. He then sings the first verse again and simply stops at the words “Still I’d look to find a reason to believe”, letting them hang in the air.

I love that about his recordings. It’s so rare in pop music that someone makes understatement and reserve the whole cornerstone of their musical approach. Hardin’s work in its context is revolutionary – his first two albums (which contain Reason to Believe, Black Sheep Boy, It’ll Never Happen Again, How Can We Hang On to a Dream, Misty Roses, If I Were a Carpenter, Red Balloon and Speak Like a Child) were released in 1966 and 1967, years when pop was entering its psychedelic phase and was going maximal.

However untogether he was in his life away from music, Hardin trusted his instincts and refused to follow the herd. Within eighteen months of his first record’s release, a whole movement of singer-songwriters and rootsy rock bands (under the direct influence of The Band and Bob Dylan, a public fan of Hardin’s work) would themselves move away from the high-volume, bright-colour aesthetic of psychedelia towards something more minimal and organic. They were simply rediscovering what Hardin had known all along: the power of speaking quietly when everyone else is shouting.

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Some thoughts on Tim Hardin

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.

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