1980 was a sad year for rock and roll. John Bonham drank himself to death, taking with him the legacy of Led Zeppelin. AC/DC’s Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis committed suicide. Darby Crash of The Germs OD’d and died. Most shocking of all, Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon.
Last on the calendar, and almost forgotten among those legendary names and tragic lives, was singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 39 on December 29, 1980 after a stop-and-start 1960s career followed by years of obscurity.
But Hardin was a big enough name even at the end of the ’60s to be invited to perform at Woodstock, and it isn’t only Woodstock completists who remember his participation in that most famous music event of all time, especially his drug-addled, uncertain, yet tender performance of one of his most famous songs, “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Joe Strummer called Hardin a “lost genius of music.” Patti Smith wrote in a memoir, “My brother gave us a new needle for our record player…we happily listened to Tim Hardin, his songs becoming our songs, the expression of our young love.” Singers ranging from Helen Reddy, Bobby Darin, and Rod Stewart to Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and Mark Lanegan have recorded his songs. But while “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Reason to Believe” may still echo faintly in the culture of pop music, the name Tim Hardin is spoken seldom today.
On February 12, Nigel Adams and his Full Time Hobby label, which put out 2006’s Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim and Jeff Buckley, are releasing Reason to Believe, a tribute disc with 13 Tim Hardin songs recorded by a variety of mostly moody, sometimes experimental-sounding artists, many of whom I’d never heard of before, but who include both Lanegan, who does the drug-themed “Red Balloon,” and Okkervil River – whose 2005 album Black Sheep Boy takes its name from a Hardin song – doing “It’ll Never Happen Again.”
Hardin recorded his folk songs with acoustic sounds and sparse arrangements, but the realizations on the new disc take his songs very far from their folk and blues roots, with quirky vocals, deep drones, and dense atmospherics that say unmistakably, “21st century.” How much they say “Tim Hardin” will be for fans to decide. Listen to the Smoke Fairies’ version of “Carpenter” here:
That’s not to say Tim Hardin was “just” a folk singer. He showed in his live performances and his many recordings of rhythm and blues classics that he was an accomplished interpreter of the blues as well. Many of these recordings, including “Seventh Son, “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out),” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,” can be found on Disc 2 of the Hardin collection Hang on to a Dream: The Verve Recordings.
Beyond that, music writer Barney Hoskyns in his informative liner notes to the new tribute album quotes both producer Gary Klein and Eagles songwriter J.D. Souther to the effect that Hardin was something akin to a jazz singer as well: “You could hear that he loved country music,” said Souther. “…But you could also hear that he loved jazz; he sang with this kind of fluid almost legato style that was not as angular as most of the bluegrass that I was listening to.”
Self-aggrandizing, Hardin was likely insecure as well; Hoskyns cites him boasting of being a better singer than Ray Charles and that Ray Charles himself had said so. Absent a self-esteem problem, it’s hard to imagine why an artist like Hardin would feel the need to make such a seemingly nonsensical statement. But whatever the exact nature of his personal demons, it’s clear Hardin was a pretty troubled troubadour.
If you had never heard of Tim Hardin until now, and you’re wondering about your own self-esteem or rock-and-roll cred, relax. I’ve lived music all my life, even nursed a mild obsession with the folk and early rock scenes of the 1960s, but I didn’t know anything about Tim Hardin until recent years through my association with Retro69, my friend Allan Spielman’s Woodstock tribute band and Retrofestivals. I know, now, that Tim Hardin was more than just one of those now-obscure performers who didn’t make it into the Woodstock movie. And with the release of Reason to Believe, I know a batch of artists younger than I know it too, and I have reason to believe many other people do too, or soon will.
Click the “Media” link at the Reason to Believe website to see more video of Tim Hardin via YouTube.