Friday, October 10, 2003

Radley's Music Corner: Radley's pick from the classics bin today is John Hiatt's Walk On, which is a dandy listen, if not necessarily my favorite. (I'm inclined toward the Sonny Landreth-fueled Slow Turning.)

Anyhow, Walk On puts me in mind of a John Hiatt story from several years ago -- something to do with his sensitivity as an artist, his ease with a crowd, and a moment of palpable feeling. I was watching Hiatt play in Boston, at a pretty small club (one of the benefits of Hiatt fanaticism: just him and a guitar, in a small club, with me watching from 15 feet away), and he started into "Dust Down a Country Road," from Walk On. The song's refrain uses the image of an old dog staring down the road as a stand-in for the singer's own haunting past. The symbolism culminates in the last verse:

If I had a bullet I'd put it in this gun
And I'd catch that old dog napping
And I'd shoot him before he runs
Cause he ain't much good for nothin'
Except staring at the dust
Lord I wonder what he's looking at
Sneaking up on us
Hearing Hiatt sing about shooting the old dog, I sensed a change in the audience, like a silent alarm had sounded. It was the strangest feeling, but it was as though I could feel the audience misreading his words, taking him literally.

Naturally, I dismissed the feeling -- not being particularly spiritual, and certainly not in a Jungian direction -- until the end of the song. Hiatt finished singing, began pensively tuning his guitar, and then leaned toward the microphone and said (paraphrasing here):

"My youngest daughter hates that part, too. She wonders: 'Why do you want to shoot the dog in that song?' I tell her, "Sweetheart, it's a metaphor.' But it still upsets her."
And then he was off into his next song.

I don't know what the hell it meant. It could be just coincidence. I've seen him plenty of times, and he never, before or since, has used that aside. Maybe I picked up on something, however fleeting, that an artist like Hiatt tunes in at every performance.

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