Tim Hardin: Reason to believe

It would have been in the spring of 1967 that Tim Hardin's music first wafted in over my transom. I was 13. My older brother, who loved Hardin at least as much as I did and was something of a fetishist besides, forbade me to touch his copy of Hardin's debut album, Tim Hardin 1, not even the jacket. He had to be present when I auditioned it. Tim Hardin 2 didn't especially float my boat, so my brother had it to himself. But the moment I heard Tim Hardin 3 Live in Concert, I took matters into my own hands, so to speak, and plunked my own $5 down.

A singer, songwriter, guitarist and sometime pianist, Tim Hardin wasn't a household name, but a cult hero. As a cult member, I was affected by his songs almost as deeply as I was by the Beatles', Bob Dylan's, or any other of my gods.

In his brief prime, Hardin was rock's—more properly, folk's—great poète maudit, a damned soul who lived on the edge, courting disaster for the sake of his art, a heroin addict for most of his adult life. The catch in his voice conveyed an inconsolable forlornness. Hardin never sang a song the same way twice. Like Billie, and Willie, he sang behind the beat, ahead of it, anywhere but on it. He was one of his or any era's great vocal improvisers.

I wasn't at New York City's Town Hall on the evening of April 10, 1968, but I may as well have been. Every one of the dozens of times I listened to Tim Hardin 3 in my room, it got right under my skin, and does still. Hardin has the Town Hall audience in the palm of his hand, and knows it. "You know this one," he says early in the show, strumming the first chords of his samba-esque "Misty Roses," and they do, and applaud before he even starts singing, as they do throughout the evening.

If the show was a triumph, it could as easily have been the opposite, as was always the case with Hardin. "The problem we encountered at the Town Hall performance was that Tim was completely strung out," recalled a member of the band, vibraphonist Mike Maineri, years later. "We had to guess when he would strike the next chord or suddenly move to another section of the song." These were some of the day's finest players, but none of them takes a proper solo; the instrumental passages come when it pleases Hardin to stop singing, sometimes midverse, and it's all the band can do to riff until he decides to rejoin them.

But this was the exact right band for the job. Like his contemporary Tim Buckley, Hardin was at, or near, the center of the day's dawning jazz-rock scene. One of the movement's key ensembles was Jeremy and the Satyrs, which came into being in 1966 specifically to back Hardin. "We knew his music intimately," Maineri said.

The head Satyr, flautist Jeremy Steig, didn't make the Town Hall gig, but keyboardist Warren Bernhardt and drummer Donald "Beautiful" MacDonald did, as did the band's true virtuoso, bassist Eddie Gómez. MacDonald, an under-recognized jazz-rocker, and Gómez, who would make his name with Bill Evans, emerge as the evening's Best Supporting Players, locking in seamlessly to rein Hardin in when he strays.


Paradoxically, given Hardin's predilection for slow waltzes like "Tribute to Hank Williams" ("He sang from his heart/Took the pain for his fans"—country singer as Christ figure) or the relaxed 4/4 jog of his signature song, "Reason to Believe," the show's high points (almost) are the uptempo romps: "Smugglin' Man" ("If you want anything illegal / Ask old Timmie to bring it in!") and the beautifully titled "You Upset the Grace of Living When You Lie," hell-for-leather chases, the band hanging on by the skin of its teeth.

But the song in which Hardin dies for the audience's sins begins when, switching to piano, he plays a few desultory chords and clears his throat. "Um, there's been a change in the program," he says. (Many rock concerts still observed formalities like programs.) "This tune is dedicated to, and written for, and about, Lenny Bruce." Big applause. Bruce, a comic and anti-establishment gadfly who bridged the beatnik and hippie eras, was a hero to both groups. He was convicted of obscenity in 1964 and dead from a morphine overdose in 1966.

"I've lost a friend and I don't know why," Hardin begins, keening. "But never again will we get together to die." Upbeat stuff. "Lenny's Tune" surges ahead so powerfully, has such propulsive thrust, that one realizes with a start that it's another waltz. Maineri's vibes cast a diaphanous haze over the general tumult. MacDonald is majestic, steering the band through the song's repeated climaxes, bearing down hard on the bell of his ride cymbal. Midway through, Hardin forgets the words, and in their place looses a cry of pure, helpless pain (3:18), the most riveting moment of the evening—for me, Tim Hardin's career. I would guess that it still rang in the audience's ears as they left Town Hall that night.

Hardin never made another good album. He was scheduled to open Day One at Woodstock but was too strung out to go on (footnote 1). Richie Havens took his place, unforgettably. The years passed, and I came home one night to find, on the obituary page of the December 31, 1980, New York Times, that, acting on an anonymous tip, the Los Angeles County police had gone to Hardin's Hollywood apartment and found him dead of a heroin overdose. He was 39. The obit's brevity was almost as depressing as the fact itself, in inverse proportion to the enduring power and grace of Tim Hardin's art.

Footnote 1: According to guitarist Gilles Mackine, Hardin just pretended to be too stoned to go on because he was overwhelmed. He eventually played an hour-long set around 8:30pm. There's a video of his Woodstock solo performance of "If I Were a Carpenter," at youtu.be/sJy6Ds39PBo.

Allen Fant's picture

An excellent review! TS.
That is one killer backing Band. It does not get any better. TH gave us "If I were a Carpenter" and "Reason to Believe".
Robert Plant covers "If I were a Carpenter" on Fate Of Nations.
Rod Stewart covers "Reason to Believe" on Every Picture Tells A Story plus Storyteller box set.

zimmer74's picture

but he was a favorite in my world in the late 60's, a phenomenon who challenged the folkie status quo of Baez and Dylan. Away at boarding school, I would buy his records, and my roommate would learn to play the songs on guitar. A particular favorite was Misty Roses, still a beautiful song.

byrdhunt's picture

The Folk Singer Plays the College Bar on a Friday Night (Tim Hardin, The Warehouse, Rt. 366, Ithaca, NY, 1970)

The students have come to dance and drink.
It doesn’t matter who
is on the tiny stage singing as if
they cared about “Misty Roses”
or how the lady had come from Baltimore.

They are not here to hear “If I Were
A Carpenter”—the words a worn T-shirt
hung across the tune as if a late fall
morning in the Village, the broken
glass of a brown quart of Rheingold
in the gutter as the chilled body
lights the day’s first cigarette
and the heart imagines believing
the lady might buy a pot or pan
And have a baby.

The kids are not
here to buy a pot or pan or have
a baby. They do not notice how
the singer is somewhere else, some
place that is the song or somewhere
inside it as his fingers absently hold
a chord, pausing at the corner
not sure which way to go as he lights
another cigarette and the smoke
almost veils the pain.

[from Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes. Tim Hunt]