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A Reason to Believe in Tim Hardin
Ian Sharrock reflects on his memories and recounts the sad story of Tim Hardin's life
It was the fag end of the summer of '66 when a sharp-suited singer walked onto my TV screen and sang "If I Were A Carpenter". I just couldn't believe that Bobby Darin, hitherto famous for songs such as "Mack The Knife" and "Multiplication", was singing what I presumed to be a beautifully arranged traditional folk song, in the same vein as "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy" or "Black Jack Davey".
I set out the following day in search of the album, which I found in a local record shop, then dashed home to persuade my mother to go into the shop on my behalf - I just couldn't bear to be seen buying a Bobby Darin record. The album was a real gem - the track listing boasting several Tim Hardin songs (a name I hadn't previously heard). Each of the songs was a mini-masterpiece. I don't think any of the songs lasted more than two and a half minutes, but that was it, I was hooked.
Tim Hardin was born in Eugene, Oregon on December 23rd 1941. His parents Molly and Hal had both been musicians: his mother had once had a career in classical music, his father at one played bass. Tim spent a great deal of time during his formative years under the strict supervision of his maternal grandmother who went by the wonderful name of Manner Small. Tim had known from the outset that he wasn't like the rest of the boys in the small lumber town. He wanted to act and to sing. When he eventually left Eugene, it was to join the Marines, not one would say, the most direct route to an acting or singing career. He was shipped out east and came back, like many of his fellow soldiers nursing a deadly heroin habit.
Leaving the Marines in 1961 he returned briefly to Eugene, before moving to Greenwich Village, where he was enrolled at the rather grand sounding American Academy of Dramatic Art. In the village he met Karen Dalton (who is curiously in the position of gaining posthumous fame through the re-release of her second album It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best on Megaphone) and Richard Tucker, and it was almost certainly their influence that encouraged him to think more seriously about his music.
He was dismissed from the Academy after skipping too many classes, and re-merged in Boston around 1963, where he received a call from Erik Jacobsen, a one-time banjo-playing folkie (and more recently producer of Chris Isaak). Jacobsen invited Tim down to New York to work on some songs.
Tim moved back to Greenwich Village in 1964 and through Jacobsen, he gained an audition at Columbia Records. He was still on heroin and heavily into marijuana, and the resulting sessions were a nightmare. Columbia passed on him, But Jacobsen's faith was unshaken. Eventually, Tim was placed with the partnership of Koppelman and Don Rubin, who were at that time working jointly on the Lovin' Spoonful. They found a home for Tim on the Verve-Forecast label, a division of MGM and Tim's first single, "How Can We Hang On To A Dream?" was issued in February 1966.
His first album Tim Hardin 1 was released in the summer of 1966, by which time he had married Susan Moehr - who was to be his muse for some of his finest love songs. None of Tim's albums sold well. He had a cult following that probably accounted for sales of between ten and fifty thousand per album. Even so the first album and its innovatively named follow-up, Tim Hardin 2, were two of the best albums of the 60's, influencing many artists, from those who covered his songs, Johnny Cash, The Small Faces, Waylon Jennings, Scott Walker and Bobby Darin (who threw away his toupee) to those artists such as Nick Drake, Astral Weeks-period Van Morrison, and latterly Ron Sexsmith who were influenced by him. When Ron Sexsmith was asked by his record producer to give some kind of reference as to how he wanted his debut album to sound like he told him to listen to the first two Tim Hardin albums.
In 1969 Hardin arrived in England to take what was then known as the "sleep cure" for heroin addiction. This involved the use of barbiturates to get over the initial withdrawal stage from heroin, sadly, Tim emerged from the "cure" addicted to barbiturates.
Back once more in the States, Tim was living in Woodstock, where he recorded a highly personal and confessional Suite for Susan Moore and Damion - We Are-One, One, All In One. There were no songs on this album for Bobby Darin to cover, but, in a strange reversal of fate, Tim covered Darin's "Simple Song Of Freedom" and it gave him his only "Hot 100" hit.
Shortly after, his life in Woodstock took a downward turn when Susan left him. He then recorded his second album for Columbia: Bird On A Wire. Although there were few self-penned songs, for me, this was his finest moment. He makes Leonard Cohen's much-covered "Bird On A Wire" his own, with an impassioned vocal performance, and the entry of the choir just before the end, although potentially tacky, is one of his greatest moments on record. Hardin's version of the traditional song "Moonshiner" matches even Dylan's version and standards such as "Georgia On My Mind" are sang with real feeling in his voice. The strands of his varied life and musical influences, plus his fine vocal technique all come together and, with the sympathetic backing of jazz luminaries, like Joe Zawinul, the tracks were imbued with the depth of sweet melancholy that I had never before experienced. It was rather like pressing your tongue to a bad tooth - both painful, yet irresistible.
Tim, still in Woodstock, felt trapped. He had lost his driving licence and even though he had given up heroin again, he was drinking heavily, and like most alcoholics and substance abusers, Tim lost touch with his feelings, and hence his songs. He made one last record for Columbia Painted Head, which although a good workman-like album did not contain one original song.
Tim left Woodstock and went to England again, where as a registered addict, he could receive his heroin on the National Health. Whilst in London he and Susan had a brief reconciliation, but he lost her again and lost his songs too, by signing away the copyrights.
Returning to the USA he stayed in Seattle and then moved to Los Angeles to be close to his son, Damion. By this time, Tim cut a different figure, bald and overweight, almost unrecognisable, even to his old friends. He was on a downward spiral, hurting those close to him and back on heroin (he had been clean in Seattle).
During his last troubled months Tim worked once again with Don Rubin. They had two tracks ready for an album, but Tim Hardin died in Los Angeles on December 29th 1980. When the County Coroner's Office handed down its verdict, his death was "due to acute heroin/morphine intoxication".
Written by Ian Sharrock - Originally published in Triste 1