Every once in a while I get a song stuck in my head. It’s not a bad thing if it’s a decent number, but God forbid I should get fixated on a worthless ditty like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. A day or two with that ridiculous tune rumbling in my head would probably be the end of me.
Recently, I got obsessed with If I Were a Carpenter, written and recorded by the late Tim Hardin. I walked around the house humming the tune for a couple of days, occasionally breaking into song, belting out the lyrics in my loud, manly and pleasing baritone.
For some reason this aggravated the lovely Mrs. Milo. “Will you please stop that?”
“Stop what, honey?”
“Stop singing that stupid song. You’re scaring the cat.”
“That rotten cat can go fuck himself. The dog doesn’t seem to mind my singing.”
“Milo, in case you’ve forgotten, the dog lost its hearing about two years ago.”
I don’t know what my wife’s got against Tim Hardin, but I’ve always enjoyed his music. His best songs have an ache to them, a melancholy sense of loss and longing, that appeals to my sentimental Slavic soul.
Hardin had a hot streak in the 60’s. Those were the years he wrote If I were a Carpenter and Reason to Believe, as well as a personal favorite, The Lady Came From Baltimore. His songs were covered by artists as diverse as Bobby Darin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. Hardin even appeared at Woodstock, in 1969, playing his songs to an audience of a half million people.
Hot streaks don’t last forever. By the middle 1970s, Hardin was washed up, a mental and physical wreck. He was also in dire financial straits. He had no income from his song catalog because he had sold the rights to his music a few years earlier to settle a pressing problem.
The problem was heroin, a drug he had become very fond of while in the military and stationed in Vietnam, during the early years of the war. The fondness grew into an all-consuming obsession and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He was, by all reports, a degenerate junkie, erratic and unreliable, prone to putting on terrible performances, that’s if he even bothered showing up at all. He became virtually unemployable. By the late 1970s he was reduced to playing second rate clubs for chump change.
In early December of 1980 I was sitting out a snowstorm with the help of some bourbon and reefer, when I got a call from a dear friend, who I’ll call George Bogdanich, to spare him undue embarrassment.
“Hey, Milo, are you doing anything tonight?”
“I’ve got a couple of free tickets to see Tim Hardin at the Quiet Knight. You want to go?”
Maybe it was the bad weather, but I doubt more than 40 people showed up for the show. The upside of the sparse crowd was that George and I got a good table, close to the stage.
Hardin appeared about 30 minutes late. It might have been better if he had never showed up at all. He looked terrible — bloated, pasty, in dire need of grooming and a bath. And he was obviously high, riding with the white witch.
Hardin stumbled through the first few songs, mumbling the lyrics, hitting sour notes on his guitar, nearly nodding off in the middle of a tune. A few people walked out after he stopped to lazily scratch himself in the middle of Reason to Believe. Others began to heckle him. Even George called out, “Come on, Tim, pick it up, man.”
I didn’t want to be there. It was painful watching Tim Hardin trying to put on a show. He had once been a well-paid, popular and honored entertainer. Now, he was just a lost soul, a ghost of glories past, incapable of even going through the motions.
I was thinking about leaving. I didn’t want to be a party to this train wreck any longer. Then Tim started playing If I Were a Carpenter and the fucker nailed it. He stood tall and straight, closed his eyes, and sang:
If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway
Would you have my baby
His voice was sweet and clear. His guitar playing was crisp. He sang the song like it was his testament, the one pure and true thing in his life. It was the song that defined him and he seemed determined not to fuck it up. He gave the audience the best he had. And when he finished, he was spent. Tim Hardin had nothing more to give. He fumbled through another song or two, made an incomprehensible apology, and left the stage. There was no applause.
About three weeks later, on December 29, 1980, to be precise, Tim Hardin died of a heroin overdose.
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