see the shine in the black sheep boy


Tim Hardin 2 is about as brief as a classic album can be. Under 23 minutes, with 5 of its 11 songs clocking in at under 120 seconds. Its predecessor is slightly more expansive: 12 songs, a half-hour and change. I’m not making a case for brevity per se, only pointing out that deftly and minimally, Hardin made a giant and still-resonating contribution to the American Songbook, and yet somehow he still isn’t granted his place in what you’d call the songwriter pantheon alongside people like Jimmy Webb and Leonard Cohen. Here is a list of some songs from those two albums: “Reason To Believe,” “Black Sheep Boy,” “If I Were A Carpenter,” “Misty Roses,” “Hang On To A Dream,” “Red Balloon,” “Don’t Make Promises,” “It’ll Never Happen Again,” “The Lady Came From Baltimore.”

People who worked with Hardin tell me he was a massive fuck-up, as junkies are by and large, too out of it to properly finish songs (which might account for their here-it-is minimalism: no patience to write second verses), always finagling money to score dope, having a strained relationship with honesty (you’ll find some mea culpas in his lyrics, as well as a tendency to write about promises and lies and asking patience and forgiveness). But for a few years in the late ‘60s, his songs were everywhere you turned.

“If I Were A Carpenter,” recorded by Bobby Darin, was the breakthrough, and the covers came floating from all corners of the musical hemisphere. Hundreds of them. Some singers like Rick Nelson, Scott Walker, Peggy Lee, Johnny Rivers, Cliff Richard and Marianne Faithfull went back to the Hardin songbook multiple times, and you could quite easily construct beautiful albums built around themes; the U.K. interpretations (P.P. Arnold’s “It’ll Never Happen Again,” The Nice’s “Hang On To A Dream,” Georgie Fame’s “Don’t Make Promises,” Scott Walker’s “Black Sheep Boy,” The Small Faces’ “If I Were A Carpenter,” Colin Blunstone’s “Misty Roses,” leaping forward to things like Paul Weller’s “Red Balloon” and Lloyd Cole’s “The Lady Came From Baltimore”); the girl singers (Astrud Gilberto’s “Misty Roses,” in English and French, Francoise Hardy’s “Hang On To A Dream.” Peggy Lee’s “It’ll Never Happen Again,” Marianne Faithfull’s “Don’t Make Promises,” Rumer’s “Andre Johray”); the folk-country-rock versions (The Beau Brummels, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Hawkins, The Dillards, Rick Nelson, Johnny Rivers, The Youngbloods, The Byrds, and tack on the “Reason To Believe” that Neil Young did this year at Farm Aid, and Dylan’s live “The Lady Came From Baltimore”).

Naturally, I have fictional covers in my head. Like “Misty Roses” on a non-existent 1968 album of contemporary songs by Sinatra and Jobim, things like that. But the songs I’ve been circling back to lately are two of his most melancholy, “It’ll Never Happen Again” and “Hang On To A Dream,” and it’s nutty how many versions there are of these two abstract expressions of regret and disillusion. They’re just song brush-strokes, really, with almost no detail. “It’ll Never Happen Again” is almost an apology (“Every time I leave you alone/I remember the time I couldn’t come home/It’ll never happen again”), but the bridge is “Why can’t you see you’ve got to change to love me?” It’s the addict’s cycle of remorse followed by defiance: this is what i am. Oddly, it’s one of the few major Hardin songs Darin didn’t approach — he’d have nailed it, I think — but there are all these other covers: both ‘60s pop Connies (Francis and Stevens), and up to Okkervil River, David Sylvian and The Dream Academy. Besides Hardin’s aching original, the places to go are Peggy Lee and Johnny Rivers.

“Hang On To A Dream” is another evasive sketch that can crack you in two: “What can I say, she’s walking away,” it starts, and there isn’t much more to the story than that: he still loves her. “I still don’t see why she says what she does/How can we hang on to a dream?” Why does this song hit so hard? It whips back and forth from “she” to “you,” so one second it’s a retelling, the next a direct plea, and it’s got all these vague phrases: “from what we’ve seen,” “the way it seems,” and it’s as though he’s struggling to say without saying. There’s only mood to cling to, and that beautiful melody. It’s best when it’s wistful (Marianne, Francoise), and you can see why the more introspective U.K. bands (Echo & The Bunnymen, The Lightning Seeds) have been drawn to it. 

After those first two Verve Forecast albums, and a third one live at Town Hall (April 1968) that’s a lovely summation of what he was up to (although “Hang On To A Dream” and “It’ll Never Happen Again” are missing from the set, alas), it all skidded off the rails, and Hardin never pulled together a consistent album of original songs again. When he died in late December 1980, a few weeks after John Lennon’s murder, it wasn’t any kind of big news; he’d been gone for a while. It was the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, with its versions of “Green, Green Rocky Road” by Oscar Isaac and Dave Van Ronk, that sent me back to Tim Hardin 1. “Green Rocky Road” is credited to Hardin as a writer on his debut, but that’s in the “adapted by” sense (when Rick Nelson recorded it as “Promenade In Green,” it’d become a Nelson-John Boylan song).

Inspired by the Coens, I pulled out Hardin’s original mono LP. Track one:

“It seems the songs we’re singing are all about tomorrow
Tunes of promises you can’t keep”

2 Responses to see the shine in the black sheep boy

  1. Your writing here strikes me as deeply and profoundly as…a Tim Hardin song. I’m almost moved to cover it by reading it to others and will certainly at the very least recommend it as one of the best popular culture reflections EVER.
    As usual…thank you Mitch.

  2. Wonderful piece about a too neglected artist. But you left out the twist that always intrigued me, Tim’s hit single was a cover of a Bobby Darin song that Darin wrote after he had a hit with If I Were A Carpenter. Thanks for reminding me to pull the albums.

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