The release of the Tim Hardin tribute album, Reason to Believe, marks a sort of apogee in the renewed interest in the late, and largely unlamented, singer-songwriter. The first sign that Hardin was due for a rewrite may have come on the soundtrack to the Joe Strummer film The Future is Unwritten, which captured Joe on the radio enthusiastically introducing Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” (“I’m the family’s unowned boy/Golden curls of envied hair/Pretty girls with faces fair/See the shine in black sheep boy”). This was followed by Dave Alvin’s cover of “Don’t Make Promises” (on his excellent Guilty Women album) and new street cred for Hardin.
Hardin is probably best remembered, unfortunately, for Bobby Darin’s cover of “If I Were a Carpenter,” a huge hit in 1967. Legend has it that upon first hearing Darin’s cover in his car, Hardin pulled over on the side of the road and stomped around, Rumplestiltskin like. A temperamental fellow, Hardin was also a massive junkie, having discovered heroin while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. Perhaps a less addicted, more self-confident person would have have built on the success of a hit cover of one of his songs by touring and building a fan base, as they say today. But along with his dependency, Hardin had a massive case of stage fright. He was originally supposed to open the Woodstock festival in 1969 and the combination of “stage fright” and “half a million people” would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Richie Havens took Hardin’s place, and Hardin did ultimately grace the stage, performing a stoned but heartfelt version of “Carpenter.” While it gets muddied in Darin’s cover, which some thought was Bobby’s attempt to do Timmy, the refrain “I’m giving you my onlyness/Give me your tomorrow” is quite touching when coming from the songwriter.
The love of Hardin’s life, and inspirator of many of his tunes, was Susan Yardley who left him (more than once) when his addiction was out of control, their infant son Damion in tow. He changed her name for the 1969 concept album Suite for Susan Moore and Damion, she was clearly the man’s true north and they reunited several times when he was clean, only to fall spectacularly off the wagon each time. By now Hardin had added booze and methadone to the mix but despite the success of subsequent covers (“Lady Came from Baltimore” by Johnny Cash, “Reason to Believe” by everybody), Hardin couldn’t stay straight. He OD’d in Hollywood in 1980 at the age of 39.
With the new tribute album Hardin gets a doff of the hat from younger artists, like Okkervil River and the Phoenix Foundation, and the slightly more seasoned Mark Lanegan (former Screaming Trees). It’s his cover of “Red Balloon” that sent me back to the Hardin story. Turns out the red balloon he was singing about had been filled with skag. “Took the love light from my eyes,” the man said. Blue, blue surprise.