Thoughts on being alone, the nature of manhood, and the timeless music of John Hiatt
I’ve always said I enjoy being alone, that I revere my quiet time. As a general rule, I don’t require a lot of human interaction. I prefer solitude over excitement, and recharge myself by being able to process the world on my own. In a nutshell, I prefer to be alone — or so I’ve always told myself.
I’ve often thought that as long as no one was fucking with me, prison wouldn’t be so hard for a guy like me. Let me be, and I’ll be fine. But then I have to imagine that I have nothing to read, no way to write, no internet to browse, no distractions, no input, no way to communicate with others, and no feedback on my thoughts.
That would be a nightmare, I’ve concluded. I’d be utterly alone with my own thoughts for days, weeks, months, years, or even decades. That’s not good for anyone, maybe even less so for me. I don’t want to be alone, I’ve decided, but I do like to be left alone. I enjoy a certain distance in today’s crazy world, where I’m doing my own thing, but I know someone is in the next room if I should need them.
I saw John Hiatt perform in the early 90s at a free concert at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. A friend of mine in the music business convinced me to go with him, and seeing that I lived nearby, I agreed. I’d never heard of John Hiatt, but he wrote a song called “Thing Called Love” which Bonnie Raitt had covered and had become a modest hit at the time. So, I’ll know one of his songs, I thought.
“Are you ready for this thing called love? Don’t come from me and you, it comes from up above. I ain’t no porcupine. Take off your kid gloves. Are you ready for the thing called love?”
At this show, he talked a lot to the audience in between songs. I’ve always appreciated that. Learning a little history or reasoning for a song. Some context on why it was important to them, and why it might be important to me.
He told a story about writing this song while sitting in his basement, feeling all alone in the world, all the while a house full of people carried on just upstairs. He sang, “Have A Little Faith In Me” and it was the first time I’d ever heard the song. I still consider it to be one of his greatest.
“When the road gets dark, and you can no longer see. Just let my love throw a spark, baby. Have a little faith in me.”
Looking back there wasn’t much of a direct connection between anything in the lyrics of that song, and the situation he had described on stage. What did feeling alone, in the midst of family and friends, have to do with asking someone to have a little faith in you? Where was the thread between love and loneliness?
“Well, I’ve been loving you for such a long time girl, expecting nothing in return, just for you to have a little faith in me. You see time, time is our friend, cause for us there is no end. All you gotta do is have a little faith in me. I said I will hold you up, I will hold you up. Your love gives me strength enough, so have a little faith in me. All ya gotta do for me girl is have a little bit of faith in me.”
Like a lot of great songwriters, Hiatt’s lyrics are often about love and longing. A sort of hymn to being human, I guess. Our endless attempts to connect with people, and our sometimes abysmal efforts to do so. Which leads me to a third song of his, “The Seven Little Indians.”
While it’s not one of his more well-known songs, and maybe not his best, it’s my personal favorite. It’s both melancholy and triumphant. An ode to masculinity and the treacherous pitfalls of manhood. It’s just John, a drum and a guitar. Simple. Stark.
“There were seven little Indians, living in a brick house on Central Avenue. Gathered ‘round their daddy, tellin’ stories in the living room, from a slightly unrealistic point of view. Momma was off yonder in the kitchen somewhere, boiling up some hot water for them to all get up to their necks in. The seven little Indians knew if the rest of the tribe ever scrutinized their household, somehow it would not pass inspection.
“The Big Chief railed on and spun his tales of brave conquest, about the moving of his little band up to Alaska where the caribou run free. You see he’d done time up there putting in telephone lines for the army during World War II, and had even brought back a picture of a frozen mastodon for the little Indians to see.
“Some mukluks, some sealskin gloves, and a coat with beads around the collar. His wife kept them in the mothballs, underneath the Hudson Bay. And every once in a while he’d get all wound up with one of his stories, and put ’em all on and dance around in that blue TV light like it was some campfire blazing away.
“Well he stamped and he hollered, but he could not stay warm in that living room. Even the seven little Indians could feel the chill. And although everything always worked out for the better in all of his stories, in that old brick house, it always felt like something was movin’ in for the kill.
“Blazing like a trail, shot through the eyes of the seven little Indians. Blazing like an arrow, shot from Cochise’s last stronghold out in Arizona. Blazing like the sheets of light, dancing up in the sky up above Anchorage. Blazing like a star, shot down to the ground back home again in Indiana.”
Why does that song connect with me? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a good song. Or maybe it’s because I identify with it; both as the dad, and as one of the vulnerable, seven little Indians. Excited for the story, in awe of the Big Chief, and yet anxious about the uncertain future.
As men in our culture, we’re so often isolated from the world. We don’t share the same connections as women do with their children. We didn’t share that with our own fathers. We don’t share that with one another. We might be surrounded, but we’re alone, more often than not.
John ends the song about the seven little Indians this way:
“Now it finally got so quiet you could hear a pin drop, they started dropping like flies. The oldest little Indian got sick and vanished, and the big chief went two years later. The mother raised the six little Indians up the best she could to be housewives, musicians, and insurance salesmen. But they all shared this common denominator.
“You see, all the characters in the big chief’s stories were named after the seven little Indians. And like I said, in his stories, everything always worked out for the better. And now as I’m telling this stuff to my own kids, dancing around in that TV screen light, well I wish I had those mukluks, those sealskin gloves, and that coat with beads around the collar.”
As we grow from boys to men, we all want to believe the stories of our youth, but it becomes harder and harder to suspend disbelief. Perhaps we need a relic or token to connect us once more to that time. A memento to remind us of where we came from and what we once dreamed was possible.
We want more than anything to disappear back into one of those stories where everything works out. Perhaps what we need are some mukluks, sealskin gloves, and a coat with the beads around the collar. Perhaps we just need to walk back upstairs and join in the laughter.
We’re trying to make it back upstairs, we promise. Maybe that’s why we find ourselves asking for a little patience, a little faith, a chance to disarm ourselves of our pointy quills, a chance to find the right story to make us believe again.
In the meantime, we’re downstairs, dancing around in the blue TV light.