Gangsta folk ringleader John Wesley Harding is charmed and dangerous.
By Mari Wadsworth
MAY 11, 1998: HE KILLED 20 men before his 22nd birthday, though he never stood trial. And Bob Dylan even immortalized him in a song. No doubt about it, John Wesley Harding's reputation precedes him. By some accounts, he's among the most dangerous men in the West.
Only slightly lesser known is the 32-year-old San Francisco-based singer/songwriter of the same (adopted) name, whose eclectic spin on pop music has earned him both critical acclaim and professional skepticism over the past decade. Depending on who you ask, these days you might hear the latter John Wesley Harding referred to as one of the most dangerous men in folk music. When was the last time, for instance, you heard a folkie rave about rap, calling a Snoop Doggy Dogg album "brilliant"? Or cite the likes of Nabakov, Calvino and Borges among the primary influences on his songwriting? (So far, no bodies have turned up missing--though the venerable spirits of Dylan, Richard Thompson and Neil Young at times haunt his songwriting and acoustic guitar playing.)
As Harding is quick to point out, anybody intent on fitting his music neatly into a genre is bound to be disappointed. But for the rest, his intelligent songwriting, inventive sampling and solid musicianship offer a creative depth all too rare on the current indie pop landscape. "Music isn't about genre, but one's take on the genre, and that's how I make my friends," he said in a recent phone interview from New York. "Like Howe Gelb, for example, makes rock music, but he has a very strange take on what rock music is. And Scott McCaughey (from Young Fresh Fellows), who's one of my closest musical friends, also makes rock music--but with his own particular slant. Kelly Hogan (from the former Chicago band The Jody Grind), sings blues, but in a particular kind of way. It's all about what you do with what you've got, rather than (matching styles). I find similarities in all kinds of different fields."
His willingness to reinvent himself has been the boon and bane of a musical career he says he thought would last for only a few weeks in the late '80s, when he went on tour with Hothouse Flowers. The name, for instance, was coined by the band mid-tour "as kind of a Dylan joke."
Coming from a strong musical family, he's always had the confidence to surround himself with good company, no matter what his current interests might be: His first two albums, Here Comes the Groom and The Name Above the Title, are straight-ahead pop rock, featuring none other than The Attractions as his backing band. (The first is a gem of puppy-like enthusiasm.) "That got me into huge Elvis Costello trouble," he says good-naturedly of the subsequent quipping which led one critic to dub his style "Elvis Costello Lite." The range of his reedy vocals and irresistibly plaintive tenor make the Costello comparison the most obvious, though least apt, of his influences.
But fortune continued to smile upon Harding, who left a doctorate in literature from Cambridge University in his native England to play guitar stateside. Why We Fight, an acoustic record with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, was a well-received effort that veered purposefully away from the Attractions formula. A few lucky breaks early on didn't hurt in introducing him to a larger audience, either. In a recent Magnet interview, he was even referred to as an " '80s icon." Harding says, "I have no idea (where that came from). My first album came out in 1990. I'm retro before I ever was."
As for his early brushes with glory, he describes them with appreciative aplomb: "(Some years ago) Lou Reed asked me to do an interview with him, and then would pop down to the Bottom Line and play with me. Bruce Springsteen was turned on to my music by a friend of his, then came down to The Cage and played with me. Later he asked me to support him on some dates, which was pretty fantastic. It's just oddball stuff."
But his is not a simplistic right-place, right-time success story: He's also tireless. Relentless, even. Just take a look at his website (http://www.wesweb.net/) and check out all those unreleased compilation singles and "unofficial" recordings, including an entire album (Dynablob, 1996) just for a fan-club release--"the records I made just because I wanted to, not because anybody asked for them."
Just a few weeks after April's stellar SXSW performance at Austin's Cactus Café (which drew a fawning, standing-room-only crowd), Harding was again on the road away from his Bay Area home. His late-night phone interview with The Weekly came on the heels of an 11-hour rehearsal the night before the first date of the 30-city tour that'll bring him to Tucson's Club Congress on Monday, May 11.
He has a lot to be excited about: Awake, his sixth album (the follow-up to 1996's quietly folky New Deal), is a rewarding amalgam of musical style and lyrical substance, featuring an interesting cast of guest musicians (Scott McCaughey, Steve Bowman, Carrie Bradley, Chuck Prophet, Kurt Bloch, Robert Lloyd and Kelly Hogan) with top-notch production by Harding and longtime collaborator Chris von Sneidern. It's also his debut effort on the Zero Hour label, which has given him free reign to craft what he calls "classic folk about life and sex, with the occasional dead body."
The transition from accidental success to serious musician may sound seamless to the rest of us, but the depth on Awake hints at a different story. Though ruled by a pervasive sense of humor, Awake is a murky, mischievous melange--folk's evil twin, you might call it. Harding confirms the suspicions with tales of a difficult, three-year split with Sire records, followed in 1996 by a year of personal tragedy that ended with the dissolution of his marriage and the deaths of two close friends. Though the strength of Harding's songwriting is that he eschews the shlocky self-indulgence plaguing the folk genre as a whole, on Awake he finds a powerful balance between telling it like it is (with achingly beautiful ballads like "Poor Heart" and "You So & So") and telling it like it isn't (the smart humor on "It's All My Fault," and the deliciously anti-autobiographical "Miss Fortune").
Harding's what you might call a writer's musician. "Obviously my lyrics are what's important to me," he says. "If it wasn't for the lyrics, I wouldn't be making music.
"The one thing I can get on my soapbox about is that people can often accuse you--and it is an accusation--of being clever," he says. "To them it bespeaks some kind of betrayal of the simple values of pop music. There's a big thing where if it's not about you and your personal life--if you've made it up instead--it's in some way sinister, even literate, which pop music (supposedly) should never be."
It's difficult to engage in a battle of wits with those who are unarmed, and he has some wickedly funny anecdotes about his life as a modern-day troubadour. "I love to play 'Miss Fortune,' " he says of the song about an alternate universe in which he's a boy raised as a girl. (The song begins with a lilting acoustic melody punctuated by the lyric, "I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth/Oh yeah, then I was dumped down south.") I did it (at a folk conference) with the relevant amount of passion--in other words, what I feel about the song. And the woman on the panel said to me, 'Oh, you didn't feel that one at all.'
"Right there is the problem. It implies that unless it happened to you, it can't mean anything. It's the kind of problem where people say, "Oh, Nabakov must have slept with 12-year-old girls, because how could he write a book that great without (the personal experience). And I'm just in a much worse genre for that (as a songwriter).
"The best one, though, involves 'Why We Fight,' which is kind of a rare song for me not to do at shows. In it, I'm this guy who tries to get a dodgy deal going, and I end up dead--with my throat slit. The last verse is sung from the body bag, floating in a lake, and I/the guy says, 'Come down and look at me.' I mean, there is a rock lineage for that stuff. But this guy comes up to me after the song, and says, 'Did that happen to you?' Obviously I'm not dead, so I'm not sure what he means. I suppose he was listening to my songs, on some level."
A spontaneous and energetic live performer, Harding will treat Tucson audiences to much of the new album's offerings, which we hope will include the improvised guitar solo (on "You So & So") which was still rough around the edges at the Austin show. He'll be performing both solo acoustic (with support from Lloyd on mandolin and accordion) and with his Gangsta Folk ensemble, which this time around will be the accomplished Steve Wynn Quartet.
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