In two days, my favorite musician will be releasing a new CD. It’s amazing how much joy such a relatively small event brings me. Yes, the U.S. economy is on the verge of collapse. Yes, I’ve got stresses at work and family. Yes, I haven’t been to church in months, and I am wondering if the problem isn’t church, but me. All that disappears and I feel nothing but giddy bliss when I visit John Hiatt’s facebook page and hear the new song. I start gathering articles and bits of information to create a new issue of my fan magazine, which I started when I was a teenager, and not only do I feel like a teenager again, but my mind enters a trance-like state that I’ve never achieved through meditation.
Yes, I am a super fanatic when it comes to singer-songwriter John Hiatt. His music and his story have made such an impact on me that I even gave a sermon at my church titled “The Gospel of John Hiatt.”
Now, before any of you worry that I’ve gone around spray-painting “Hiatt in God” in subway stations, let me remind you I’m an agnostic humanist. (So, no, I’m not like the Clapton fans of London). I’m also not one of those people who baldly say that “Unitarian-Universalists can believe anything they want,” as a blanket statement to allow me to claim anything and everything belongs in our churches. But, I’d be ready to defend my decision to bring this seemingly unspiritual subject into the pulpit, because I think there is something universal about how we chose our modern-day heros. To me, that choice is as important as any debate about the nature of a higher power.
I won’t go on about the many joyful experiences I’ve had listening to John Hiatt’s music, or fill up virtual pages with the reasons why I consider him the greatest singer-songwriter alive today. But, here are some of the lessons I shared in that sermon, which I feel are quite in line with our principles:
Lesson 1: When you stop focusing on the end-game and concentrate on being true to yourself and the best YOU you can be, the rest has a way of falling into place on its own. John Hiatt began his career in Nashville in the early seventies. He dreamed of becoming a star, and bounced from record company to record company, with each promising him that they could break him into the mainstream. He never fit into any particular genre of music, which kept him from finding that huge audience both he and his record company wanted. Along the way, he made the mistake of so many artists and started to abuse alcohol and drugs. Finally, he hit rock bottom and decided he needed to clean up and received addiction treatment.
That decision, along with a great personal tragedy, led him to create what many consider to be his breakthrough album: Bring the Family. He created that amazing work when he wasn’t even signed to a record company, but gathered friends and used his own resources to record ten songs full of life lessons of joy and hope, including his signature song “Have a Little Faith in Me.” Since then, his career has had ups and downs, but often the greatest ups, including his first Grammy nomination, came when he was dropped by a record label.
It takes time for all of us to learn to not let others tell us who we are or what we need to accomplish. We all do best when we follow what we love.
Lesson 2: Life’s not about avoiding those dark times, it’s about finding the pin-prick of light that will guide you out of them. The way we’re brought up on fairy tales, it would be easy to believe that after John cleaned up and overcame the tragedies mentioned above that he “lived happily ever after.” That’s not ever true. In the decades since Bring the Family, he’s released over a dozen albums, and most contain at least one song of woe that is inspired by his real life. I not only feel solace when listening to his songs about “the nagging dark,” I am inspired by his courage to acknowledge his pain, but to keep on living.
Lesson 3: It takes very little to show kindness and bring joy; you may never know the impact a few words may have on someone. John Hiatt is incredibly generous to his fans, and I have taken up far more than my fair share of his time. But, he has said in interviews that he realizes what it means to people when he comes out after a show to sign autographs, shake hands and takes pictures. He does this incredibly graciously. For example, at a record store signing years ago, my mother and I were amazed by how each time a new fan stepped up to the table he was seated behind, John stood up to greet them, the perfect Southern gentlemen. Or, another time when a crowd of us waited by his tour bus on a December night, John stepped out of the warm auditorium and apologized to us for making us “wait so darn long.”
These are all small gestures in and of themselves, but they add up not only in the effort and patience it must take John, but the great joy he brings to so many people. Not everyone can make it onto the pages of Rolling Stone, but every day we have the opportunity to put in that little extra effort to be gracious, courageous, or kind.
Lesson 4: Love and happiness are never anything to feel sorry for or embarrassed about. I learned this somewhat indirectly from John, but it may be most important. I was reminded of this particular lesson last night when a stranger noticed the t-shirt that I was wearing and asked if I liked John Hiatt. Boy, did she get more than she bargained for when I answered. Yes, I can be a little over-enthusiastic at times when I talk about my favorite musician, especially if the other party shows the slightest bit of interest.
I think one of the most significant conversations I ever had was when I was talking to a friend in college about my fan magazine and the enormous amount of time and emotional energy I had invested in pursuing my bliss through John’s music. I read her expression, and asked her “You think this is all pretty lame, don’t you.” “Well,” she replied, “I just can’t imagine being that enthusiastic about anything.” Suddenly I was no longer embarrassed for myself, but deeply sorry for her.
How could I not lose my embarrassment to make way for sympathy for my friend? Nothing in her life excited the same kind of passion I was fortunate to feel when a new John Hiatt album was released. She could not understand the joy of sitting on concrete sidewalks for hours with other Hiatt fans waiting for concert tickets, or most wonderful of all – waiting for hours after a concert, your ears ringing with the music you had just been baptized in through amplifiers, for the thrill of a two minute conversation with your hero. How sad – almost as sad as having no religion.
So, it is only with the slightest blush that I post this blog and turn back to my fan magazine. I know I will continue to learn more about myself and my spirituality while acting like an idiot in my enthusiasm for my favorite musician. I hope you all have something that brings you the same kind of happiness.