July 13th 1985 was the day we watched Live Aid. So reminds us one Wesley Stace, better known to the public through his adaptation of a Dylan moniker stolen from a gunslinging Texas robber, John Wesley Harding. A bizarre historical confluence has brought to light these past few months not only a four-disc DVD release of most of the original Live Aid footage, but also a double album package of John Wesley Harding’s first release, It Happened One Night, which features the tongue-in-cheek paean to artists’ attempts to ameliorate Africans, “July 13th 1985”. While the former shares heartwarming images of Bob Geldof working to feed the world, the latter remarks facetiously of having the Boomtown Rats’ frontman canonized, (Little did Wes know Geldof would later be knighted). What the contradistinction of these two packages allows us to see is that Live Aid, with all of its concomitant sincerity and straightforward “feed the world” devotion, was the apogee of the heartfelt 1980s; the decade was about to be drowned by the ironic riptide of artistic distance that has dominated the stage of popular music since the glue of human kindness has come off the proverbial Band Aid. And there has been no better (although there have been minion better known) ambassador of all things ironic, insincere and otherwise postmodern in modern music than the man who would take it upon himself to mock Live Aid, John Wesley Harding.
Choosing to define himself by a collapsible chain of signifiers was the first clue that JWH meant to be more than the surface seemed. His voice and style sound incredibly like the similarly-pseudonymed Elvis Costello, and spookily surrounding himself in the studio with Costello’s Attractions. He sinks himself into titles like “Song I Wrote About Myself in the Future”, and now, Harding releases two distinct versions of his debut album, even though one is being heard now for the first time, 15 years after its recording. For his fans, this is a big deal: we (yes, I’ve been included in this group ever since I saw him perform solo on the Awake tour) get to hear hard-to-find faves and discover clues to Harding’s character-building early years. We witness Wes’ audacity in making his first record, It Happened One Night, as a live album. What the artist now looks back upon as a mistake nonetheless allows the listener an incredibly personal window into his creativity and capacity to be present, which is unfortunately washed out at times on his studio recordings. And while an intimate evening is captured perfectly on It Happened One Night, the companion/alternate/bonus disc It Never Happened at All lets loose more layered studio versions of much of the same material. The result is one warmly recorded and wonderfully reminiscent travel back in time, and one mistake that perhaps never should have happened at all.
“Bob Dylan is my father/Joan Baez is my mother/And I’m their bastard son” sings Harding in his signature piece that seems a send-up of modern culture, yet whose humor (including tutoring sessions from uncle Leonard Cohen and family friend James Taylor) covers over an interesting statement of the true power of creation that his musical forbearers possess. An early live version of “Bastard Son” comes to close out It Happened One Night; this won’t come to replace the authoritative version on JWH’s now-displaced major label debut Here Comes the Groom, but it’s great to hear Harding’s hysterics live. A sentiment similar to this anthem is found on the more haunting description of the artist’s party, whose guest list was limited to “Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, David Blue & Me”. Even when approaching the sincerity of gratitude in this track, Harding has to create a distorted reality of a dinner soiree that never could have been. Thirty years after Dylan’s “Song to Woody”, after the ascent of irony and the downfall of straightforward lyricism, Harding can only express his love for his favorite folks sideways, with a grin protecting his deepest feelings. Harding seems, in this respect, not so much a child of his postmodern times as the poster boy for how to translate the movement’s ethos so seamlessly into the form, design and execution of popular music.
But beyond the social criticism, Harding’s music has always been simply enjoyable. Yes, he’s sort of a folksinger, but not in Dylan’s famous “folk music is a bunch of fat people” way. Having later in his career christened his band the “gangsta folk” pretty much explains Harding’s musical approach: He’s a singer dependent upon intricate lyrics; he relies predominantly upon strumming his acoustic guitar, but he wouldn’t be caught dead singing “The Water is Wide” (unless, of course, he wanted to poke fun at a bar whose beer is tapped). The pleasure of Harding’s company is evident everywhere on the live and acoustic It Happened One Night: during his description of theodicy in “The Devil in Men”, throughout his testament to troubadours on “One Night Only” and even when luring the crowd into a folksy Prince sing-a-long only to cut it off immediately in order properly to frame his description of “Lover’s Society”. From remembering the death of John Lennon (“Famous Man”) to celebrating the life of his hero (“Roy Orbison Knows”), those who listen to Harding’s first of three debut albums will count themselves lucky that it—that concert—happened one night.
On listening to the second disc (and, if you’re trying to keep track, the second-recorded but third-released debut), I would imagine most would agree it better if the release of this mediocre collection had never happened at all, although given the title, I’m not sure Wes doesn’t know this himself. Save “The Night He Took Her to the Fairground”, outstanding for sounding like a lost track from Elvis Costello’s Trust, none of the studio versions of songs found on other albums really top those recordings: “Roy Orbison Knows”, “Pound Pound Pound” and “Who You Really Are” are better on It Happened One Night, while “Same Thing Twice”, “Lover’s Society” and “Save a Little Room for Me” crop up in superior version on subsequent releases. While little on It Never Happened at All is terrible, little is enlightening. I would imagine that even the most dedicated of Harding followers [myself included], will rarely return to this most mediocre of music from an otherwise worthy artist.
Speaking of which, I should probably note that this review has pretty much already ended. If you haven’t determined it yet, It Happened One Night & It Never Happened at All is worth buying, just with the precaution that you should spend a lot more time on the first disc and try not to get discouraged by the latter. Still, in post-script, I should note that one really interesting moment crops up on the aforementioned second-disc of long-shelved material: an answer to the nagging question about the overall musical value of Steve Nieve (pronounced “naïve”, as in the person who doesn’t understand from the spelling that this, too, is a pseudonym). As keyboardist for the Attractions, now with the Imposters, and even accompanying Elvis Costello without these two bands on a piano-and-crooner tour some years back, Steve Nieve has always perplexed me; He could fill out a song beautifully as on “Shot With His Own Gun”, or nearly ruin an album as with his unrestrained over-playing an incessant noodling on Armed Forces. Nieve gets major props for the way Elvis has always stood by him, but he still takes the worst and most unlistenable solos in concert. So, the question always tugging at my ears is this: Is the modern musical world better because Steve Nieve is in it, or would he have been better relegated to the classical world he all too often superimposes on otherwise perfectly fine pop music?
The answer is found on track 11 of It Never Happened at All. On the beautifully delicate “One Night Only”, delivered so perfectly on It Happened One Night, Nieve is set free to create the entire musical track that will back Harding’s vocals. Given a complete artistic freedom Costello never let him have, Nieve shows his true colors as he creates a wall of sound equal in destructive power only to the one that once divided Berlin in two. Faux farsifa organs, synthesized click tracks, random animal noises, and the worst computer-orchestrated bridge I have ever heard make this reductio ad absurdum take of “One Night Only” a historical highlight because of its value as a footnote. Evidently Harding’s faith in Nieve’s ability lasted long enough for Steve to record this song, which was then was put on the shelf along with Wes’ belief in the keyboardist’s artistry. Yet the fact remains that left unattended, Nieve kills a good song. Thus the answer to one of the minor inquiries of piano-playing sidemen to Elvis Costello, and those who sound incredibly like him: Steve Nieve stinks.