As a toddler, Damion Hardin once knocked over a guitar in his parents’ home in Woodstock. The guitar belonged to Bob Dylan, who was annoyed. That didn’t stop Dylan from calling Damion’s father, the late Tim Hardin, the country’s “greatest living songwriter.”
Damion, now 45, was amazed to learn recently that another houseguest, this one named Jimi Hendrix, played with him when he was a baby.
“More cool stories than you can imagine,” he says.
Though Tim Hardin was revered enough in his day to play the Woodstock festival, he died in 1980 at 39, largely forgotten, after struggling for years with heroin addiction. Now, however, his legacy as one of the most gifted talents of the dawning folk-rock era is getting an overdue boost. This week marks the digital release of Reason to Believe, a tribute album featuring Okkervil River, Mark Lanegan and other admirers (the CD is available February 26th). And Damion Hardin says there is a feature film in development that will include scenes of his father writing his best-known song, “If I Were a Carpenter,” while living at Lenny Bruce’s place.
The son went through his own struggles but is now on his feet, working as a chef in Florida. He played in bands for a time in Burlington, Vermont, but gave it up. After high school he spent some time living in the woods, he says. Hitching a ride one day, a disc jockey played Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s version of “If I Were a Carpenter” (which has been covered by dozens of artists, among them Neil Diamond, Elton John and Robert Plant). When Damion mentioned that his father wrote the song, the driver was incredulous.
“If your old man wrote that,” the man said, “you’d be driving a Cadillac.”
Hardin’s songs have long been favorites of song interpreters. Bobby Darin had a big hit with “Carpenter”; Rod Stewart charted with “Reason to Believe”; Nico covered “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce” (also known as “Lenny’s Tune”) on her 1967 debut album. And Brit Awards nominee Rumer recently recorded one of Hardin’s more obscure songs.
“I’ve always been haunted by [his] devastating voice and beautiful songs,” Lanegan told Rolling Stone recently.
But Hardin wasn’t careful with his copyrights. At one, point, according to his son, he accepted a briefcase full of money in exchange for his song rights and fled to London, where he could register for free methadone.
“He knew he fucked up, and he immediately called my mother,” says Damion. He and his mother, Hardin’s ex-wife, Susan Yardley Morss, have since been able to retrieve a piece of the royalties.
Most of Hardin’s songs are marked by a gorgeous aching that’s apparent on the tribute album, which was produced by the U.K. label Full Time Hobby. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff gladly contributed a cover of “It’ll Never Happen Again.” His band built their 2005 album Black Sheep Boy around a cover of Hardin’s song of the same name. He calls Hardin’s songs “little cut gems.”
“One of the things Tim Hardin did incredibly well, he’s in and out in two minutes and 30 seconds, every song,” Sheff tells Rolling Stone. “But the songs feel like they’re longer, in a good way – they’re so memorable. He and Hank Williams were living proof, musically, that if you write a good enough chorus, you don’t need to repeat it a million times.”
Just as Hardin wrote “Tribute to Hank Williams” (“Goodbye Hank Williams, my friend / I didn’t know you, but I’ve been the places you’ve been”), Sheff says he feels a kinship with Hardin. Having been convinced that Hardin’s “jazzy chamber-pop” would enjoy a Nick Drake-style renaissance when he recorded “Black Sheep Boy,” he’s happy he’s still considered “the go-to Tim Hardin dude,” as he jokes.
“I’m about to say something incredibly corny,” Sheff says, “but it’s what I believe. Being a musician is a really old calling – it’s something people have been doing as long as there have been people. And there’s the problems and the demons that come with it, and the desire to be recognized, and the sad reality that it’s pretty rare that happens.
“It feels like a brotherhood, and you gotta be there for your brother, even if it’s a person you’ve never met.”
Sheff did meet Damion Hardin while on tour in Florida after releasing Black Sheep Boy, though they haven’t stayed in touch.
“It was kind of crazy,” he recalls. “It’s not like you’re meeting a celebrity or your idol – it’s like you’re meeting his genetics.”
With a little luck, Hardin’s son and fans like Sheff might be seeing the beginning of the revival they’ve been waiting for. Damion remembers visiting his father in L.A. after his parents split up, tossing a football in the yard with him. “He’d always throw it a little far so I had to really go after it,” he says.
In much the same way, when he needs some personal advice, he still turns to his father’s music, he says: “He always give me the right answers, right away.”