The truth, the whole truth, nuthin’ but the truth
Ian Hunter Patterson has seen some strange days. After Doors singer-songwriter Jim Morrison expired in a Paris bathtub, the band offered Hunter the Lizard King’s job. He turned it down. Perhaps if he had accepted, he’d now be a household name. For decades, the British rock veteran has strummed away on the half-lit margins of the critical and commercial spotlight, even while inspiring and influencing several generations of rock bands, including The Clash, Wilco, Oasis and REM.
Whatever the reason he’s been denied mega-stardom, Hunter himself has never cared much for the fame game. His relatively low profile in the music industry may have actually allowed him more creative room to manoeuvre than bigger names. While many other artists from the 60s and 70s have descended into musical self-parody and bloated overproduction, Ian Hunter slowly laboured away, adding to his impressive catalogue. Every half-decade or so, he’d release another album filled with sly lyrics, superb arrangements and more hooks than a tackle box. The clunkers were relatively few. You’d think that would be enough to wake up the musical establishment, but dozing reviewers and radio programmers preferred to hit the snooze button.
Yet, the singer-songwriter’s wheel has taken another turn with his new album, Shrunken Heads. Released in May by Yep Roc records, the album has received glowing reviews in The New York Observer, Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Even that East Coast arbiter of taste and style, The New Yorker, sat up and took notice.
Born in Oswestry, England, to a working class family, Ian Hunter Patterson hardly seemed destined for rock and roll royalty, or any other kind of crown. But when he first heard Jerry Lee Lewis sing Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, his rebellious nature found its musical compass. Bounced from one school to another, Hunter was the classic problem child. At one point, his parents wanted to have him committed, he told The Independent. “My dad was a cop. He became an NCO at Sandhurst and ended up in MI5. I was a slob, the complete opposite. He was an army boxing champion who’d think nothing of taking you in the back room and giving you one in the guts.”
Hunter found employment over these years as a road digger, factory labourer and a reporter for a local paper. He always kept his hand in music, playing in a mutating series of bands with friends from Northampton. Hunter recalled to biographer Campbell Devine his onstage habit of leaping around like a maniac: “Music affected me so much. The rest of them just stood there. It was funny; I had kids who came just to watch me do this and I can’t imagine what it looked like.”
In 1968, when British producer Guy Stevens went looking for a lead singer for a hard-rock, 60s band he was producing, Hunter’s name came up. After one audition, Stevens had his frontman.
Stevens changed the name of the band from Silence to Mott the Hoople, after the novel by Willard Manus. He then set out to reform the lead singer’s fashion crimes. “I was fat, had short hair and a two-piece corduroy suit,” Hunter recalled in a film documentary on Mott the Hoople’s early years. He and his producer settled on what turned out to be his trademark look: a corona of curly hair framing a chiselled, poker face, half-hidden behind sunglasses. A hankering for disguise might come naturally to the son of a spy, but the singer/songwriter claims he took to shades to conceal his white eyebrows. Another factor may have been age; by 1969 he was a family man in his 30s, older than Bob Dylan or any of the Beatles. With a decade on his Mott the Hoople band mates, he was, in relative terms, close to rock ‘n’ roll fossilization.
Never impressed with his own voice – he used to “feel sick” when he listened to British singer Cliff Richards – Hunter opted for Dylanesque phrasing, and sheer volume. While most early 70s’ singer-songwriters were still trading on the era’s fading flower power, Mott the Hoople’s lead singer was penning and performing sturm und drang ditties like Death May Be Your Santa Claus. With its symphonic hard rock sound and onstage bluster, Mott the Hoople came across like a tour bus collision between The Stooges and The Electric Light Orchestra. Reputedly one of the wildest rock acts of the time, Mott the Hoople’s aggressive enthusiasm could be a bit too infectious. After several concerts ended in riots, the band was banned from venues across England. “It might sound glorious but it’s not,” says Hunter. “These were venues in which you could make good money.”
By 1972, nonstop touring, debt and disinterested management had blown the band apart. Longtime fan David Bowie, hearing that Mott the Hoople had called it quits, pleaded with them to reconsider. “He offered us Suffragette City, which I didn’t think was good enough,” Hunter recalled to a Norwegian interviewer in 2004. “And then he sat down on the floor – it was in a publisher’s office on Regent Street – and plays All the Young Dudes on an acoustic guitar.” Thanks to Bowie, Mott the Hoople had a new lease on life, and what would become their concert encore anthem and biggest hit single.
Hunter kept a journal during this period, which was released in paperback in 1974 as Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star. Annotating the band’s mundane struggles with hotels and laundry, the plain-spoken author deconstructed the glamour of rock tours, while training a gimlet eye on the surreal quality of American culture. (“The Americans have an uncanny knack of making all adult things extensions of children’s toys.”)
In spite of a rabid following in Britain, Mott the Hoople eventually collapsed, or more specifically, Hunter collapsed, hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. He returned in 1975 with an eponymous solo album, showcasing the incendiary guitar work of Bowie sideman Mick Ronson. Two solo albums later, the self-described “slimmer twins” collaborated on 1979’s You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic. By then, the artist had his green card, and had made his move stateside, residing in the New York area.
Hunter says the pair “lost the thread” in the 80s, wandering around in a top-40 wilderness dominated by droning keyboard riffs, electric drums and manic guitar fretwork. By the late 80s, the two friends were collaborating again, cutting a live album for the BBC, and working on the studio album YUI Orta, a title inspired by the Three Stooges and their signature line, “Why You, I Oughtta…” To the commercial music world, they were yesterday’s men – a self-fulfilling prophecy given the half-assed promotion for the album. But Hunter’s expectations of big music corporations have always been low. He recently told Mark Mitchell of BCB Radio that aspiring musicians should avoid a “… scumbag business run by thugs.”
I was lucky enough to see the Hunter/Ronson band perform during this period in a small venue. He and his partner launched into a blistering, note-perfect performance of their co-authored works, with a band so tight the players seemed psychically spot-welded. Ronson wove baroque chord progressions around the howling Hunter, who performed like a man possessed. (In 2002, the bemused performer told a Norwegian interviewer, “I once walked onstage and felt Ian Hunter entering my body.”)
Throughout much of the 80s and 90s, the former Mott the Hoople frontman was busy with family life, while Ronson drifted into session duties and obscure ethnomusicological adventures, like producing Hawaiian music. Astoundingly, one of rock music’s finest guitarists almost abandoned music altogether, to find work as a cook. A classically-trained musician who was also a superb arranger, Ronson died of liver cancer in 1993.
In keeping with the strange course of his life, Hunter’s record royalties were buoyed during this time by cover versions from the likes of Great White and Barry Manilow. Another unexpected source of credit materialized from ABC when The Drew Carey Show enlisted a cover version of his song Cleveland Rocks for the show’s opening titles.
The start of the new millennium marked Hunter’s musical resurgence. He began work on a new album, Rant, and posted his flag on the Internet at ianhunter.com. Hunter maintains a column on the site, Horse’s Mouth, in which he answers email, offering sage advice to struggling musicians, and thanking fans from all over the world for their frequent compliments.
For some reason, Hunter has a particularly zealous fan base in Scandinavia. His two albums from the 90s, Dirty Laundry and The Artful Dodger were produced in Norway, as was the 2002 DVD live performance, Strings Attached. At last, one record outfit, Universal Europe, did things up right. Hunter posted the following on his website during the filming for the DVD: “They put me in the Nobel Peace Prize suite at the Grand Hotel in Oslo. Unbelievable. Chandeliers – the works. The balcony is the most famous balcony in Norway. It’s where all the recipients stand after they received their prize. My kids were throwing snowballs off it at people to my undying shame!”
Hunter’s musical oeuvre, then and now, could be described as chiaroscuro, a $50 word referring to the bold contrast of light and shadow. There’s plenty of darkness in his catalogue, yet even his most melancholy ballads and most bitter rockers contain subversive shards of light.
Loss and longing have always been Hunter’s greatest creative spur. Irene Wilde concerns a boyhood love affair that fails to ignite, spurring a decision to “… be somebody someday.” Sons and Daughters laments the effect of divorce on children; Rollerball addresses the destruction of music and art through corporate control; Dead Man Walking is a wounded rejection of ageism and aging; Now Is the Time is a prayer to a dying friend, Freddy Mercury of Queen. One of Hunter’s most moving ballads, Michael Picasso, concerns coming to terms with the loss of his fellow artist and “brother,” Mick Ronson. With its naked lyrics, the song narrowly skirts pop-music schmaltz before ascending to the rock n’ roll Empyrean.
On his new album, Shrunken Heads, the singer takes loss to another level, melding the personal with the political. As Hunter says, “There are two languages in America: English and bullshit.” The lies of his adopted homeland have certainly supplied plenty of fuel for his muse. Obviously a man who loves the US – the lyrics to the song Soul of America name-check Thomas Paine, John Adams and Geronimo – Hunter feels the appalled bewilderment of his fellow citizens as keenly as they do. On Fuss About Nuthin,’ the singer effects the voice of a glad-handing sociopath, who warns, “… that bee in your bonnet’s got liberal on it,” and to stop making a fuss about market decisions. “This World is a ball with a map on/We conquer, we buy and we sell/This world is a tank with a tap on/Business as usual.”
How’s Your House? is a tragicomic retelling of Katrina from a new immigrant’s point of view – “I’m runnin’ outta water, there’s nothing left to eat/The kids are in the car ‘n’ it’s floating down the street” – with the storm victim falling back on faith-based optimism. “If FEMA won’t help me, I know the good book will.”
When the World Was Round bemoans the flat-earth mentality of our rulers, while offering the hope we can reshape the world into a better, fuller place. On the soaring title track, the “… rich get richer and the poor get sorer.” “We’re at the mercy of shrunken heads,” he sings, in a metaphor for both short-term political thinking and the profiles of dead leaders stamped on currencies. With this one song, Hunter arguably out-Dylans Dylan in the lyrics game.
There’s also warmth and wit on Shrunken Heads. Words has the singer falling over himself apologizing to his partner for unthoughtful remarks, blaming himself, too many drinks and finally language itself, with its “… cruel little clusters” and “grammatical bacteria.” I am What I Hated When I Was Young is an alt-country romp, made endearing by Hunter’s self-effacing senescence.
Now in his late 60s and married three decades to his second wife Trudi, Hunter lives a relaxed life in rural Connecticut. He still tours across the US and Europe, rocking more convincingly than most of his younger contemporaries from the 60s. It also helps that he’s found a good manager and a reliable, responsible record label, Yep Roc records.
“There ain’t no deaths, just destinations,” he insisted in the song Keep On Burning. And there’s no career death in sight for Ian Hunter, who says he is experiencing another welcome burst of songwriting after the release of Shrunken Heads.
Here’s hoping the British expat keeps the fire in his belly for years to come. Keep on burning, Mr. Hunter.