MUSIC: The return of Dirk Hamilton
Dirk Hamilton was the one that got away.
Back in the mid 1970s, it was apparent to anyone who saw and heard Hamilton perform that he was headed for big things. He was a tall, rangy, handsome kid with a soul singer’s voice and an exuberant musicality that fairly burst from the stage and left audiences agape. What was more is that Hamilton could write. His early work drew comparisons to Dylan and Van Morrison that were not hyperbolic – he possessed true poetic gifts, a rollicking sense of word rhythm that marked him as a rare and potentially large magnitude artist.
Hamilton was a staple of the South Bay music scene in the Halcyon days of a venue called Sweetwater Café in Redondo Beach, where artists such as Vince Gil and Linda Ronstadt were regulars. It was a time and place where the stars had aligned and the music was flowing.
“We were all kids and our heads were all in the same place,” Hamilton recalled in an interview this week. “We all loved music and wanted to change the world and have as much fun as possible. So everything was cool.”
So it came as little surprise when Hamilton began his ascension. He signed a series of record deals, first with ABC Records and then with the Elektra, which seemed to be the perfect place for his launch into stardom. The label was home to such artists as the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Warren Zevon. Hamilton was poised to be the next big thing.
And then he disappeared. He got off the bus, or to be more accurate, he jumped off after receiving a shove – from none other than Zevon.
Hamilton had released an album called Meet Me at the Crux in 1978 that the music press raved about –Rolling Stone called it a “hidden gem” – and that he considered his masterpiece. Elektra was less enthusiastic, didn’t give the record a huge push, and sales were disappointing. So when Hamilton subsequently went out on tour with Zevon, he knew his place at the label was at stake.
On the third night of the tour, Hamilton went to bed early to take care of his voice, as did Zevon. But their bands stayed up drinking together. Somewhere in the hazy wee hours, Hamilton’s lead guitar player and road manager got a little too honest. They noted that Zevon’s show was a little…well, theatrical. His act had a lot of choreographed wildness; he ripped off his shirt, for example, at the same point every night. They thought it was kind of funny. Show business, gorilla suits, and rock ‘n roll.
“They started spouting about his theatrical bent and Warren’s guys were offended,” Hamilton said. “My guys got really drunk and caused all sorts of trouble.”
Hamilton woke to a knock at his hotel room door. He opened it to find an angry Zevon.
“Hey, Warren,” Hamilton said.
“You are kicked off the tour,” Zevon said.
Hamilton heard the story, noted that he’d had nothing to do with it, and then pleaded with Zevon, offering to send his guitar player and manager away. He needed this tour, he told Zevon, or Elektra would likely kick him off the label. Zevon didn’t budge. “Man, I can’t have these bad vibes,” Zevon said.
“And that was it – we found ourselves, the whole band, roadies, everybody, flying back to L.A., and then sure enough Elektra dropped me,” Hamilton said. “And that was when I quit. I said, ‘I can’t take this stuff. The music business is just too ugly. It’s like the opposite of everything that got you into being an artist in the first place.”
He went back to Stockton, California. He put his guitar away. He soon realized he didn’t really have any other skills – he’d been making his money as a musician since the age of 15. The “next Dylan” ended up working as a painter and a security guard.
“I kind of hung out ‘til I ran out of money,” he recalled. “”What am I going to do? I don’t know how to do anything. And that is why I ended up scraping paint and painting houses and guarding sugar.”
Few people outside Stockton heard much about Hamilton for much of the next decade. He eventually took a job counseling emotionally troubled kids. But for a couple of years, he didn’t touch his guitar. Finally, a friend coaxed him into joining a cover band called the Music Farmers. It was liberating. He didn’t have to lead the band, didn’t have any expectations to live up to, didn’t have to worry about the business end of the music – he just sang songs and played guitar and learned harmony and even some percussion. He found himself back within the purity of music that had been his love all along.
“I had no desire to get my chops back or try to get back into the music business,” Hamilton said. “Then at some point I just found these songs coming to me, so I wrote them, and it made it simple, and I realized, ‘You know, this is what I do. This is what I want to do.’”
But he wanted to do it differently this time. He thought he might go to Europe and was inquiring about joining a cousin in Germany when he discovered a strange thing – he’d become a cult hero in Italy. An Italian record label tracked him down and told him he had legions of fans in Italy who thought he was dead. A few demo tapes he’d made back in Stockton were made into a record called Too Tired To Sleep in 1990.
“Without Italy, I wouldn’t be doing this still,” Hamilton said. “I always had a gig in Italy.”
In the last two decades, Hamilton has toured Italy regularly and quietly amassed a catalogue of 15 albums. He settled in Texas, became a father, and slowly let go of an anger that he only later realized had fueled much of his earlier music.
“I’m a lot less into fighting and anger and there is more of a chuckle to a lot that I do now, as an artist and just living,” Hamilton said in a YouTube interview last year. “”Living is just amazing. If you just manage to stay awake, you just naturally grow in consciousness. The trick is to stay awake, I guess.”
All along, he has refined his craft. He has lived up to all his early promise, the only difference being that it has gone relatively unnoticed. The more frenzied poetry of his earlier work has given way to a certain sense of ease. His most recent record, last year’s More Songs from My Cool Life, reveals a storyteller, poet, and musician at the full height of his powers. His voice has more gravel, his songs more earthly grit, and his music a more spare and simple power.
“I’ve heard other artists say this before, not just music artists but painters – they find themselves valuing and concentrating more on simplicity,” Hamilton said. “I’m just trying to get more and more simple. Stuff I used to think was so clever – well, clever isn’t as important as it used to be….Simple things are often the most beautiful things.”
It seems very likely Hamilton will enjoy a commercial rediscovery at some point in the near future. He still tours the U.S. and plays such revered venues as McCabe’s in Santa Monica – tomorrow night, he plays Alva’s in San Pedro – and audiences have a somewhat different reaction than they did 30 years ago. Then, people thought they saw a rising star. Now, they wonder how an artist such as Hamilton has remained so relatively unknown.
“I hear that all the time. ‘Where did you come from?’” Hamilton said. “‘How did you manage to be making these records and still be under the radar?’ It was just a comedy of errors. But what are you going to do? I figure if I’d gotten famous in 1978, I’d probably be dead in 2011.”
Hamilton still wishes his music could give him a little bit more creature comfort – a bout with bronchitis this year, for example, nearly wiped him out financially, as a troubadour’s income doesn’t exactly bring much in the way of material security. But he’s at peace with his larger mission: he has lived for the sake of the songs, and the songs have kept getting better and better. Even his stint as a manual laborer has been a gift of sorts, informing his music with “a taste of what people are up against” in the daily scrim to earn a paycheck.
“I think not being famous is a gift to my work,” he said. “I always think, ‘Well, how can you write about real life when you are a king?’ You can’t experience life on a real level when everyone is kissing your butt, and you can do whatever the hell you want to at any moment. That is why so many famous people are nuts….It’s a drag to be constantly struggling for money, but when it comes to the music, and doing the work – I absolutely know I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. And I’m going to keep doing it.”
The Dirk Hamilton performance at the Lounge on Thursday, Nov. 3 has been cancelled.