What a long, strange trip?
How Dirk Hamilton went from local garage band singer-guitarist to Austin singer-songwriter in 37 short years
The first time I saw Dirk Hamilton, he was playing his regular Sunday-night gig at the original Straw Hat Pizza parlor in Stockton. It was the early ‘70s, a few years before record producer/A&R man Gary Katz, then on the charts with Steely Dan, signed Hamilton to ABC Records and recorded his debut, You Can Sing on the Left or Bark on the Right. He was going to school at San Jose State University, as it was known then, and moonlighting on what he calls “the steak and lobster circuit.”
The next time was in the early ‘80s, at a house party in downtown Stockton. “You think you could kick my ass?” this rangy guy with a weathered face and a half-pint of tequila in his back pocket was asking. “ ’Cause I know I could kick yours.”
By then, Hamilton had returned to Stockton, and he wasn’t on a winning streak. He’d cut two albums for ABC, Bark in 1976 and Alias i the following year, followed by two for Elektra/Asylum, Meet Me at the Crux in 1978 and Thug of Love in 1980. Each album inspired a few “next big thing” notices from music critics, who compared the singer-songwriter to Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, or liked his witty lyrics.
Then one night, Hamilton’s shot at the big time came crashing down. He was on an East Coast college tour, opening for singer Warren Zevon. Hamilton had done the sensible thing by turning in early that night. Unfortunately, his road manager and his lead guitarist didn’t; they stayed up to get plastered with Zevon’s band, and sometime during the party they told the rest of the party precisely what they—and, by association, Hamilton—thought of the headliner’s act.
“Zevon had this choreographed wildness, I-don’t-give-a-shit thing,” Hamilton remembers. “And he was wild and don’t-give-a-shit exactly at the same place; every show he did exactly the same thing. And it was, like … showbiz, y’know? Bullshit. But I knew it wasn’t my place to be badmouthing him—to him.”
When Zevon found out the next morning, he booted Hamilton off the tour. With no tour happening, Elektra dropped him. And with no career in sight for the immediate future, Hamilton returned to Stockton—where he put his guitar in the closet, hung out at the Shamrock, a downtown haunt frequented by boxing fans, and later found a job as a counselor working with troubled teens.
“For the first time, I didn’t have money,” he says. “I only knew how to make money by making music. I heard about this job working with kids, and I’ve always been interested in kids and psychology. And I went to interview for it, and the guy I interviewed with knew my music and was a fan. He said, ‘You’re the Dirk Hamilton.’ And I said, ‘I don’t feel like the anything.’ He said, ‘I’ll hire you. I know you’ll be good.’ Just on the strength of my music—which I still think is the best compliment my music’s ever been paid.”
The guitar stayed in the closet for a while. But, if music is in your blood, you can’t keep the stuff bottled up forever, a verity Hamilton eventually discovered. A friend named David Halford casually asked him to join a loose-knit cover band, the Music Farmers, and Hamilton found himself saying yes. “I just had a ball,” he recalls, laughing. “I just kind of … rediscovered the purity and the fun and all this good stuff about playing music—which I’d lost by being cheek-by-jowl with the music business for so long.”
And when his self-imposed ban on singing and playing ended, and his return was greeted warmly, new songs started to materialize.
Then a funny thing happened: An Italian record executive named Franco Ratti, from the Milan-based independent label Appaloosa Records, tracked Hamilton down. Hamilton had been trying to revive his moribund career the conventional way, cutting demo tapes for major record labels in L.A. “During all this,” he says, “I started getting letters from Italy saying, ‘We thought you were dead, we didn’t know where you were, but we found your address. We love your music, and we would love to put your music out on my little label.’ ” A trip to Italy in 1989, where—unbeknownst to the singer—he’d been a cult star for over a decade, soon followed.
As did a series of records for Appaloosa: Too Tired to Sleep, released in 1990, consisted of demos recorded by Hamilton’s former sound man, John Edman, who’d landed a job running a Stockton recording studio. Go Down Swingin’ came out the following year.
Then Hamilton moved to Austin, Texas, a mecca for singer-songwriters. He got married, fathered a son and played music anywhere and time he could. Yep came out on Appaloosa in Italy in 1993, and was released in the U.S. by Nashville-based Core Records after the label signed Hamilton. Three years later, Core released Sufferupachuckle, then almost immediately went belly-up.
What to do? Well, there’s always Italy.
After close to a decade in Austin, Hamilton still feels like an outsider. “I haven’t been accepted,” he says. “I don’t think I really fit here.” On paper it looks like whining, but he’s really acknowledging a hard-to-swallow truth: For all its vaunted musical liberalism, Austin’s aesthetic parameters are rather provincial, and the outsiders who do make it there tend to be from places like Lubbock, Texas—Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore come to mind.
And Hamilton’s brand of songwriting isn’t the kind that usually lights up Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. He shares the same birthday, Aug. 31, with Van Morrison, which may explain the glottal cry in his soaring, smoky tenor, and there’s a certain musical resemblance there, too. (And sometimes they share a bass player, David Hayes, who’ll be accompanying Hamilton at the Palms Playhouse on March 1.)
But Hamilton’s wordy lyrics tumble out like a cataract spraying the boulders below, and his imagery can be jarringly original; here he resembles a young Bruce Springsteen. Take this early example, from his debut album: “The book he bought and gave to her she gave to me when she moved in, then out I gave to you; you said you need a book to read” (“Wasn’t That One Night Good”). Or this, from Yep: “I went to Wales to learn to spell but just got drunk and invented a dart game we called William Tell” (“Long Blonde Hair”). He’ll swagger like classic Morrison one minute, like on one of his best songs “Who Said, On With the Show?” then he’ll quietly slay you with an acoustic folk number like “I Have Come of Age.”
Hamilton’s characteristic depth and stylistic range are evident on his newest album, SEXspringEVERYTHING, which he recently released on his own label, Acoustic Rock. He co-produced the disc with Bradley Kopp, onetime lead guitarist for Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Ironically, Hamilton didn’t hook up with Kopp at some Austin club’s songwriter night; they met when a mutual friend from Italy dragged Hamilton to the Palms one night to see Gilmore’s band.
When Hamilton returns to the Palms, it will represent a homecoming of sorts. Although he was born in Indiana and lived there until age four, and although his family moved to Stockton before his high school senior year, the time between was spent right here—Hamilton grew up in the Parkway area of South Sacramento and went to Luther Burbank High. He was in bands from the time he was 13 or 14: the Regents, the Templers, a surf band called the Piersonic Pier People. “We had a bass player who was really good at names,” he says of the latter combo.
Hamilton played rhythm guitar and sang; his bands’ repertoires ran from surf instrumentals to Chuck Berry covers. “And then we started the Bobbies, ‘cause everybody just loved the Beatles,” he says. “We were Sacramento’s only English beat—the Bobbies. Our biggest gig was, we opened for In Harm’s Way at the Skyview Drive-In.”
An upcoming CD compilation of valley garage bands will feature Hamilton’s ignominious debut as a songwriter, recorded by ‘60s Sacramento studio legend Bill Rase. “Someone found my first record, ‘Time and Happiness,’ when I went solo,” he says. “I went solo at 15,” adding that the recording isn’t quite up to par with his later stuff.
Which is to say that Dirk Hamilton is a bit of a perfectionist. “I won’t finish a song for years if one word’s not right,” he says. And having a career that progresses from garage-band upstart to new Dylan to washed-up new Dylan to cult star in Italy to survivor does tend to give an artist the long view. “I’m proud of my work,” he says, without bragging. “I think it’s uncommonly substantial,” adding: “I’m not in it for the money or the glory, because there’s not either of those these days. I see songwriting, at its best, as a fine art. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Spoken like a true artist.