NIGHT LIFE : THE CLUB SCENE : A Folk Vision : John Wesley Harding is on a tour, peddling his songs, humor and tall tales.
Folk singer John Wesley Harding is a man of vision, lots of them. Every time “It’s a Wonderful Life” is on television, he gets these strange visions.
“Did you know that John Sebastian and I are the same person?” asked Harding in a recent interview. “Did you know that Bob Dylan actually served in Vietnam during the mid-'60s? He used to play Jerry Lee Lewis records real loud from his bunker,” Harding lied.
“Hey, just make it up, I don’t care.”
Now for the truth, and nothing but. Harding--the Joe Isuzu of rock--is a very funny guy and, let’s not forget, opinionated.
“Of course I deserve half of Milli Vanilli’s money, and besides, I do my own singing. And that Lloyd Cole--what a twit. He isn’t talented at all. Seen his new video? It’s got three guys who look just like him, only thinner.” Why do so many British pop stars wear black? “Because they’re idiots!”
Then, of course, John Wesley Harding isn’t his real name, it’s Wesley Harding Stace, really. He lifted the name, well, almost, from a Bob Dylan album named after a famous outlaw, John Wesley Hardin. From there, it was a simple matter of adding a “g.”
Anyway, Harding, or Stace--the guy in the picture--is smarter than your basic rock ‘n’ roller. He is about a year away from his doctorate in English literature from Cambridge University. His field of study is the films of Jimmy Stewart. Frank Capra is his favorite director; in fact, the album is named after one of Capra’s films, “Here Comes the Groom.”
“I gave it all up; I’m just about a year away from my degree. I’ll probably go back, you never know, I might need it someday. My favorite Jimmy Stewart movie is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I recently saw Stewart on a talk show reading this terrible poem about how his dog died. It’s the worst poem in the world, but every time he reads it, he cries; he acts it out so well--it’s a scream. And Capra, he’s a genius. I love “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town,” “It Happened One Night” and lots of others. I also am a big fan of Preston Sturges--"The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and one of the Top 5 films ever--"Sullivan’s Travels.”
Harding has been on tour for months, doubtlessly hoping someone will buy his records. In Santa Barbara a few months back, Harding’s wit and steady stream of one-liners were coming out so fast and furious, it was almost as if the drunks were on a 10-second taped delay. Harding would say something funny while the drunks just stared off into space, then a few seconds later, they’d finally get it, then laugh. Of course, Harding was three jokes past them by then. The smarter you are, the funnier he is.
“People are going to have to learn to figure me out on their own terms, and, I don’t care because music can’t change the world, but you can change yourself. Well, actually, music did change me, I’ve got a lot more money now than I used to have.”
For musical influences, harding cites John Prine, Phil Ochs, Jim Croce, Tim Hardin and John Hiatt.
“My best song? Structurally, it’s “You’re No Good”; funny-wise, it’s “The Beatles in America”; and pop-wise, it’s “The Devil in Me.”
On his album, Harding has plenty of help--Elvis Costello’s band, The Attractions, for example. On another record, an EP, released around Christmas, Harding engages in a hilarious conversation with an inspired lunatic, Vivian Stanshall of Bonzo Dog Band fame. Then he offers some hilarious insights into that Capricorn and greed extravaganza in “Talking Christmas Goodwill Blues.”
But isn’t a guy with a flattop fairly serious? Maybe not. “I know my bio says I wanted to be a sportswriter, but that’s a lie--I just made that up. Actually, I’m into baseball, chess, cricket and English football; that’s soccer to you. And I hate speedway.
“Do you know the band Poi Dog Pondering? They’re great friends of mine, great friends. If you see them, just go up to the singer, Frank Orrall, and say, ‘Hi, howyadoin’? Wes sent me.’ ” That’s probably when he hits you so hard, it kills your whole family.”