Hiding In Shadows – The Way We Make A Broken Heart

‘No adultery is bloodless’ (Natalia Ginzburg)

‘Adultery is in most cases a theft in the dark.’ (Stefan Zweig)

‘To borrow against the trust someone has placed in you costs nothing at first. You get away with it, you take a little more and a little more until there is nothing more to draw on. Oddly, your hands should be full with all that taking but when you open them there’s nothing there.’. (Jeanette Winterton)

‘There must be millions just like you and me, practiced in the art …’
(John Hiatt from, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’)

The human heart is about the size of a large fist and usually weighs about 10 ounces. Throughout each twenty four hours of light, half-light, near dark and dark your heart will beat some 100,000 times and if you are lucky enough to live a long life it will beat on and on three billion times and more.

Beyond its anatomical functions the heart has had, in virtually all cultures, a central place in human beings understandings and puzzlements about why we live the way we do: sometimes behaving honourably and faithfully sometimes turning away to wilfully betray our deepest loyalties.

The theme of love found, love lost and love betrayed has been a constant subject in all forms of art since the first cave dwellers palm painted their walls. Singers and songwriters have found that a truthful song about the twisted dance of the human heart as expressed in our carnal and marital relationships never fails to find an audience which will recognise their own story or one of someone they know all too well.

Artists within the Country and Soul genres, speaking as they do to adult audiences, have specialised in forensically examining the sorrow and the shame, the exultation and the guilt, the secrets, lust, lies and conspiracies involved in those trysts conducted in the shadows away from the homes and marriages where the spurned spouse sleeps unknowingly with their heart beating steadily on.

Rosanne Cash’s version of John Hiatt’s, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’, featured above, was a number 1 single on the US Country charts in 1987. The song had originally appeared on Ry Cooder’s superb 1980 album, ‘Borderline’.

John Hiatt in this song carefully delineates a virtual users guide or manual for those locked in the throes of an illicit affair. The song recognises that the fruits of the passion shared by the protagonists are wormwood for the third party and come at high cost for all concerned. The song speaks of guilt, sorrow, lies and a trail of tears and ruefully acknowledges that the cycle may be unstoppable, ‘She’ll find somebody new and he’ll likely hurt her too’. However, it must be allowed that this perception may be the self-justifying shrug of a repeat offender who cannot believe others might follow a straighter path.

Still the affair must play out its painful course. Passion and longing are the drivers for the affair and once the strings are attached all must play their part whether they are willingly cast or not. In all affairs there is longing; longing to experience once again the white hot flame of addictive lust, longing to become again the person who inspires lust in another, longing for the thrilling possession of the shared secret knowledge of new lovers.

In the song we are in the shadows where lights are low and where on some dark night the lights will be forever dimmed on this affair. The song flatly advises that you get used to telling lies and intimates that the sorrow felt when the tears fall becomes ritualised rather than truly felt. The song may reveal the protagonist as an unreliable narrator who reveals more about himself, to his discredit, than he assumes in the telling of his tale. Hiatt’s reverence for the short stories of Raymond Carver may be making their influence felt here.

Rosanne Cash was at the height of her commercial success in 1987 racking up hit after hit: demonstrating that her success was due to far more than the help having her father’s name had given her initial steps in the music business.

Rosanne sings Hiatt’s song and makes it her own giving it an almost hysterical force in the live version shown here. Her lovely silver bell like voice rings out making every word strike home to do its emotional work on the listener. The arrangement and instrumentation take the song, given a soul/R&B flavour on the original recording, to the Tex/Mex borderlands emphasising the lyrical ballad like shape of the song and giving it a delirious dance rhythm.

It feels as if Rosanne is singing the song to herself as she twirls and twirls around a hardwood floor becoming giddier and giddier as she circles. Perhaps that’s why she lets loose with those intoxicating, ‘Ay, Ay, Ays’ as the song draws to a close. The hangover can, as she knows it must, kick in tomorrow! Tonight it’s a time to dance.

The pleasures and the pain of an affair are inextricably intertwined and this song and this performance bring both facets alive before us. How we hear the song will, of course, be partly determined by our own histories. We all have lessons to learn.

Rosanne Cash:

Rosanne has a distinguished catalogue which shows a highly intelligent woman building upon her considerable gifts as a writer and singer to create works of enduring musical merit and emotional impact. I particularly recommend the albums, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (for the announcement of a real talent), ‘King’s Record Shop’ (for its maturity and the luminous version of, ‘Runaway Train’) and two albums of beautiful but brutally honest and painful introspection, ‘Interiors’ and, ‘The Wheel’.

In the last decade Rosanne has produced a triumphant trio of records, ‘The List’, ‘Black Cadillac’ and, ‘The River And The Thread’ which show an artist at the height of her powers able to honour her family and regional heritage and face head on the sorrows and griefs which assail every life in songs of deep craft and humanity. She has also written an affecting memoir, ‘Composed’ to add to her earlier short story collection, ‘Bodies Of Water’. I think we can safely, at this point, refer to Rosanne Cash as a Woman in full.

John Hiatt:


John Hiatt is a top drawer songwriter and performer who has written a cache of songs including the song featured above which have been recognised by fellow practitioners like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan as modern standards.

Chief among these is the song, ‘Across The Borderline’ which uses the Rio Grande border as a metaphor for the borders we all long to cross while remaining fearful that the promised dream may turn out not to be the gateway to the future we have fondly imagined.

For, we know or dread, that the promises we believe in or make to ourselves can often be broken by our own fallibility or the malevolence of fate.
There are wonderful versions for you to seek out by Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Freddy Fender and Willy Deville (who also does a characteristically dramatic version of ‘The Way.. ‘).

Each artist covering the song brings their own understanding of the history and promises involved in the ballad to the microphone – its a song that asks questions of each singer who takes it on.

John Hiatt’s songs are the product of a highly literate imagination tuned into the rhythms and routines of the victories and defeats of everyday life as lived in communities and towns in modern America. They are principally set in the South where the accents are rich and stories and myths abound to be told and retold.

Some of his songs have a pickup out of control on a country road propulsion (Tennessee Plates’ ) and some have a woody back porch lyricism (Lipstick Sunset). All his best songs have wit and sharp observation incarnated in well honed lyrics. Hiatt is a hymnist of scarred blue collar lives giving them their due weight in careful description and emotional drama.

Recommended CDs – ‘Bring The Family’, ‘Slow Turning’, ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’, ‘Open Road’ and, ‘Anthology’ are my picks though a trawl through his extensive catalogue will undoubtedly find you adding your own choices to this list

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