JOHN WESLEY HARDING has done what few would dare: At 22, he quit his PhD program at England's Cambridge University, picked up his guitar, and decided to make music. Three years after leaving Cambridge, Harding (who borrowed his name from a Bob Dylan album) has recorded three albums and graduated from opening act to top billing at shows on both sides of the Atlantic.
He is now touring North America for the first time.
``A pop musician with good lyrics,'' he calls himself.
On first listen, Harding sounds like Elvis Costello; he records with Costello's band. But in the slower pop songs, such as his acoustic-guitar version of Madonna's ``Like a Prayer,'' Harding's own sound comes through deep, clear, and strong.
Other radio favorites are ``Here Comes the Groom,'' from his 1990 debut album of the same name (which critics adored), and ``The Person You Are'' from his new album, ``Name Above the Title.''
He sings about broken movie stars, love gone sweet, love gone sour, and a world of happy people falling into debt.
``His songs go a lot deeper than a lot of material that comes out these days. He sings about real people, but keeps the story on a universal level,'' says Jock Baird, former editor of Musician magazine.
In a one-star hotel room before a Boston show, Harding talks in a rapid British clip, as if his mouth cannot keep up with his mind. Dressed in sweats and white socks, Harding contrasts with his high-voltage stage persona of suited dandy with slicked-back hair. (The phone rang several times, once to invite Harding to appear on TV's Late Night with David Letterman - a sign that he's someone to watch.
Harding grew up in ``middle-class England,'' he says, in a houseful of artists: his mother sings opera, his father plays jazz piano, and two sisters dance ballet. But Harding showed little interest in music until college, where he began writing songs for his social and political science department. He taught himself to play guitar, put lyrics to music, got some local gigs, and left school. Soon he found himself in a studio recording his first album accompanied by Elvis Costello's band, the Attractions, renamed ``the Good Liars.''
Some critics call Harding a ``philosopher,'' but that's only part of the story. ``I like to write about things that are complicated, but in a very simple format. Pop music is a very simple format.... It's a good mental exercise to fit complicated ideas into this format.''
How can he call himself ``pop,'' while other musicians scorn the word? Because all ``pop'' is not equal, he says. ``Pop nowadays is just ch-ch-ch-ch [he raps lightly on the bedspread] just like some drum patt'n with a guy or a girl singin' over it. Pop nowadays is pretty much your haircut, and if your last record sold a lot of copies.''
Having ``a huge sense of irony about what I do, what it means to be a pop star'' lets him take pop seriously, Harding says.
He likes the music of the Kinks, Lovin' Spoonful, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Abba, the Carpenters, and the Who. (The Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey recently asked Harding to write him a couple of songs.)
His favorite lyric writers include: Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young.
Yet, with all Harding's emphasis on words, he refuses to print lyrics on liner notes because they will be taken out of the context of the song. Instead he released a small book of expanded lyrics, like prose poems.
Harding works quickly: he recorded his most recent album, with 15 songs (he wrote all but one) in three weeks. Some songs take him 10 minutes to write; others take half a year.
At his Boston concert, the audience loved him. They laughed during his funny, rapid-fire folk-rap song, ``When the Beatles Hit America,'' which describes an imaginary reunion of the fab four. In the style of Bob Dylan's ``Subterranean Homesick Blues,'' Harding parodies promoters, the music business, and the myths the Beatles left behind.
Still energetic at 1 a.m., Harding and the band bounced back on stage for a fourth encore. Says fan Richard Weinstein from Cambridge, ``I've seen a lot of bands from England recently, and they all have an attitude. But [Harding] enjoyed the crowd, and the crowd really enjoyed the show.''
``He's really witty. He's got a quirky sense of humor and it comes through in his lyrics,'' observes a fan from Newton, Mass.
Tour Dates: May 17 Austin; May 18 Amarillo, Texas; May 19 Boulder, Colo.; May 20 Salt Lake City; May 23 Boston; May 24 San Diego; May 25 Santa Cruz; May 26,27 San Francisco; May 28 Reno; May 31 Ventura, Calif.; June 2,3 Los Angeles