Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Tom Waits: A Personal History

Quite possibly the only musician whose work I continually go back to, Tom Waits has always been there for me and is back strong. I first heard his brand of quasi-beatnik jazz as a child when my uncle spun me his copy of Nighthawks at the Diner. It sounded unlike anything I had ever heard. The record is pretty much Tom with a small jazz combo scatting and laying down half-drunken poetry in the all American tradition of his then hero, Kerouac. As an eleven-year-old boy, this should not have impacted me in the least. I should have gone about my Van Halen worshipping and forgotten all about the gravel-voiced bohemian singing about eggs and sausage and the El train sounding like the ghost of Gene Krupa with an overhead cam and glass packs.

This was the year 1984. My brother and I, both thoroughly amused by our impression of Tom Waits, found a cassette copy of Nighthawks and also saw that Mr. Waits had a new release called Swordfistrombones. I bought a copy of that as well. Anyone familiar with Tom’s music knows that these two records are eons apart and in two completely different universes. Needless to say, I was none too impressed with Mr. Waits’ other offering.

Cut to 1989. Rediscovering Swordfishtrombones, and coming to the conclusion that it was a work of genius, led me to what would become my favorite record of perhaps all time, Rain Dogs. By the time Bone Machine came out, I was fully obsessed with all things Tom Waits. I bought hats so I could look like Tom. I drank bourbon and chain smoked. I threw away so many guitar driven 80’s records in favor of jazz and the avant-garde. I dreamt of jumping into a half-dead convertible and gunning it down the freeway toward New Orleans. I quoted Tom endlessly, raising a glass and toasting, “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.”

Following the landmark Bone Machine-- with its junk yard orchestra and found percussion sounds coming straight from the farm where there was, indeed, a murder in the red barn-- came The Black Rider. One of my friends described this as the most hopeless record he’d ever had the pleasure of discovering. I don’t know that I agree, but The Black Rider is certainly a dark, strange recording full of those chances and daring arrangements that typify Waits’ Island recordings. Some see it as bleak, others as merely playful, but just about everyone agrees that it is something special. What could be better than a Faustian musical written by Waits based on text by William S. Burroughs and staged by Robert Wilson? Answer: not much, goddamnit. At that point, I thought Tom could do no wrong.

And then came Mule Variations. A lackluster record full of self-parody, I never really cottoned on to this CD. I was mostly grateful that it resulted in Tom touring and coming to Chicago. Sure, those songs sounded a lot better live, but going back to the source never seemed an option. Every time I heard “Eyeball Kid” or “Big In Japan” I remembered the initial disappointment and that realization that no one is infallible. I was prepared to be let down by parents, friends, lovers, presidents and god, but hearing that CD was like learning there is no Santa Claus. When Alice and Blood Money came out on the same day I was thrilled, but (both better than Mule Variations) that one-two punch was still more like a couple of near misses.

I suppose it is important to never have expectations. The Epitaph/Anti records had let me down and so I did not get all aflutter over the news that Real Gone was coming. I read advanced reviews and took in the words I have so often seen associated with Tom Waits. Raspy vocals, eclectic arrangements, songs about farms, the circus and soldiers-- in short, a collection full of, as Waits’ wife and collaborator likes to say, Grim Reapers and Grand Weepers. I had the madman Xtop fish the record from the oh so plentiful internet and burn me a copy. Now, Xtop is a big fan of Mule Variations and Alice. He does not seem to understand my disappointment. We differ on this point, but I think we both agree that Real Gone is the strongest Waits recording in many goddamn years.

I cannot fully express how happy this disc makes me. “Hoist that Rag” is blissful noise with Waits barking those three words and sounding more menacing then any death metal vocalist. “Sins of My Father” is eleven minutes of quiet reckoning and dark exploration. “Top of the Hill”, “Don’t Go Into That Barn” and “Shake It” all move around Waits’ beat-boxing chants like snakes slithering through black blood. Even “Circus”, a song akin to so many spoken word curiosities for which Waits is famous, is a fresh source of oddball fun. I usually grow to dislike these offerings, as Waits will never top “9th and Hennepin” in my book, but “Circus” comes a lot closer then “What’s He Building?” Songs like “Green Grass” and “Make it Rain” elevate me, as I know they will regardless of what will happen in my life, insuring that I will always have a friend in Tom Waits. They are already up there for me, in that same lofty place as “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, “Tango ‘till They’re Sore”, “Shore Leave”, “Ruby’s Arms”, “Anywhere I Lay My Head”, “Black Wings”, “Invitation to the Blues”, “Temptation”, “I’ll Shoot the Moon”, and “Strange Weather”. I am ashamed that my love for Waits waned slightly these past years. Tom, please forgive me. Take me back into your twisted arms. I'll gladly meet you by the knuckles of the skinny boned tree.