I had plans to do a lot more posts this week, but this week became a lot more busy than expected. As we learned, sometimes art influences life and sometimes life influences art. But sometimes, life gets in the way of art. That’s assuming a lot, mostly that these posts constitute art, which is very debatable. Nonetheless, the business of my week was very detrimental to my desire to spew out a bunch of posts on the undisputed genius of Tom Waits. I was able to get the most important post about a happy memory out of the way here at the end of the week. But the post on cover songs and the post on interesting instrumentation and the post of the multiple personalities that Tom Waits uses and the post on storytelling and the post on “musical timing” all fell to the wayside. Instead of breaking them out, I’m going to do my best to incorporate some of those thoughts into this week-end wrap up post. Not all of them, just some of them.
On the bright side, even with the amount of excitement in my life this week, I was able to get through a solid chuck of the huge Tom Waits catalogue. A bunch of time in the car helped that cause. A bunch of time playing a video game with awful music helped to, since I just turned down the in-game volume and put Tom Waits on instead. It was a little weird killing an army of giant spiders with a legion of viking warrior maidens riding bears while Tom belts out Big in Japan or Chocolate Jesus, but it worked out.
My love of Tom Waits is all due to my wife. I knew who he was, of course, but never gave him a serious listen. But Heather dove head first into Tom Waits, and so I did too. Sometimes this works out, sometimes we don’t quite agree. She can like The Darkness or Coheed & Cambria all she wants, I just can’t get into them. But Tom Waits resonated, and so he’s become part of my regular rotation of influential artists, not just something I put up with because I love her. She started with the Beautiful Maladies compilation, and we just kept acquiring albums from there. Sometimes we bought the CD, sometimes we bought the vinyl. Sometimes those vinyl albums we new or re-issues, but sometimes we stumbled upon an original album from back when it came out. Those were always the best finds, found by flipping through giant used collections in various stores, from New York State to Ohio to Connecticut.
So what makes Tom Waits special to me? Well, let’s start with the simplest fact. Tom Waits creates music that defies easy description or categorization. Sure, there are a lot of influences of jazz and blues in there. But there are influences of bluegrass and classic country in there, too. And there are gospel influences, and New Orleans Zydeco influences. And there are influences of rock in there. And there are songs that feel like they could be a show tune of some off-broadway production (incidentally, The Black Rider is exactly that, but not the only example of something that sounds like it). There’s no way to fit Tom Waits into some well thought out music genre or sub-genre. I mean, tell me where to fit a song like Singapore. Just try. Tom Waits music is just music. It’s art for art’s sake. It defies your attempts to boil it down or find commonality with someone else. Each album is a new feeling, or a new excursion, or a new adventure. He doesn’t even use the same voice for all of it. Compare Blue Valentine to Anywhere I Lay My Head and tell me that that’s the same guy singing them both.
Another thing that makes Tom Waits special is his ability to tell a story. There are the more obvious examples, like Big Joe and Phantom 309 or the absolutely sublime Nirvana.
(I can’t say how much I absolutely love the story in Nirvana, there is just no way to do it justice. I provide it here because everyone should listen to it:
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the simple beauty of it for a moment. Okay, on with the post)
There are more zany examples like Dog Treat or Frank’s Wild Years (the song on Rain Dogs, not the album of the same name). There are so many less obvious examples, like the little vignettes he relates in Warm Beer and Cold Women or The House Where Nobody Lives or Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis. These are not stories of great people, of people who overcame great hardships to become heroes or of people who rose above their meager circumstances to conquer something. These are just little tales of common people underneath the clean surface of polite society. These are down-on-your-luck, drink-away-my-hardship stories. These are simple tales of simple people and a brief glimpse into their average or below-average lives. And somehow, he makes them beautiful and real. They are honest, sometimes brutally so. You don’t always get that out of music, but here it is, in all of its squalid glory.
I don’t often identify with these stories. I’ve never been a trucker on my way to the west coast who has picked up a crazy, drug-addled nurse in Nebraska like in Medley: Jack & Neal/California, Here I Come. I can’t exactly empathize with that. But Tom Waits paints the picture well enough so that I can enjoy the common-yet-farcical reality of it. As a wanna-be writer, I’m a sucker for good storytelling. And no one accomplishes that like Tom Waits.
There is a picture of America being painted here. For all of the versions of America out there, from the blue-collar anthems of the Boss and John Cougar Mellancamp, to the inner city realities of N.W.A. and Snoop Dogg, Tom Waits paints a very different picture. It touches on all of the bits we don’t notice. It’s not defined exclusively by race or class or location. It talks about the America that, regardless of who they are, is just trying their best to get by. It’s not the romantic vision of America we usually look for. It goes against the grain of music as an escape from the mediocrity of our daily grind. It doesn’t glorify the working man, or the power of love, or any of those other things we come to expect from our music. It talks to us about mundane situations, of everyday heartache and longing, of simple circumstances and the average passage of time. It talks more about the loss of dreams than the dreams themselves. All of this makes your average listener slightly uncomfortable. But it is true art. It is true storytelling excellence. We get caught up in these little tales of depravity and missed opportunities and identify with them on some level. Because Tom Waits sings about all of us. We are all dirty and overworked and we all wish for something greater, but frequently miss out on, either because of our own failings or the forces aligned against us. Then Tom Waits comes along and makes it art.
I love the multiple personalities of Tom Waits sings with. At times, he is a lounge singer and a crooner. He’s melodic and wistful. Then he turns into a growling, snarling beast as he screams his songs out. His voice can be simple and kind, or sound like he’s gargling with gravel, or throaty and stressed. That says nothing of his use of more than just your standard backup ensemble of instruments. He remains an artist I want to see live before either he or I am gone. The only problem is that I can’t imagine seeing him without a thick haze of smoke around and a whiskey in my hand. That narrows down my possibilities, but who knows, it could happen.
Overall, Tom Waits reminds me of all I love about music in general. He mixes and switches genres, he tells compelling stories, and he makes art out of the things we would normally scrape off of our shoes with a wince. It reminds me of good times, forebodes and warns of how fast things can go awry, and entertains the whole time. Mostly, I love the randomness of moods he brings. Don’t like the song he’s playing right now, wait five minutes, the next song is a completely different mood.
Also, one of my life goals is to learn all of the lyrics to Step Right Up and be able to recite them on command.
P.S.- Due to the huge catalogue, and my love of vary different types of songs, I’ve included two songs this week.