Thursday, December 21, 2006


Two weeks ago, on Dec 7th, Tom Waits' 57th birthday, his new 3-CD set, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, arrived in the mail from Amazon. I've listened to it quite a bit since then and it has inspired a few reflections on Waits' career -- the major phase of which runs from the early '80s to the end of the '90s, with the twin high-points being, for me, Rain Dogs (1985) and Bone Machine (1992).

Waits began his recording career with Closing Time (1973) -- piano-based tunes that wouldn't be out of place in other singer-songwriter catalogues of the period (in fact, ubiquitous purveyors of CA mellowness, The Eagles, recorded "Ol' 55" from that album -- Waits remarked, "the only good thing about an Eagles LP is that it keeps the dust off your turntable"). The songs on his debut are "nicer" than any other Waits songs, having the one quality that would be the mainstay of Waits' music for some time to come: good tunes, many of which already seem familiar even when you hear them for the first time, but the lyrics haven't yet attained the other mainstay of the early Waits: sentimental treatments of the "beat" world of derelicts, hookers, mechanics, short-order cooks, strippers, bookies, and the whole world of people getting by in the cracks of the "service industry"; the setting seems to be always within the first decade after WWII in Waits' early work, the time when Kerouac was doing his best writing while fondly recalling the pre-war 30s with its equalizing hard times.

During those initial years of Waits' career I didn't pay him much mind because that beat ethos seemed pretty dated after the shake-up of the '60s. The breakthrough came, sorta, with the stand-out song "Tom Traubert's Blues" on Small Change (1976). By then Waits' voice had begun to achieve its trademarks: a Louis Armstrong rasp with phlegmy quavers and growls. The song is brilliant as writing and as performance, but it didn't make me jump on the bandwagon. Consequently I didn't know of the stride forward in 1980 on Heartattack and Vine (where suddenly the beat ethos has become more virulent -- in the title track -- while also taking maundering to new bathetic heights, with the vocal tour de force of "On the Nickel"), nor of the move into a whole new terrain on Swordfishtrombones (1983), after his marriage to Irish playwright Kathleen Brennan. Listen to the title track, and to "Underground" and "In the Neighborhood." The places are familiar, but the outlook is freakier and the music is carnivalesque, what Waits called "a demented marching band."

Not until Rain Dogs did it become impossible to ignore the fact that a songwriter had emerged whose unique lyrical world could rival the best of Dylan and Cohen, and whose musical style could stand with works by Brecht and Weill, while also being as much of its "time" as the dark, post-punk operatics of Nick Cave's mid-to-late '80s work. From then on, each Waits album has been something to experience, an opportunity to visit again a consistent but, surprisingly, never simply repetitive universe. This isn't to say that some songs don't seem to retread the themes or voice of previous songs -- at times one can feel trapped in the same, endlessly unfolding story of colorful, quirky, shifty and cunning characters not noted for their high-profile success -- but Waits, even more than Dylan, generally knows how to get the most out of his material and makes his voice an instrument that sets as much as it tells the story. Waits assumes voices that enunciate characters, that create the entire mood in which the song should be heard.

Waits has been in various limelights: he acted in movies directed by Jarmusch, Coppola, and Altman, to name but a few, and even had a role supporting two of the greatest film actors of their generation -- Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed -- was nominated for an Oscar for the soundtrack to One From the Heart (1982), produced a musical based on his songs, Frank's Wild Years (1986), and worked with avant-garde theater-director Robert Wilson on The Black Rider, had songs featured in the high profile soundtrack for Dead Man Walking, performed a clip of a song as the lounge singer in Shrek, and so on. A complaint: while Orphans seems to revisit Waits production from late '80s to the present, all the songs are listed as 2006, so there is no info provided as to their origins, date of composition or of initial recording, despite the fact that some of the songs have appeared already in soundtracks.

In any case, the Waits' industry (most are co-written with wife Kathleen) presents a steady stream of songs that celebrate a subculture of losers, grifters, offenders on the run, and regular working-stiffs who take suitably jaundiced views of themselves and others. The set is divided into Brawlers: songs that tend to be more aggressive (including "Road to Peace," a take on terrorism in the middle-east, and "Walk Away," a stand-out song from Dead Man Walking); Bawlers, the trademark "cry in your poison" songs that Waits does so well (he may be the greatest purveyor of melancholy in American music) -- "Fannin Street," the standard "Goodnight Irene," and a cover of the Ramones' "Danny Says"; Bastards, songs -- and several spoken performances -- that capture the oddity of Waits, his willingness (and only Cave treads on this territory) to let a bastard have his say -- the bedtime story from Woyzeck is preciseless, as is the shaggy dog story that concludes the collection.

Blackjack Ruby and Nimrod Cain
The moon's the color of a coffee stain
Jesse Frank and Birdy Joe Hoaks
But who is the king of all these folks?
--Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan, "Bottom of the World"


Andrew Shields said...

Who are you, who are you this time?

And how do you read TW in terms of D&G? Or, more interestingly, how do you read D&G in terms of TW? :-)

Donald Brown said...

Another question I don't mean to answer or entertain -- well, I might entertain it...