Tuesday, February 18, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 49):"COLD, COLD GROUND" (1987) Tom Waits

This guy’s been waiting for his day. Tom Waits is one of those “national treasure” kind of artists. His early days didn’t make that much impression on me, though my older brother was a fan. I can’t hear certain songs from The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits’ 2nd (1974), or his debut, Closing Time (1973), without thinking of my brother Tom and Newark, DE, or also Philly friends Pat and Nancy too, big early Waits adherents. For me, he didn’t break through a certain derivative schtick, not even on Small Change (1976), which has some stunners, until Swordfishtrombones (1983), though I heard Rain Dogs (1985) first.  So that’s the one I always refer to as the big breakthrough LP. He pretty much blew away most other stuff with those two, then.

Today’s song comes from the next album, Frank’s Wild Years (1987), which was derived from a theatrical piece he did at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Wish I’d seen it, but, y’know. Anyway, the theatricality of the album always distracted me a bit. There are songs on there that, while they might be fine in the context of the performance, seem a bit overdone. Or I should say “seemed.” In time, I came to appreciate it all more, though I’d still say it’s not quite the caliber of Swordfish and Rain Dogs. Some songs are, though. Which is the way things tend to go. “They all can’t be gems,” but so long as some are, well, we got no problems.

This one is a gem. And it’s been haunting my head for a few days now, just waiting for its chance to get tapped. It was the song on this album that grabbed me first and it never really let go. I think it’s due to that opening which really puts me in mind of Marty Robbins—you know, the singer of all those gunslinger ballads me and my sibs listened to as kids til they were burned into our brains like the sign of the Lazy J into a herd of cattle. “Crestfallen sidekick in an old cafĂ© / Never slept with a dream before he had to go away.” Waits at this point in his career had gone from the would-be Beat and Bop apologist to something entirely of his own invention—though pastiched together from whatever came to hand. He’s got the poetry of offhand imagery, the zap and zing of the holy non sequitur, and in the midst of it all the homey and the homiletic.

“There’s a bell in the tower / Uncle Ray bought a round / Don’t worry about the army / In the cold, cold ground.”  This could go anywhere. It’s not telling a story, though there are details that make us feel we’re hearing bits of lots of tales. It’s wonderfully associative. And it’s kind of up to any listener to say which lines jump out most.  “Call the cops on the Breedloves / Bring a bible and a rope / And a whole box of rebel / And a bar of soap.” It’s almost like nursery rhymes but there’s something lethal under it all. That cold, cold ground (sleep in its arms, bring a dollar with you, baby, we’ll bury every dream there) keeps slapping us in the face. It may be a solace, in the end, but it hangs over our heads like a gallows’ tree.

This isn’t a song of redemption; it might be a song about making your peace with the big finis. It feels composed of the shreds of cast-off advice, something to stitch together into a party shroud.  “The cat’ll sleep in the mailbox / And we’ll never go to town.”  That doesn’t sound so bad. We’re hiding out, hibernating. Letting life get away from us. “The piano is firewood / Times Square is a dream.”  Who needs ’em?  “Stop talkin’ to the neighbors til we all go dead / Beware of my temper / And the dog that I found.”  Yeah, he’s got that Winchester rifle aimed at anyone who doesn’t need to be there.

David Hidalgo’s accordion keeps it all sprightly. And it’s one of the more steadfast guitar songs in Waits’ repertoire. You imagine he has to lean forward to sing it, as though with each repetition he’s gaining on the cold, cold ground. He sings it with that cry in his voice he has sometimes. Like he might start bawling or yowling. Like his tail or his thumb’s caught in a door. The kind of voice you might use to plead your case before the Big Man when you know it won’t do no good. You’re just kvetching to hear yourself kvetch. Every now and then, there’s a different sound to his voice, a registering of the cost of hope, we might say. Like the little jig of a doomed man passing that bottle around one more time.

now don't be a cry baby
when there's wood in the shed
there's a bird in the chimney
and a stone in my bed
when the road's washed out
we pass the bottle around
and wait in the arms
of the cold cold ground

This is like willingly pulling that sheet up over your own head. Dead? No, not exactly, just stretching out for a few in the cold, cold ground. I guess there could be worse places to be.


Andrew Shields said...

This was my first TW album. I was taken in by this one, for sure, as well as "Temptation," "Hang On St. Christopher," and "Way Down in the Hole." Also the first time I ever heard Marc Ribot, one of my favorite musicians. And I saw the tour in SF, with Ribot, Ralph Carney, Greg Cohen, and Michael Blair. (I later saw Ribot and Blair with Tench, Lowe, and Costello in Philly, the Rude 5.)

Oh, man, and how could I have forgotten "Innocent When You Dream"?

Donald Brown said...

And how could you have forgotten "More Than Rain"? One of my later favorites is "I'll Be Gone." And "Train Song." "Temptation" gets on my nerves though.

Andrew Shields said...

The only one I can think of that I once liked and now like less is "I'll Take New York," both versions of which fit nicely into the implied story of the album as a whole (so I liked them at first), without standing alone very well (so I didn't like them as much in the long run).

Donald Brown said...

That one really gets on my nerves. And, right, it wouldn't in a show, but on the record I could do without it. Even the songs I like less on Rain Dogs don't distract me. Still, it's interesting that that's the first Waits LP you heard. I can't even imagine that!

Andrew Shields said...

I'm pretty sure I had heard bits of SFT and RD before, but from 1984 through 1986, all my DJ activity was jazz, so I wasn't really following new releases that weren't jazz. Starting in 1987, I began to do some non-jazz DJing again, and I started to discover stuff I had not noticed before, as well as new stuff, like FWY.