Friday, March 7, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 66):"TIME" (1985) Tom Waits

I’ve done 65 of these posts—only 300 more to go!  So let’s take stock of something that probably no one is paying attention to but which, once you note it, might start to give some a rooting interest. Like: which year has the most selections so far? And, for those not given to such minutia: of the seven decades so far represented—50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s—what are the relative numbers?*  Of course, others might question things like “most represented artists”; that’s easy enough to keep track of, but I’m more interested in how the representation across time works out. Mainly because, if you haven’t caught on yet, this is all about time. Killing time, biding time, re-living time, recreating time, and speaking across time. There are three songs I like a lot called “Time.” Today we’re talking about one of them.

With Rain Dogs, Tom Waits jumped forever into the top flight category, proving that Swordfishtrombones wasn’t just a fluke and even bettering that album, in my view. Rain Dogs is the album that, maybe, Waits always had in him but had to go through some changes to arrive at. Part of what was necessary was ditching, to some extent, the Beat ethos that was so much a part of what his early career was steeped in. Or not ditch it, exactly. More like go beyond it. And what that required, seemingly, was more inventive instrumentation. On Rain Dogs, in particular, Waits is in Brecht-Weill country, or, rather, it’s a Berlin cabaret in the bayou. Swampy showtunes. Swordfishtrombones.

And it also means taking a song like “Time”—in the tradition of the piano ballads featured prominently on every Waits album through 1980—and recording it with guitar and accordion and bass. But if we just talk arrangements we’ll miss what makes this period of Waits’ writing so distinctive. His lyrics, always full of characters and settings, often little stories or first-person memoirs, have become more elliptical, full not just of images and people, but built of phrases that are acts of poetry. Suddenly Waits isn’t just a Beat wanna-be, he’s a major player.

Take a look at today’s song. This song isn’t anyone’s story. It’s not a narrative. It’s a mood, yes, more than anything. Full of nostalgia and longing. It encapsulates “a scene” wherein the likes of Napoleon and Harlow are name entities, and even resurrects Matilda from what is still one of Waits’ greatest songs “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (for another time), but there’s no insistence that all these people are conversant with what the song is getting at.  They’re examples, figures, illustrations. And what they illustrate, in their mini-dramas of a line or two, is what the chorus insists on: “oh it’s time, time, time, yes it’s time, time, time that you love, and it’s time, time, time.”

Now, there are those who assume this is advice: “it’s time you love,” as in: “it’s time you fell in love, or found a lover.” I’ve never taken it that way. For me, the resonance of this song is in the fact that it’s saying “it’s time (itself) that you love.” The repetitions of “it’s time, time, time”—the words called out at closing time in a bar—let us know that, if it is time you love, there’s only so much of it to go around (or to stick around for).

My insistence on this meaning may have to do with the fact that this song came into my life after I had become a devotee of Proust’s Recherche. When that happened (I was not yet 25), I finally saw what the Big Theme of life was. Before that, what with Catholicism in my childhood, Nietzsche in my teens, and Rilke around twenty, I would probably have said it was God, or Man, or Death. Y’know, big concepts that don’t really exist unless someone takes the trouble to articulate them. I mean, you can point to a man, but not Man, and point to a dead creature, but not Death. But with Time, well, you can pretend it’s just an abstraction, something imposed by the fact of biology, but you can’t avoid it. It permeates. And Proust demonstrates how “time”—the when—is the key aspect of life, even more so than “where.” For, whether you stay in one place or move about a lot, wherever you go, there you are: in time. It’s the wheel to which we’re strapped as we spin in our orbit round that lazy old sun.

The key part of Waits’ song, where he renders a relation to time in lines as good as anyone, is: 

And they all pretend they're orphans
And their memory's like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can't remember
Tell the things you can't forget that
History puts a saint in every dream

Memory is a train where time equals distance: you can see the train shrinking with distance, as it pulls away; you can see things getting older as time increases, till the things you can’t remember and the things you can’t forget keep common currency. Or, look how the figure works: what you can’t remember tells what you can’t forget that history (could be both) puts a saint in every dream. That last bit is a flourish; it's Waits being deliberately poetic, with “saints” and “dreams” standing in, almost, for poetic conceits themselves. But it’s saint, not angel. Didn’t I just mention Rilke? Remember how he says, “my heart, listen as only saints have listened.”  What is a saint? Someone who sacrifices the glory of the world for the glory of God? Someone who is utterly selfless? Someone who prays, who, to borrow a Donald Fagen line, “prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire?” Whatever a saint is, there’s one in every dream, Tom tells us, placed there by history. Damn good of history, I suppose, unless you’d rather that we did without saints.

Waits, who elsewhere on this album, says “get me to New Orleans and paint shadows on the pews,” knows that we all want to be in their number when the saints go marchin’ in. So, history, we might say, dreams of saints or, if we’re “desirous to be blessed,” then maybe history is the dream of saints. A saintsdream. And so is time.

There are a lot of figures in this song for the kind of endurance of the poetic conceit beyond its immediate denotative value—I might mention those pigeons that fall around Matilda’s feet after she pulls that razor from her boot; I might mention the stranger with the weeds in [his] heart; I might mention the rain that sounds like a round of applause (a figure that’s so good, but which is the part that most sounds like the “old Waits”); I might mention the great use of apostrophe, (“so close your eyes, son, and this won’t hurt a bit”), which reminds me of Jiminy Cricket talking to Pinocchio; but the one I’m going for is: “as the dish outside the window fills with rain.”

There was a time when that dish was empty; there may come a time when the dish is full of rain water and overflows; and there is a time when it is neither empty nor full. And that’s where we are right now, watching it fill.

This link leads to Waits performing the song in his film Big Time. It’s not a bad performance, but it is a performance. Waits on stage tends to be stagey. Waits in the recording studio is a better artist because what he has realized better than any poet you can name is that, with poetry, delivery is a big part of the deal. And so he crafts not just the lines but which voice will deliver the lines. And every song on Rain Dogs is masterful, from that point of view. So I’ve linked to the Rain Dogs version too, which maintains a very non-stagey off-hand, conversational tone that is the hardest thing to maintain if you try to sing this song. On the album, Waits delivers the song much more like the monologues he tends to indulge in on stage. And that’s the way I like it, with the “when you wish upon a star” chords only sounding with the chorus . . . . now, everybody . . . “oh it’s time, time, time . . . “

*The breakdown so far: 1970s: 20; 1980s: 17; 1960s: 10; 1990s: 9; 2000s: 4; 2010s: 2; 1950s: 2; and in terms of most popular years, so far: 1971 is winning with 5; tied at 4 are: 1973, 1980, 1984; tied at 3 are: 1967, 1969, 1972, 1978. So far, no artist has more than two songs, but that will most certainly change, and those lucky mortals are: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Neil Young. 

So there you have it: can any year top 1971? Do the Seventies have it sewn up, or could the underdog Eighties prove victorious? And what about the Sixties and the Nineties—could that be a key rivalry, with me pre-teen in the first and post-30 in the second? Anyone want to lay odds on the top year for each decade? Who will emerge first from the double-dip artists, and who will rack up the highest numbers?

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