The reason that, as his popularity rose, my estimation of Bruce Springsteen dropped, around 1984 with his mega hit LP Born in the U.S.A., isn’t just because he went for the radio-friendly sound of the times. It’s also partly because that LP comes sandwiched between the release of two albums by Tom Waits—in 1983 and 1985—that pretty much eclipse the Brucer. Springsteen, for all his supposed skill in evoking the gritty real world of street types, never gets at the seedy reality of a song like “In the Neighborhood.” Some might even say that Waits’ album Small Change, from 1976, should knock Born to Run off its pedestal, but I wouldn’t go that far. Back then, Waits was still too much the Beat wanna-be. With Swordfishtrombones he moved into uncharted territory (as far as pop/rock records go), expanding his musical palette, but he also developed a much more expressionist control of his lyrics.
Some might say—as my friend Matt was insisting on the street outside the Institute Library after my book party in May—that Springsteen’s handling of Waits’ “Jersey Girl” is where things really tip in Waits’ favor. In a sense, and as incredible as it may seem for Mr. Jersey, Bruce doesn’t get it. Or it's not that he doesn’t get it—he doesn’t get it across. And that’s because Springsteen isn’t as gifted at portraying personae as Waits is. With Springsteen, we’re always aware that he’s just pretending to be the guy speaking in the song. He’s too much a showman, always. With Waits that’s true too, but the guys speaking in Waits songs became gradually more complex as roles—they truly began to tip into theater. If I think back to the time when Waits eclipsed Bruce, that’s what I recognize: Waits as a willful self-inventor in song after song, and the people in those songs start branching out and away from the deadbeats and hard drinkers and sad-sack romantics of his usual shopworn scenes of pool halls and prostitutes and the midnight train—and not because he suddenly has a different cast of characters but rather because the language and the music with which he presents them to us is inspired by a different rationale. It’s Brechtian cabaret, it’s comic opera, it’s West Side Story meets Surrealism. (Though, if you stick around till Springsteen's birthday in September you'll find a post about a Bruce song that does a Waits number, back in 1973, when Waits was still a late-night piano man in love with moonlight in a shot glass.)
Today’s song is a good example of where Waits was heading. The conceit of the video is that this ragtag marching band, out of something by Burroughs or maybe Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, is tootling through the neighborhood while the Drum Major is none less than Waits himself, lip-synching to beat the band, so to speak. It’s all shot with a fisheye lens to make it look like its reflected in one of them there swordfishtrombones. It’s not a bad little strip of video, as such things go. But it can’t come close to the visuals in Waits’ song.
Without going much into details, without trying to flesh out the stories that he gestures toward and encapsulates so well, the narrator of “In the Neighborhood” is an entrenched local. He knows everybody, he knows all the tricks (“Sey’s got a pistol on the register side”), he can sum up the week with the big events—“Friday’s a funeral and Saturday’s a bride”; he can zoom in on an everyday breakfast as though it’s a reversal of gender roles (“Well the eggs chase the bacon round the frying pan”) and go wide for “the newspaper sleeping bags roll down the lane” as we seem to see them, like urban tumbleweeds, heading for parts unknown. There are kids saddened by the tragic fire at the market—so no ice cream; and no butter deliveries “because the goddamn delivery trucks, they make too much noise.” And there’s construction work and jack-hammers, and (my favorite) “that goddamn flatbed’s got me pinned-in again.” All in a week’s gripe for this guy.
You can imagine him sitting on his stoop or splintery porch in his wife-beater with a brew or a cup of viscous coffee, muttering, knocking away ash, probably from an El Stinko cigar. Nothing happens but everything’s happening the way it always does. And the tune—that’s what makes it magical. Up to this point, Waits would’ve been likely to turn the song into a maudlin piano tune, something only a few rungs down the social ladder from Billy Joel, where “the neighborhood” is fulla characters with character and we’re beat but living. Instead, the song is on a march into oblivion—it’s satiric, it’s mock-elegiac, it’s also tinged with the sadness of all those kitschy gimcracks that are supposed to make a difference in tawdry lives—“look what I brung ya, hon”—but are somehow so depressing, once stripped of that little bit of charisma that rubs off from good intentions.
Waits’ speaker here “don’t mean no one no good”—as Dylan might say—but he still belongs. He still knows what’s what. And he ain’t going nowhere. And, from this view, neither is the neighborhood. We might say it’s nostalgic—the video seems sepia-tinted—but around the time this song came out I used to visit my friends Joe and Gail in the Powellton Village area of Philly and this song suited the surroundings very much, then. Which made me believe in the song all the more. Ditto the fact that I was living in far from the most upscale apartment myself. Right off that highway I’ve mentioned a few times, where the motel had the kind of clientele that would feel right at home in a Waits song.
Waits broke through into a unique presentation with this album and has never returned to where most songwriters of his times dwell. And Big Mambo’s kicking his old gray hound. A line that is a simple statement of fact, but, as a fact, acts as shorthand for much. It’s an act of frustration, of random violence, even of brutal affection. And the name “Big Mambo” creates an image almost in spite of itself. We could probably pick him out of a lineup. That kind of economy and compression became the hallmark of Waits’ writing from here on out.