Today’s song, from Tom Waits’ debut album, Closing Time, way back in 1973, is here for old times’ sake, but it’s also here to commemorate 55 years on this planet for your humble narrator. The 17th is my day of birth, so why not go with a song title that indirectly alludes to the age reached? It’s an irresistible opening when heard that way: “Well, my time went so quickly / I went lickety-splitly / Out to my ol’ 55 / As I drove away slowly / I was feeling so holy / God knows, I was feeling alive.”
The situation and the feeling that Waits’ song captures so well, with its subdued sense of self-satisfaction leavened with a touch of lonesomeness, is the “morning after” departure by dawn’s early light from a woman’s bed. “Just a-wishing I’d stayed a little longer.” The scene of post-coital blues always puts me in mind of my older brother who, back when I was still virginal, first played this song for me—in both Waits’ version and the slicker, less bluesy version the Eagles released on On the Border (1974)—commenting that he was of the “leave as soon after sex as possible” contingent. I have to admit that’s never really been my experience, so what Waits portrays here is something I imagined back then and still pretty much only imagine. The lift of manliness with which he intones the following has a kind of testosterone kick to it: “Well, it’s six in the morning / Gave me no warning / I had to be on my way / Now the trucks are all passing me / The lights are a-flashing / I’m on my way home from your place.”
So now he’s put it out there. He had a nice night and now he’s got to get back to doing whatever he’s got to be doing. The image he makes so clear is of a guy on the road as “the sun’s coming up / I’m riding with Lady Luck / freeway, cars, and trucks / Stars beginning to fade / And I lead the parade.” There’s the sense of settling back into his solitary routine, with the woman back there behind him and what’s ahead is the rest of his day, maybe even the rest of his life. It’s dawn, and luck be a lady. And there’s a chorus of voices just in the background, giving grounds to his assertion that he’s “feeling so holy.” This guy could ascend into heaven if he’s not careful.
But all the power in the song is the tension between this lyrical moment alone and how he spent his night. It’s a transitional state, filled with the longing to go back (and that’s something, even as a kid in school, I could relate to—that feeling of wanting to go back to bed, regretting that you had to get up and get into a cold car, moving through a day that “gave me no warning,” a working stiff, back to work), and the simple contemplation of a moment on the road, blending in with—as we used to say, quoting the Firesign Theater—“the freeway, already in progress.” Back into the stream of life goes our hero, proud and manly and feeling alive, but wishing he’d had more time with his girl.
And that’s why I chose the song for today. We’re always wishing we’d had more time. We’re always joining the road—or the river—in medias res. We’re—some of us, anyway—reaching and moving past those “middle years,” just a-wishing we’d stayed a little longer, “And, Lord, don’t you know, that feeling’s getting stronger.” But however much “back there” beckons the road is only going one way. That’s built into the nature of time, even if the “Ol ’55” does have “reverse.” The song, with that one little detail, “out to my ol’ 55,” gets across a lot as well. This guy’s driving a car that—when the song was released—is almost twenty years old. It’s a throwback. It’s a car that was new when Kerouac published On the Road, indicating that Waits might be recalling himself as a teen—16 in 1955—or the car, like the Packards in Kerouac, his speaker still drives, dating from that time, a car proudly turned off the assembly line a mere ten years after “the Big One” ended. This guy, like my own birth was, is swaddled in post-war nostalgia.
For those who know primarily the raspier-voiced Waits this album is a bit of a revelation. The first Waits I knew was the Waits of Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) and Small Change (1976). He got to that classic Waits voice by degrees. On his first album, he’s a sweeter singer, able to exploit an understated pathos that creeps into almost every song on the album. It’s a late-night album, a pre-dawn album, an album for a guy who sits up to see the dawn, smoking, maybe sipping a little whiskey. An album for the hours between the closing of the bars and rising of the sun.