By Rush Evans
Like so many Goldmine readers and contributors, I possess an embarrassing amount of records and CDs, literally hundreds of thousands of songs that time will not grant me the opportunity to hear with any reasonable frequency. Why, then, is it that when I go to bed at night with the headphones on in the dark, I almost always choose those one or two songs for my day’s conclusion from the same couple of Tom Waits albums? I did it again last night. My most frequent albums of choice, by the way, are his first, “Closing Time,” and two live bootlegs, “Tom Waits for No One” (live in Australia, ’79) and “Austin ’78” (his “Austin City Limits” television show taping).
I love melodies, rich production and beautiful voices, yet I remain somehow consoled by the tragic and downtrodden characters found in the most grizzled and ragged voice I’ve ever heard, which scats, chats, sings and snarls around songs that usually defy conventional structure. There’s no explaining it, and explaining anything about the haunting work of one of rock’s most enigmatic figure is practically impossible. But Tom Waits was just inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I will try.
Tom Waits has been 50-something years old his whole life, a result of his weathered, beaten, drunken, tragic disposition on stage and in song since that first album came out in 1973. The guy singing those songs since the first album has to have already lost it all to booze, women, gambling or whatever vice you got, several times over. The singer in “Martha” runs into a high school crush 40 down the road and reflects on the lives that have transpired; how could the weight and pain of such personal histories be understood by a 23-year-old kid putting out his first album?
Waits’ background is as mysterious as that of teen Jesus, which is very much by design on the part of the intensely private artist who would rather his work speak for itself, anyway. But for what it’s worth, here’s what we do know: Tom Waits was born in 1949, growing up in Whittier, Calif., a peripheral Los Angeles community whose only other noteworthy native is one Richard Nixon. He grew up with two sisters, moving with their mom to San Diego after their parents’ divorce. Dad’s name was Frank, just like the recurring character in so many Tom Waits songs (including his most memorable and vivid, the touching masterpiece “Tom Traubert’s Blues”). Whether Tom’s Frank is that Frank is unclear, but it’s a safe bet that Tom could care less whether we see it that way.
Tom was disinterested in Sixties rock and roll as we know it; it somehow bypassed him. But he loved James Brown and Ray Charles, both of whom influenced his first band, The System. He also fell hard for the beat writing of Jack Kerouac, whose book “On The Road” captured a counter-culture, anti-establishment mentality. By the time Waits was performing solo in the clubs, he was immersed in the music of Bob Dylan, whose early folks songs he routinely covered.
As rough-edged as Waits’ voice was on those first two albums, it was nothing like what was to come. The now nonsmoking Waits must’ve worked in a few lifetimes worth of filterless Camels early on, because his gravelly growl has been his trademark since album three. His singing is as effective and appropriate to his material as Sinatra’s was to the songs he made his own. Waits’ voice is the stuff of jazz, a musical instrument with a unique understanding of the dark side of the American dream. It’s Louis Armstrong on a bender.
Which brings us to the question of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Tom Waits’ early work demonstrated his extraordinary songwriting talent, presented in the singer-songwriter context with more than a hint of the jazz tradition in his mournful piano and idiosyncratic vocal phrasing. The third album, “Nighthawks at the Diner,” was a full-on jazz experience with a quintet of players, including a tenor sax, a stand-up bass and Waits rapping a beat-poetry rhythm in tracks like “Emotional Weather Report.” (“With tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday, for the areas including, the western region of my mental health / And the northern portions of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation / It’s cold out there! Colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theatre on a Saturday night.”) By this time, his rumpled look had taken shape as well, a tie-and-sport-coat-wearing-man-about-dirty-town, pursuing dignity as best he can under Ratso Rizzo circumstances.
So how does a crazy cat like this get into the Hall of Fame with such musical antipathy for rock and roll as we know it? Simple, really. Much of what Tom Waits has released since “Nighthawks” has rocked, if unconventionally. The “Small Change” track “Step Right Up” introduced the carnival atmosphere into Waits’ canon, with pulp-fiction characters that fit perfectly into his unglamorous world of losers, boozers and societal outsiders. By the time he was singing about the intersection of “Heartattack and Vine,” the imagery was as rebellious as that of the Sex Pistols:
“Boney’s high on China white, Shorty found a punk /
Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk /
Well, this stuff will probably kill you, let’s do another line /
What you say you meet me down on Heartattack and Vine?”
And then, of course, there’s “Jersey Girl,” the best Bruce Springsteen song Waits ever wrote, a warm rock anthem of sorts, much like “Downtown Train,” made more famous by Rod Stewart. The 1983 “Swordfishtrombones” album included disturbing slices of life like “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six” and “In the Neighborhood.” Its 1985 companion follow-up album, “Rain Dogs,” boasted guitar work from Waits fan Keith Richards. Like rock and roll itself, Waits’ work was the unsophisticated music of the street.
But texturally, the music he was crafting was deceptively sophisticated and stylistically versatile. In 1987, he created an ambitious project, a full-fledged musical play, an understated rock opera of sorts, bearing little in common with The Who’s “Tommy” or “Quadrophenia.” “Frank’s Wild Years: Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts” was based on an earlier Waits song, with Tom responsible for music and lyrics, and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, (future collaborator on most of his work) writing most of the dialogue. In typical Tom sarcasm, he described the play as “a cross between ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It’s bent and misshapen and tawdry and warm. Something for the whole family.” The play didn’t last long, but the album’s songs lived up to Tom’s description, most notably the memorable barroom bawler, “Innocent When You Dream.” The murky “Yesterday Is Here,” the disturbing “I’ll Take New York,” and the dark-as-pitch “Way Down in the Hole” incorporated unusual instrumentation and sound effects, making the whole production a quirky and challenging musical experience. At its core, “Frank’s Wild Years” rendered something that was, in tone and spirit, the very essence of rock and roll — though that would likely be the last description Tom Waits was imagining or pursuing, then or now.
He would continue experimenting with sounds, incorporating rhythms using sound effects and clangy percussion. The chilling 1992 album, “Bone Machine,” created a horrifying mood, in creepy tracks like “Earth Died Screaming” and “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me,” which was based on a story Waits had seen in which a young woman happened to be randomly photographed looking out at sea, and whose body was washed ashore shortly thereafter, a scene on which the accidental photographer also had stumbled upon. These are the dark places that Waits has always gone. In “Dirt in the Ground,” he sings in raspy falsetto, one of about a half-dozen vocal variations he has created with his uniquely versatile voice. The album also boasts what might be his most rock-and-roll-oriented track, “Goin’ Out West,” driven by a snarling guitar and thunderous drums.
The next album was tied to a play by Robert Wilson, “The Black Rider,” with Tom Waits’ macabre songs crafted into avant-garde carnival music. The project was part jazz improv, part cabaret, part beat poetry (thanks in part to the presence of beat generation poet and novelist, William S. Burroughs), and it would mark the end of Waits’ most unusual, least accessible period, though it had easily been his most adventuresome. Six years would pass before the next release, and when “Mule Variations” finally came out in 1999, it would bring together the artist’s melodic sensibilities of the Seventies, cinematic storytelling of the Eighties, and esoteric strangeness of the Nineties into the quintessential Tom Waits album — and you’d better believe it was rock and roll. “Big in Japan” gets things started with a cacophony of noise and a keen sense of rhythm before creeping into the hollow darkness of “Lowside of the Road,” which would give way to “Hold On,” the ultimate Tom Waits song, in which our beaten-down hero sentimentally finds hope in a hopeless world. It’s an easy rocker with a message from a voice and spirit ravaged by demons and years but not without dreams for brighter days:
“Well, God bless your crooked little heart,
St. Louis got the best of me.
I miss your broken-china voice.
How I wish you were still here with me.
Well, you build it up, you wreck it down
You burn your mansion to the ground
When there’s nothing left to keep you here, when
You’re falling behind in this big blue world
Oh you got to hold on, hold on
You got to hold on
Take my hand, I’m standing right here.”
Tom Waits has continued on his road-less-taken journey into the 21st century, with projects that furthered his interest in music for theater (the “Alice” and “Blood Money” albums), adventuresome musical experimentation (the “Real Gone” album, which includes his first-ever topical song, the anti-Iraq War track, “Day After Tomorrow”), live performance (2008’s “Glitter and Doom Live”), and a film acting career that has quietly yet memorably coincided with his music for several decades. In movies like “Rumble Fish,” “Down by Law” and “Short Cuts,” Waits has always played the same kinds of freaks, miscreants and beautiful losers who have populated 40 years of his songs. His has been a career stubbornly off track, defiantly nonconforming and creatively daring. Such sophisticated and pointy-headed institutions as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may seem at odds with a nonjoining rebel like this brilliant weirdo, but, spiritually speaking, how could a life be more “rock and roll” than that of Tom Waits?