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Tom Waits' "Rain Dogs" is the songwriter at his musical apex

Long considered the ultimate musical companion to a poker night with the guys, "Rain Dogs" maintains the charm of Tom Waits' earlier records.

By Ray Chelstowski

One of the great joys to be found in the record collection scene is the sense of discovery, namely that moment when you uncover an artist and one of their albums, a combination that stuns you – largely because you haven’t heard of either before. This may only be surpassed by that moment when you play that same record for a friend and they have the exact same reaction that you did. It’s even better when that friend is your child.

This happened to me recently with the 1985 Tom Waits’ album Rain Dogs. Long considered the ultimate musical companion to a poker night with the guys, Rain Dogs is Tom Waits at his musical apex. Here the music maintains the charm of his earlier work and marries it with a bleakness that those characters from records like Heart Of Saturday Night encounter with age.

The record is intentionally sparse, using only the bare essentials to get each point across. Shoes were swatted against a chest of empty drawers in place of a proper drum kit, and the guitar work of virtuoso Marc Ribot is directed toward the off-kiltered nature of the stories in which they reside. This was Ribot’s first professional recording session and Waits gave him direction like “make it sound like you are playing at a midget’s bar mitzvah.” The result is a sideways fairy tale where misfits, hustlers, sailors on leave, women of the night, and state prison employees share an unfortunate bond. While each song stands alone, they all seem knitted together, as if start to finish the entire record were a kind of dime store novella.

Written on Horatio Street in a damp flat in lower Manhattan the music continued the new path established by 1983’s Swordfish Trombones, taking Waits further into a realm that belied the synthesizer driven music of the day. The recording process was complete back country by way of RCA studios, an unorthodox approach that guided some of NYC’s finest musicians on a journey that most to this day consider their most rewarding of all. The thinking was outsized and the attack was confident and cool. What more can a classic hope for?

The record would later be mined for songs by artists with more commercial appeal. Rod Stewart would apply a West Coast sheen to Downtown Train and deliver a hit – one that most continue to think is his own. Bob Seger, a long time Waits’ loyalist would provide a central Michigan inspired turn to Blind Love. This opened the listening door just a bit wider to the Wait’s cannon and likely converted a good many without very much preaching. It also made Waits money, something Rain Dogs probably didn’t do on its own.

However, with all of the West Hollywood dazzle that would one day surround these songs, they inherently never required this much polish. They shine because of their grit, their grime. The idea of covering a Waits track is as ambitious a fool’s errand as that found in trying to turn an Arthur Miller play into a Glee-inspired musical. Maybe the edges soften and the scenes lose their uncomfortable edge. But with that they lose the soul and authenticity found in their original take. This Rain Dog doesn’t need to be neutered. All 28 tracks are the best of breed, pure and simple.

Listen here:

Downtown Train

Walking Spanish Down The Hall

Blind Love