Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tom Waits: Selected Highlights, Pt. 1

You can make a pretty strong argument for Tom Waits as one of the superlative lyrical craftsmen in popular music. Along with Bob Dylan, and no more than a handful of other preeminent songwriters, Waits has mined earlier musical forms for inspiration while creating a distinctive lyrical style. No less distinctive is his voice; a whiskey-soaked instrument that can go from a bark to whisper. For some listeners, this voice is a deal-breaker. Admirers of intelligent, literate music who just can't get past the Tom Waits wheeze are encouraged to check out John Hammond's collection of Tom Waits covers, Wicked Grin.

What follows is an overview of songs that emphasize particular strengths of Tom Waits songwriting. They also happen to be personal favorites of mine. Tom Waits has been recording since the early 1970s, so his catalog is pretty extensive. You can expect a follow-up to this selection of highlights.

"Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)"
Find it in the catalog!
Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did
I got what I paid for now
See ya tomorrow, hey Frank can I borrow
A couple of bucks from you, to go
Waltzing Matilda
Waltzing Matilda
You'll go waltzing Matilda with me

I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alley
And I'm tired of all these soldiers here
No one speaks English, and everything's broken
And my Stacys are soaking wet
To go waltzing Matilda
Waltzing Matilda
You'll go waltzing Matilda with me

The opening stanzas of "Tom Traubert's Blues" establish several hallmarks of Tom Waits songwriting: world-weary protagonists, first-person perspectives that  verge on the self-pitying, poetic imagery that utilizes prosaic language, and the inclusion of specific names for people, places, and even products. (When he mentions his shoes, he wants you to know that they're Stacy Adams). The chorus, borrowed from the 19th Century Australian folk song "Waltzing Matilda", is an indication of the songwriter's respect for traditional musical forms and his willingness to bend them to his own progressive purposes. 

"Broken Bicycles"
Find it in the catalog!
Director Francis Ford Coppola followed up his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now with One From the Heart, a musical romance set on the Las Vegas Strip. Critical reviews ranged from mixed to negative, and the film remains relatively unloved even among Copolla's admirers. The film's soundtrack, on the other hand, remains a gem. All twelve of the record's tracks are gorgeously written and performed by Tom Waits, with notable vocal accompaniment from country singer Crystal Gale. (The soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982, losing out to John Williams' charming but more straightforward score for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.) One of the record's most moving songs is "Broken Bicycles," which metaphorically compares lost love to an abandoned bicycle in the junkyard.

Broken bicycles
Old busted chains
With rusted handlebars
Out in the rain
Somebody must have
An orphanage for
All these things that
Nobody wants anymore

This metaphor extends to the narrator's inability to leave the love affair behind:

The seasons can turn on a dime
Somehow I forget every time
For all the things that
You've given me
Will always stay
Broken but I'll never throw them away

"Johnsburg, Illinois"
Find it in the catalog!
While working on One From the Heart, Waits met a script-analyst named Kathleen Brennan. Waits has described their meeting as "love at first sight." The two were married in 1980. Clocking in at one minute and thirty seconds, "Johnsburg, Illinois" is a brief song of devotion for Kathleen Brennan. This simple song is almost unbearably tender.

She's my only true love
She's all that I think of
Look here in my wallet
That's her
She grew up on a farm there
There's a place on my arm
Where I've written her name
Next to mine
You see
I just can't live without her
And I'm her only boy
And she grew up outside McHenry
In Johnsburg, Illinois

Since their marriage, Brennan has been a collaborator on the majority of subsequent Tom Waits songs. It's impossible to know the extent of her influence on the songwriting process, but she is generally credited as a catalyst for the more experimental progression of Tom Waits records.

Find it in the catalog!
Along with "Downtown Train," this is one of the few relatively subdued tracks on the otherwise cacophonous 1985 album Rain Dogs. The impressionistic lyrics are evocatively written, and the following stanza is a particularly insightful description of the way memory does and doesn't work.

And they all pretend they're orphans
And their memory's like a train
You can see them getting
Smaller as they pull away
Oh and the things you can't remember
Tell the things you can't forget
That history puts a saint
In every dream

"Yesterday is Here"
Find it in the catalog!
The 1987 album Franks Wild Years is intended as a cohesive narrative, but any of its seventeen songs can stand on their own. "Yesterday is Here" announces the protagonist's departure into the wider world. It always strikes me as a particularly foreboding song.

If you want money in your pocket
And a top-hat on your head
A hot meal on your table
And a blanket on your bed
Well, today is gray skies
Tomorrow is tears
You'll have to wait 'til yesterday is here
If you want to go
Where the rainbows end
You'll have to say goodbye
All our dreams come true
Baby, up ahead
And it's out where your memories lie

Tom Waits has been covered endlessly over the years, by such diverse performers as: Neko Case, Bruce Springsteen, and Rod Stewart. Cat Power recorded a stark version of "Yesterday is Here" on her debut album Dear Sir, making the lyric "all our dreams come true..." sound quite menacing.

"The Fall of Troy"
Find it in the catalog!
An evocative, emotionally honest exploration of the effects of youth violence. "The Fall of Troy" begins with this harrowing pronouncement:

It's the same with men as with horses and dogs
Nothing wants to die

Using elliptical imagery, Waits posits that the perpetrators of the violence are in effect banishing themselves to a "world where nothing grows." This tragedy extends to the family as well:

It's hard to say grace and to sit in the place
Of someone missing at the table
Mom's hair sprayed tight and her face in her hands
Watching TV for answers to me
After all she's only human
And she's trying to find her own way home, boys
She's trying to find her own way home

Waits brings this drama to a heartbreaking conclusion with three brief lines: 

My legs ache
My heart is sore
The well is full of pennies

"The Fall of Troy" was included on the soundtrack to the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, though it was not played in the film itself.

"Green Grass"
Find it in the catalog! 
Lay your head where my heart used to be
Hold the earth above me
Lay down on the green grass
Remember when you loved me

"Green Grass" is written from the perspective of a dead man, already in his grave. I can't think of another song that seems to take American Transcendentalism quite so literally.

Come closer, don't be shy
Stand beneath a rainy sky
The moon is over the rise
Think of me as a train goes by
Clear the thistles and brambles
Whistle didn't he ramble
Now there's a bubble of me
And it's floating in thee
Stand in the shade of me
Things are now made of me
The weather-vane will say
It smells like rain today
God took the stars and he tossed 'em
Can't tell the birds from the blossoms
You'll never be free of me
He'll make a tree from me
Don't say goodbye to me
Describe the sky to me
And if the sky falls
Mark my words - We'll catch mockingbirds

Find it in the catalog!
Like Randy Newman, who was a formative influence, Waits sometimes sings from the perspective of fictional narrators who are less than reliable. The narrator of "Lucinda" is a condemned murderer known as William the Pleaser. This character is condemned to hang for the murder of a woman named Lucinda. He spends his remaining time on earth "tellin' my trouble to strangers." William's version of events is open to interpretation, but the poetic language employed is quite powerful: 

I thought I'd broke loose from Lucinda
The rain returned and so did the wind
I was standing outside The Whitehorse
Oh but I was afraid to go in

I heard someone pull the trigger
Her breasts heaved in the moonlight again
There was a smear of gold in the window
And then I was the jewel of her sin

You can hear a live recording of "Lucinda" on the concert album Glitter and Doom Live.

"Diamond in Your Mind"
Find it in the catalog!
Tom Waits performed this song live for the Healing the Divide Benefit Concert, backed by Kronos Quartet and Greg Cohen. Though it's a lesser known Tom Waits song, I think it features some of his strongest lyrics. It begins with a casual recounting of the narrator's varied travels in life:

Shook hands with the president
And that guy in Rome
I've been to parties where I had to be flown
This told me everything is sacred, nothing is profane
And money is something that you throw off of the back of a train

Followed by horrifying historical detail:

Zerelda Samuels said she ain't never prayed
Since her right arm was blown off in a Pinkerton raid
They lashed her to a windmill with Three Fingered Dave
Now she's a hundred and two and drinking juleps in the shade

These seemingly unrelated stanzas are powerfully united by the chorus, which encourages the listener to: 

Always keep a diamond in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind
Wherever you may wander
Wherever you may roam
Always keep a diamond in your mind

"Diamond in Your Mind" was covered by the soul-singer Solomon Burke on his 2002 album Don't Give Up on Me. (You may notice that Burke, a preacher, altered the lyric about Zerelda Samuels never praying.) Waits included a studio version of "Diamond in Your Mind" as a bonus track on the LP-version of his Orphans compilation. But, you don't own the vinyl version of that box-set, and neither do I. We can, however, hear it on YouTube.