Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tom Waits: Selected Highlights, Pt. 2

It's been a while since my initial post on this topic, Tom Waits: Selected Highlights, Pt. 1. Given the breadth of work in the artist's canon, I knew I'd be back for a followup eventually. Here's another five songs that strike me as outstanding examples of the peculiar genius in possession of Tom Waits and his wife and co-writer Kathleen Brennan.

Selected Highlights, continued...

"Jersey Girl"
Find it in the catalog!
'Cause tonight I'm gonna take that ride
Across the river to the Jersey side
Take my baby to the carnival
And I'll take you on all the rides

Down the shore everything's all right
You with your baby on a Saturday night, yeah
Don't you know all my dreams come true
When I'm walking down the street with you

A tender song detailing a young man's desire to take his girl out and show her a good time. Sounds pretty simple, if not saccharine, but you can count on the songwriter to invest this prosaic scenario with specificity and pathos. The "sha-la-la-la-la" chorus, unusual for Tom Waits, has a doo-wop influence that seems entirely appropriate given the song's New Jersey street corner setting. The song was subsequently adopted by Jersey-native Bruce Springsteen, becoming a highlight of his live performances throughout the 1980s. One such performance is available on his live box-set, and you can hear the home-town audience going nuts every time he gets to the chorus.

"Soldier's Things"
Find it in the catalog!
Davenports and kettle drums and swallow-tail coats
Table cloths and patent leather shoes
Bathing suits and bowling balls and clarinets and rings
All this radio really needs is a fuse

A tinker, a tailor, a soldier's things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks
Oh, and this one is for bravery
Oh, and this one is for me
And everything's a dollar in this box

A man's life summed up by the things he leaves behind; his war medals in the same box as the tokens of his civilian life. Again, Tom Waits is big on specificity. He seems to revel in listing ephemera, and as the chorus proves, he knows the emotional toll of this "stuff." This song was used, quite effectively, in the dramatic war film Jarhead (2005).

"Downtown Train"
Find it in the catalog!
Outside another yellow moon
Has punched a hole in the nighttime
Yes I climb through the window and down to the street
I'm shining like a new dime

How's that for setting the scene? The moon punching a hole in the nighttime and the "new dime" simile sound, to me, like they could be lifted from a vintage hard-boiled novel. But, at heart, Tom Waits is always a romantic.

The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls
They try so hard to break out of their little worlds
Well, you wave your hand and they scatter like crows
They have nothing that will ever capture your heart
They're just thorns without the rose
Be careful of them in the dark

I like the image of Brooklyn natives taking the train to their Downtown jobs in an effort to break free of the strictures of their lives. Though these women, as the narrator makes clear, pale in comparison to his beloved.

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night it's just the same
You leave me lonely

The longing the narrator expresses feels heartfelt, and there is something sadly desperate about investing so much emotion in a fleeting glimpse of a woman on her daily commute. Jean-Baptiste Mondino directed an appropriately moody video for the song, starring former boxer Jake LaMotta of all people. (Rod Stewart covered the song with great commercial success in 1989, reaching #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, although his version adds exactly nothing to the original.)

"Way Down in the Hole"
Find it in the catalog!
When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back
Well, I beg your pardon, walk the straight and narrow path
If you walk with Jesus, he's gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil way down in the hole

Lyrically, this is in keeping with blues and gospel tropes. It's the delivery that really sells the prospect of a devil that has to be contained at any cost. "Way Down in the Hole" was used as the opening title song of the HBO series The Wire. Season one used the Tom Waits original, and subsequent seasons featured cover versions by various artists. All of them can be heard on the soundtrack CD: The Wire: "...and all the pieces matter.".

"Fannin Street"
Find it in the catalog!
There's a crooked street in Houston town
It's a well-worn path I've traveled down
Now there's ruin in my name
I wish I'd never got off the train
I wish I'd listened to the words you said

"Fannin Street" is an affecting lament for a life of gin and cards; irreversible decisions that have left the narrator metaphorically stranded.

And I know that this is where the sidewalk ends

This song's lyrical content always reminds me of "House of the Rising Sun."