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Old Songs For The New Depression

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The Barroom Ballads Of A Young Tom Waits
February 19, 2010

There have been a handful of songwriters I've purposely avoided profiling within these pages. Artists whose work I hold with great respect and awe, but who loom so large that they are very nearly a universe unto themselves. I'm talking craftsmen like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and of course, Tom Waits. They along with jazz masters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bird, and Thelonious Monk are among the untouchables in modern music with intriguing, complex and mysterious personalities, solid bodies of work, and legacies firmly established.* So how then does one like myself gingerly attempt approaching these mythological figures without becoming biopic? Read on, my friend.

Fate can be a funny thing, can't it? At 60 years of age,
Tom Waits is today a bona fide superstar. I mean, who the fuck could have predicted that back in 1975 after having listened to 'Nighthawks At The Diner'? I doubt that even he himself could have seen it coming. After all, in terms of commercial success, the young Tom Waits could barely get arrested let alone sell out auditoriums worldwide in record time (and at record prices!) during the first 10 years of his professional career. While he did at least entertain a small but devoted following, his 'star' trajectory hardly found him staying in the finer hotels. He spent a full decade relentlessly slogging from gig to gig on an endless trek that saw very little support from his label, pitiful few precious moments for himself, and an equal shortfall of coin to line his pockets, despite a flair for penning remarkably tender saloon tunes and snappy Beat inspired poetics. As he once comically stated with regard to the success of his career up to that point, "Even Marcel Marceau gets more airplay then I do."

"Well, no wonder," you might say. "How far out of step with the times could one man have possibly been?" Fair enough. There's certainly a credible amount of truth in that. But it was in fact that very 'man out of time' aspect that made him so damn interesting. That and the aforementioned songs. What an anachronism was Waits, a puzzling bundle of paradoxes. How could such a young man become so enamoured with the forms and lifestyles of a previous generation, embracing them so completely and wholeheartedly that he seemingly bypassed the decade of his own coming of age entirely? And how could this same young man write such mournful songs that were filled more living and heartache than his age revealed?

Tom Waits in his early days

Well in addressing the former, part of it of course was an adopted persona. Others around that period were trying the same thing. Leon Redbone for instance. He certainly sounded old, but the spats and suspenders, along with the waxed mustache made him appear more like an costumed entertainer in a Disney theme village than anything truly authentic. Waits on the other hand at least chose an image that was a little bit hipper, and a bit easier to incorporate into a workable, full fledged style of living. So with persona intact, he then set out to blur the boundaries between the character and the real man for the sake of his art. But after 10 years of doing so, those lines of distinction had completely melted away, resulting in a realization that perhaps choosing Charles Bukowski as a role model
wasn't exactly the smartest of moves after all (although oddly, both men came out on top in the end). In his quest for authenticity, Waits found himself actually living the dejected life that he had set out merely to document in song. A noble endeavor, but a reckless one. For Waits, his troubling epiphany came when he attended a screening of the faux-rockumentary, 'Spinal Tap.' While the audience around him howled with laughter at the trials and tribulations of the fictional trio, Waits claims to have been reduced to tears, struck by how closely the humiliations of the band actually mirrored his own missteps. Most saddening was the scene in which they describe having been the opening act for a puppet show, unquestionably a low point in any musicians career path, unless you happen to be Raffi. He claims his barrel bottom scrape came when he was booked to appear with the aging TV personality, Buffalo Bob on the once popular morning kids show, 'The Howdy Doody Show.' As the felt hammers hit the piano strings, hard candies reportedly flew out of the instruments top. A low ebb indeed. Deflated, there sat a beat-up and downcast Tom Waits playing to an indifferent audience of a hundred screaming runts. Whether this was merely one of his infamous tall tales is open to speculation. But even if it is a fabrication, the fact remains that after 10 years on the boards, he had become a stale parody of himself. Waits had unwittingly painted himself into a stylistic corner. The times they were a changin', and the American landscape he sang of no longer existed, holding little relevance for the new generation of music listeners. His career was sputtering along, running out of gas and at risk of stalling like some beat up Buick on the shoulder of the very busy Santa Monica Freeway. Not exactly washed up, but then again hardly rolling high. As one of the most humane and poetic of songwriters produced in the 20th century, Waits deserved a better fate.

As for those sad songs? Well Waits always has held a gift for sympathetic character portraits, chronicling with simpatico the troubled lives of the disenfranchised, the outsiders, and those who were simply down on their luck. Some people are just born with the capacity to understand and empathize with the less-than-fortunate. Admittedly, the majority of those people go on to become missionaries, social workers, or bartenders, not musicians. In Waits case however, he became a songwriter, and a drunk. Albeit a sensitive drunk who had a poet's ear for words and a knack for writing memorable melodies in an era when Tin Pan Alley songwriters had gone the way of chrome bumpers and tail fins. And of course hanging out with other drunks provided him with a vast reservoir of anecdotal material to fill his songbook. His relentless touring meanwhile gave him plenty of lonely moments to mold his observations into sympathetic character sketches and melancholy ballads. Then a funny thing happened when his epiphany coalesced with the meeting his own redeemer in the form Kathleen Brennan.

To her detractors, Brennan is to Waits what Ono was to Lennon, but to her credit, his future bride helped to transform him into the iconic showman that he is today. You might say she even saved his life. She lent him money for a shave and a haircut, dragged him down to Macy's to buy a new suit and hat, suggested that he shine his shoes periodically, and offered him more than a few tips and ideas for turning around a career that was limping down a dead end street. The recipe was an interesting, but complex one --- clean up your act by dropping the booze and cigarettes, then add three parts Captain Beefheart, two parts Howlin' Wolf, and one part Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and a quarter cup of Louie Armstrong. Mix in a few tablespoons of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, as well as a heaping dollop of Harry Partch. Stir them together in a Wiemar Republic mixing bowl until well blended, top off with sprinkle of Barnum and Bailey, and bake for an hour at 450˚F. Well shit, it actually worked! A strange, mysterious, and magic casserole. Who would have believed it? Overnight Waits' became a 'prestige' artist (something I always thought he was!), and his material became more complex and esoteric than the study of entomology. And on top of this, it ironically garnered more critical and consumer acclaim than anything he'd recorded prior! He went from barfly to barker, moving from backrooms to Broadway in the course of just a few short years. Gone were the roach stompers and endless stream of Chesterfields. Now he dressed like a gentleman farmer and conducted the proceedings like a true maestro. Having once played toilets, he now appeared in classy auditoriums around the world, made videos for inclusion on MTV and VH-1, acted in movies directed by prestigious luminaries, collaborated with heavyweights, and simultaneously became the darling of the new self-proclaimed bohos. If only we all could be so lucky reinventing ourselves. But God bless him, Waits deserved his newfound glory. He went from the fringes to becoming contemporary in the most unorthodox of ways. And perhaps most telling was that he seemingly was now enjoying himself more than ever before. Funny, but like I said, fate can sometimes be that way. Love too can make you do crazy things as well.

Tom Waits today

These days, it's hard to even attend a Tom Waits show. Contrary to years ago, he now tours infrequently and his concerts typically sell out within seconds. And tickets for those shows come at a premium unless of course you're willing to pay an exorbitant price on eBay, or deal with some shifty-eyed scalper outside the venue, neither of which I'm willing to do. He skillfully reinvented himself as ringmaster of his own kaleidoscopic carnival to great acclaim, and somehow miraculously became everyone's ultra-hip uncle or something in the process. Today Waits can seemingly do no wrong. He's the old guy who's more interesting and colorful than anything or anyone his new audience has ever known, and hey, he sings with a voice that's torn up worse than the road through Baja --- without having lost one ounce of his artistic integrity, I might add! And while I still hold a great appreciation and admiration for his work, it too has gone on to a whole new level. It's now filled with sideshow freaks, snake oil salesmen, and the revival tent evangelists who occupy his imaginary traveling big top. Gone are the touching portraits of the lost, imperfect, fallible souls doing whatever they can to nurse their broken heart. Those sad ballads have been largely replaced with discordant, bull horned depictions of Fellini-esque characters walking hamstrung amidst the clink and clank of assorted junkyard paraphernalia --- wooden planks, anvils, oil drums, garden hoses, hubcaps, and the like. It's simply a different aesthetic, I realize that, and one not without it's merits, or rewards. But you know, sometimes I think he's very possibly painted himself into yet another stylistic corner, and I sometimes find myself beginning to lose interest after awhile --- which is something I never thought I'd hear myself say about Tom Waits.

You know, it's not that I wish for Waits to remain the gristly, finger-poppin' young storyteller of yore. That would be short-sighted and selfish of me. He's a formidable showman. He always has been, and he's certainly an American original. But I suppose that what I actually miss is the tenderness that was once so prevalent in his songwriting. I believe that is where Tom Waits has always excelled, the songs that dealt with everyday people who were trapped in circumstances beyond their control, or perhaps their own willpower. Compassionate portrayals that were then wrapped in beautiful and hauntingly sad, piano driven melodies. For my money, it was always the humanity with which he infused those songs that makes them more powerful and completely human than most of what he does today. Tender ballads do continue to pop up in his work although with less frequency, and certainly less melody. Unfortunately however they get lost within the bigger rooms where they're washed out under the glare of stage lights, and trampled beneath the cacophony of his barnyard clatter. His material remains compelling nevertheless, and his stage performance absolutely mesmerizing. But after 20+ years of his current dog and pony show, I sometimes wonder if perhaps the most radical and refreshing thing that Waits could do today would be to return to the heartbreaking melodies and tear stained poetics that he once penned so poignantly, even if it were only for a moment.
*Others could be included in this list, James Brown and The Beatles for instance, and it could be an interesting topic of debate.