July 27, 1998

CitySearch Music

There are few artists, very few, who can evoke an entire world with a mention of their name, or whose name becomes a descriptive term--Kafkaesque, Wagnerian, when someone looks like a Picasso or acts like Hemingway. Tom Waits is one of those. Suddenly you look around and realize where you are and who you are and who you're with and why you're there and it's a shining moment of clarity in the pervading dinginess--it's a Tom Waits moment.

When you're driving home at 6am, alone except for the am radio and smiling as the last star fades from the sky, Tom is there. In the chipped mirrors and cracked veneer of a daylight dive patronized by dwarves, cripples, and men with hooks for hands, Tom is there. When it's winter and you lost your job, your shoes have holes in them, the radiator's rattling and the window is broken, Tom is there. When the crowd is heckling the Fat Lady at the Coney Island Freakshow and you wave your paper-bagged bottle, stamp your feet, and demand that they let her sing--there's Tom, clapping you on the back and reaching for a swig.

It takes four years, on the average, for an album to escape the suburban Waits home, elude the dogs and floodlights, and break into your bedroom late at night. But there have been stirrings beneath the rock: Island has released an album of selections from his 11-year tenure at the label, entitled "Beautiful Maladies." Tom himself is off the Island--he just signed a one-record deal with Epitaph. That's right, Agnostic Front, NOFX, the Cramps, and Tom Waits (though the label's distribution deal with demented, old, Mississippi bluesman label Fat Possum gives this some kind of precedent). Epitaph owner Brent Gurewitz declared his new signing "the patron saint of the American loser"; Waits proclaimed himself "part of a unique enterprise that runs like a muscle car." The deal was sealed over coffee in a Petaluma truckstop.

And a new album is indeed in the works--Tom is holed up somewhere among the redwoods of Northern California, quite literally banging it out. He will once again be working with the same band he did for "Swordfishtrombones" and "Rain Dogs," including favorite guitarist Marc Ribot, as well as another collaboration with the lads from Primus. Expect the record to begin scratching at your window sometime in early 1999. Waits, who never (and I mean never, like not in this city for 11 years never) does live gigs, also recently performed two benefit concerts in California.

Thomas Alan Waits was born in the back of a taxi outside a hospital on December 7, 1949, and things have gone pretty much the same way ever since. He dropped out of school, working odd jobs as pizza man, gravedigger, carnival barker, mercenary soldier, club doorman. It was while holding this last position that, as legend has it, he began writing down the conversations of the drunks and hustlers that comprised the clientele and "found music there." Soon he was a lounge-piano drifter, playing his Bukowski on Tin Pan Alley tunes in dingy, red-lit bars, entertaining drunks and shouting down lunatics. He was "discovered" and wound up with a contract on the fittingly named Asylum Records in 1973.

The early years are the stripped-down ones, when Tom's pipes, while still rough, could still reach that sweet crooner's edge. The instrumentation is sparse, often just a solo acoustic guitar or piano, perhaps a trio lurking quietly in the background. Sometimes these songs will bring a lump to your throat and tears will hover at the back of your eyeballs and you won't know why--or you'd just never be able to explain it. Not that Waits is a maudlin fellow--it's his wit that keeps paeans to drunks and losers and injustice and hard breaks engaging. And his wild, scatted, spoken-word pieces earned him the status of America's last surviving beat poet.

Consider the high-speed, kaleidoscopic, bass-thumping ride home of "Diamonds on my Windshield" versus the spare, acoustic narrative of "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You," a song about two people who don't meet in a bar. Gradually the instrumentation expanded, most notably on "Heartattack and Vine," his last record for Elektra/Asylum, which featured the ragtime-electric guitar bump on the dipsomaniacal paean to Vegas, "Mr. Siegal," and the lush, string-drenched, heartwrenching "Ruby's Arms."

That record's follow-up, 1983's "Swordfishtrombones" was perhaps the most pivotal record of Waits' career. Before the music was subordinate to the words or the story but, with this album, Waits created a sound unlike anyone else's--mixing layers of eccentric percussion, discordant guitars, and distorted vocals with a host of homemade and found instruments. "I was getting lazy," he has said, "I'm just trying to find a different way of saying the same thing." He also had taken inspiration from the work of hobo composer Harry Partch. The powers that been at Asylum/Elektra took one listen, thought "I dunno if we can put this out," and Waits ducked through a loophole in his contract.

The record was unlike anything Tom--or almost anyone else--had done previously. The narrative of "Shore Leave" spins out a half-banal, half-exotic tale of a "Hong Kong drizzle on Cuban heels" over banjos, aunglongs, and two kinds of marimba. On "16 Shells From a Thirty-Aught Six" redneck threats spew over the rattle of pots and pans. The stentorian ode to things passed, "In the Neighborhood" sounds like a bunch of junkies playing a New Orleans funeral.

"Swordfishtrombones" also marked the first appearance of Waits' alter ego, "Frank"--an itinerant lounge singer who ditched the mortgage, the job, the wife, and the Chihuahua by setting his house on fire and cruising out on to the freeway, listening to a Top 40 station. ("Never could stand that dog.") Indeed, as Waits moved out of the Tropicana motel, changed labels, cut down on the hard stuff, and settled down with a nice, Irish Catholic girl from Illinois, Frank seemed an externalization of his old persona at a time when, as he said, "I had already tried to break out of my mortuary piano and cocktail hairdos in the songs, I was really trying to shut the door on that whole obsession with these--with liquor, and my whole perverted enjoyment of all that."

So Waits undertook two almost-simultaneous projects--"Rain Dogs" and "Frank's Wild Years," released in 1985 and 1987 respectively. The former carried forth the "Swordfishtrombones" aesthetic, containing such tunes as the eerie "Clap Hands," a mixture of mystery and futility over a syncopated-radiator beat and jagged guitar, or the hulking "Singapore," which he succinctly described as "Richard Burton with a bottle of festival brandy preparing to go on board ship." But there were flashbacks of the past Waits work in the elegiac piano-and-brass of "Time" ("the wind is making speeches, and the rain sounds like a round of applause...") and the near-Springsteen rock of "Downtown Train" was convincing enough to make Rod Stewart cover it.

"Frank's Wild Years" was billed as "Un Operacchi Romantic in Two Acts" and was actually a musical play that Waits co-wrote with his wife and frequent collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. It ran for three weeks at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater with Waits as Frank, the wayward musician who recalled his misspent life as he slowly froze to death on a park bench. Many fans consider "Frank's Wild Years" to be too dark--and Waits aficionados have a strong appetite for the bleak, but it contains some of his most varied and fascinating work, kaleidoscopically mixing mariachi combos, convicts' chants, Salvation Army brass bands, Asian percussion, and Hammond Organs. "Hang On St. Christopher," with its axle-rumbling beat and am-speaker vocal distortion, is the ultimate traveling song; the spare "Yesterday Is Here" sounds like midnight before a spaghetti-western gunfight; the hazy rumba and disembodied croon of "Temptation" is probably his most seductive work. "I'll Take New York" should be our city's official song, with its delirious horns and "Phantom of the Opera" organ blaring as Tom/Frank shrieks "have you got two tens for a five?" Balloons popping, rimshots flying, the crowd is drifting out the back door: "c'mon people, c'mon big town, c'mon get happy...."

Waits was used to acting, having appeared in films such as "Down By Law," "Ironweed," "Rumble Fish," and a Stallone flick we won't mention here, a hobby which has made him "more comfortable stepping into characters in songs." That theatricality extended to his next work, the concert film and album "Big Time," which seamlessly mixed live concert footage with filmed segments. There was the clip of that ultimate Waits noir narrative, "9th & Hennepin, incanted beneath a flaming umbrella in a rainstorm, with a slight hunch of the shoulders and shake of the head as he points out that "nobody brings anything small into a bar." Or the raw rendition of "Chantilly Lace" that made the Big Bopper sound like Pat Boone and left no doubt that "ooooooh baby, that's what I like" has something to do with 14-year-olds mudwrestling in white panties. Tom Waits hates playing live--years of endless road trips in the '70s opening for Frank Zappa or Poco to unsurprisingly unappreciative audiences, along with his unwillingness to leave his family for extended periods of time may account for that. "Big Time" offered fans the chance to see their icon in concert, even if it isn't live.

1992's "Bone Machine" actually won Waits his first Grammy--for "Best Alternative Recording," beating out a bevy of kids half his age. The record seems to prefigure the fabled pre-millenium tension, with tunes like "Earth Died Screaming" and "Jesus Gonna Be Here" somehow sounding bleaker yet denser than previous songs. Yet there was also "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," a minimal man-and-his-guitar punk howl to perpetual childhood ("When I see the five o'clock news, I don't wanna grow up, comb their hair and shine their shoes, I don't wanna grow up..."). "That Feel" is a broken-down blues duet with Keith Richards--one listen and you're ten years older and twenty wiser.

Waits' last record to date was "The Black Rider"--a solo version of the opera he wrote for Robert Wilson, with a libretto by Mr. William S. Burroughs. Essentially the story of "Die Freischutz" and the sound of "Peter and the Wolf" rewritten by Kurt Weil as gypsy caravan, carnival come-on, and ghost cabaret, it contained some of Waits' most sinister and romantic work. The opera has since been performed a number of times in Germany, but it hasn't been seen again on this side of the pond, which is unfortunate, considering its classic story, engaging characters, and unforgettable music. (City Opera, are you listening? Amato Opera--it'd be cheap to put on and I'm sure someone in the neighborhood has a theremin you can borrow.)

So, the new label should clear up any feelings of serfdom Tom might've been having, and the new record will come and console us all into the next millenium, but...well, Tom, what about coming to see us? Come back to New York. Please. The kids are old enough, hell, they're older than you now, aren't they? It's a good season for shoes. Maria on Ninth Avenue says she forgives you and, anyway, Jaivier walked (or was pushed) in front of the M6 last winter. I'm buying. C'mon....