Wednesday, March 12, 2015
Tom Waits – “Blue Valentines” from Used Songs: 1973-1980 (2001 Rhino), originally appearing on Blue Valentine (1978 Asylum)


Well, friends, it’s not a contest, but with this third appearance, Tom Waits holds the title of Most Shuffled. He was also the first to make a repeat appearance, and if this blog is nothing else, it’s the chronicle of an eclectic collection of songs that maybe don’t make a lot of sense together. Given that, I can’t think of a better mascot than Waits.

And did you know that he’s a jazz musician? (I mean, he’s a lot of things, I suppose, depending on which record and depending on who’s listening, and some of those things might not be suitable for repeating in polite company, but here, on this record, with me talking, he’s a jazz musician).

“Blue Valentines” opens with a clean jazz guitar and the transitional gravely/clean vocals that characterize the rest of this 1978 album. The tune is damn near perfect, too, so much so that I thought it was a jazz standard until I began researching it for this post and learned that it was a Waits original. Thirty-seven years later, if it’s not a jazz standard, it absolutely should be.

The album credits suggest that Waits plays electric guitar, but also lists three other very accomplished guitarists (Ray Crawford, Roland Bautista, and Alvin “Shine” Robinson). It’s my guess, given the expertly laid down solo on “Blue Valentines,” that those duties were handled by one of those gentleman, though I’m having trouble confirming this.

I’ve compared Waits to Bukowski in the past, which almost feels a little too on the nose. Certainly, lines like “I can never wash the guilt/or get these bloodstains off my hands/and it takes a lot of whiskey/to make these nightmares go away” make it seem like the easy comparison, save for a couple of things: 1) if I’m honest, I think I’ve only read two Bukowski books and seen that movie, so I might be talking out of my ass a little bit, but 2) I don’t get the sense, necessarily, that ol’ Chuck was nearly as full of regret as our protagonist here appears to be.

For instance, he talks about “someone I used to be“, “the tattooed broken promise/that I hide beneath my sleeve,” “a blind and broken heart/that sleeps beneath my lapel,” and a million other figurative lamentations of a relationship gone really wrong. In other words, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a song called “Blue Valentines” is, at its core, about heartbreak. When we consider that Blue Valentine is also the album that produced the song “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” the notion that Waits isn’t interested in cheering us up begins to come into stark focus.

Me, I’m a generally happy guy, but I can’t get enough of this. It may or may not have something to do with me having emerged from a circle of friends among which the “Get Sad Now” mixtape that one of us made became legendary, but I think there’s something to sitting with heartache, even when it isn’t yours. Or when it is. With Valentine’s Day receding in the distance, for some, this might be the perfect stopping-off point before beginning the next chapter.


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