Tom Waits


Monday, August 24, 2015
Tom Waits – “Lucky Day” from The Black Rider (1993 Island)


We’ve written about Waits a number of times over the past year, about what an eccentric enigma he is, etcetera. I was tempted, then, to move away from that assessment, to instead tell you about how my three-year-old son loves nothing more than to listsen to Closing Time on repeat while he sleeps, singing “Martha” and “Grapefruit Moon” with me at bedtime.

But then two things happened:

  1. My iPod Classic seems to have given up the ghost. It’s tragic, really, and if there is a rich benefactor who has been waiting in the wings, one of the five or so people who clicks on this thing from time to time, well, the time for heroism is now.
  2. I stumbled upon this mind-blowing tidbit about The Black Rider on Wikipedia:

The Black Rider is an album by Tom Waits, released in 1993 on Island Records, featuring studio versions of songs Waits wrote for the play The Black Rider, directed by Robert Wilson and co-written by William S. Burroughs. The play is based on the German folktale Der Freischütz, which had previously been made into an opera by Carl Maria von Weber. The play premiered on March 31, 1990, at the Thalia Theater in HamburgGermany. Its world English-language premiere occurred in 1998 at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival.

Yes, that William S. Burroughs. I’ve been running around making what I thought was the obvious Bukowski comparison at every opportunity, and meanwhile, homeboy wrote the score for a play that was co-written by the author of NAKED LUNCH. That’s kind of mind-blowing.

I heard someone remark recently about how a common career trajectory for recording artists looks something like this: debut album, shows some promise, sophomore album either flops or shows further promise, subsequent albums reveal the genius/deficiency that was there all along. By contrast, the remarker remarked, Tom Waits emerged on the scene in 1973 fully formed (and at 24!). Given that, it’s maybe no surprise that he took a turn towards the wildly less conventional (a contrast probably felt most dramatically on Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs).

Even so, along the way, there’s always been that vague but persistent backdrop of familiarity. Something in the structure that was vaguely, I don’t know, gypsy in nature. He’s maybe like a chef who understands Reuben sandwiches so well that he can deconstruct them down to foam and them serve them to you on your hand while your eyes are closed (that happened to me once). It’s super bizarre, but goddamn if it doesn’t taste just like a Reuben. That’s Waits with songs, and anybody who doesn’t believe me needs to go back and listen to that debut album on repeat while they sleep.

“Lucky Day” sounds like what might happen if a band of Rroma descended upon New Orleans and took over a second line, with a carnival barker at the fore, singing an Irish drinking song (see: “Sally Maclennane“) as a sweet, sweet dirge. In fact, the tune, situated near the album’s close, has its own overture kicking off the record, complete with Waits as an actual carnival barker yelling about human oddities.

The song itself, though, is something sweeter, the thrust of which is this:

So don’t cry for me
For I’m going away
And I’ll be back some lucky day

Songs like this have a rich tradition the world over, sung at the bar while extremely drunk by individuals who care not about the massive hangover that will undoubtedly accompany them on their voyage.

Sure, that stuff from the seventies is still my favorite, but because he is so goddamn good at so many things, I say it about “Lucky Day,” too: this is Waits at his best.



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.


Friday, October 3, 2014
Tom Waits – “Midnight Lullaby” from Closing Time (1973 Rhino/Elektra)

Better than a mainstream radio station, the Shuffler went 30 songs without repeating an artist. And if we have to hear someone twice, why not someone as diverse, as enigmatic, as enduring as Tom Waits?

Here he turns in a near perfect song that couldn’t be more different than the one featured previously. It’s just Tom at the piano with some lyrics borrowed from an English nursery rhyme, and goes out with a little bit of “Hush Little Baby” at the end.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

UPDATE 8/24/15: I don’t know what my problem is, but this song is clearly originally from Closing Time not The Early Years Volume One where it was later collected. I’ve made the appropriate changes and apologize for what I can only own as the unusually porridge-esque quality of my brain.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Tom Waits – Carnival (Brunello del Montalcino) from Night on Earth (1992 Island Records)


Tom Waits is a force. He can be something of a polarizing figure, a fact that owes as much to his unconventional vocal delivery as it does to his extensive musical catalogue — with sixteen studio albums, two soundtracks, three live albums and seven compilation albums, it can be hard to please everyone.

Waits, now sober, has always enjoyed a place on the fringe of American popular culture anyway, sort of embodying a Bukowski-as-musician role for the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, white-tank-and-pork-pie-hat set over at the nearest rooming house.

It’s only natural, then, that he offers up this shambolic celebration of carnival life as a part of the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 film Night on Earth. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen this film, a problem I hope to rectify soon.) The song feels very much like what one might find upon peeling back the curtain at some drunken late-night European traveling carnival. Indeed, Brunello del Montalcino is an Italian red wine. Interestingly, the interplay of the trumpet and guitar begins to suggest something like that old 1937 jazz standard, “Caravan,” if only for a moment. Soon afterwords, everything stops, a cymbal splashes, and we’re back to a more off-the-rails Esquivel-at-the-circus situation.

This is not my favorite Waits era by any means. I am too much a fan of his work behind the piano in the seventies and the heart-wrenching songs that he produced in those years, but what I appreciate about “Carnival…” is what I love about Waits in general — his ability to find and create beauty in places many might overlook. Waits doesn’t allow us to overlook anything; he doesn’t need our gaze, but he demands it, like some kind of crazy prophet.

“Carnival (Brunello de Montalcino)” begins at 21:01