Tom Waits' "Bad As Me" (Part One)
In anticipation of the release of Tom Waits' new album, my sweetie 'n' I are listening to his music exclusively for a week. Derek Anderson, bless him, offered me a download of Bad As Me, but we're electing to, um, wait for Tom. It's kinda like waiting till morning to open your Christmas presents, even though online leaks and downloads have become the post-Millennial equivalent of '70s FM radio previews. And before digesting this new work, I wanted to contextualize.
I've only ever written about Waits once: a review of an underwhelming live album that came with a bonus disc that was Tom's equivalent of Having Fun With Elvis Onstage. It took me a long time to really hear his music -- until I met my sweetie in 2003, to be exact, which is perhaps fitting, given the pivotal role Waits' 1980 marriage to Kathleen Brennan played in his career.
When his first albums appeared in the early '70s, I was working in a record store, but couldn't figure what to make of a cigarette 'n' whiskey-voiced boho barfly bellowing "Waltzing Matilda" (surely the saddest song on Earth, between On the Beach, the Pogues, and his borrowing its refrain for "Tom Traubert's Blues"). Not enough loud electric guitars, and he was tarred by the brush of having a song ("Ol' '55") covered by the Eagles. More to the point, I was still too young and dumb to understand the grief and loss in a song like "Martha," or the fact that we're all just visiting here.
I even had an encounter with him once, around '75 or '76. It was summer in New York City, and my guitar mentor and I had been walking around Manhattan with our instruments. (I got mistaken for the lead guitarist from Jefferson Starship, and told some kid that we were playing for free in Central Park and to bring all his friends.) We were sitting at the bar in the long-lived (still there, in fact) Greenwich Village dive called Kenny's Castaways when Waits walked in the door. With typical good judgment, my buddy looked up, noted his presence, and announced, "Look! It's TOM WAITS!" to the entahr bar. My memory is shaky, so I'm not certain whether or not Tom actually screamed like a little girl before he ran out of the bar and disappeared into the night. And from my consciousness, for a couple of decades.
Then one night in '98 or '99, I turned on the TV at my then-girlfriend's pad and saw Tom on some late night show, growling into a bullhorn like he was Captain Beefheart channeling Charlie Patton via Howlin' Wolf and wondered "What the fuck?" For Kathleen had introduced Tom to Don Van Vliet as well as Kurt Weill, and his cocktail of Kerouac, Bukowski, Ken Nordine and Hoagy Carmichael had gotten distinctly weirder. He'd gotten involved in theater (collaborations with William Burroughs and Robert Wilson) and film (a turn as one of the lowlifes, alongside ex-Lounge Lizard John Lurie and Roberto Benigni, in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law; his "Innocent When You Dream" providing the backdrop for "Auggie Wrenn's Christmas Story" in Wayne Wang's Smoke).
His music had gotten bluesier with his last couple of Asylum albums, but to these feedback-scorched ears, the highlights of those remain Blue Valentine's cover of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story showstopper "Someday" and Heartattack and Vine's "Jersey Girl," the best Broooce Springsteen song that the Boss never wrote. My sweetie opines, and I agree, that the truest romantics are those who've experienced loss and pain, rather than the saccharine, starry-eyed kind, and nobody does heartache like Waits. For proof positive, spin Bone Machine's "Little Rain (For Clyde)" or Mule Variations' "Georgia Lee."
While Waits' theater pieces, of which there have been many (Frank's Wild Years, The Black Rider, the simultaneously-released Alice and Blood Money), don't always make the best records, their creator's track record is still way better than, say, Uncle Lou -- approximately equivalent to, say, Spike Lee's or Oliver Stone's in the cinematic arena.
For my two cents, his best albums are probably Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones, Bone Machine, Mule Variations, and the sprawling, encyclopedic Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years provides a convenient way to hear all the highlights of the period it represents, although it draws heavily on Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones. I'm partial to the stripped-down sound on the two volumes of The Early Years, which precede and, I think, compare favorably with his first couple of Asylum albums. And as Will Risinger points out, even the soundtrack to One From the Heart (the project on which he met his future wife while collaborating with Nashville diva Crystal Gayle) is worthwhile.
We'll continue spinning, and watching the Magic Mailbox.
To be continued...
(Read Part Two here. Read Part Three here.)