Favorite Musicians: Tom Waits

Portrait of Tom Waits

Brendan Burke, used under Creative Commons

Back when I first started circulating with other crime writers, in the old days of the Harding Administration when we wound down from Bouchercon with bathtub gin listening to our Victrolas, a couple of guys started nudging me toward Tom Waits. They were Ray Banks and Ken Bruen. If you were going to write as gritty as they did, it helped to listen to the proper music. I think it was Banks who pointed me toward his two masterpieces, Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. Amazing stuff that was.

Waits is an acquired taste. He has a rough, gravelly voice that can be off-putting until you really listen to the music. He doesn’t have much range, but those voices. One minute, he’s smooth, the next, growling like an old Memphis blues man, the next that roar of his. Jon Stewart once described it (to Waits himself, no less) as “I’d like to get drunk and fall in a gutter with that guy some time.”

I have all but his last two albums. My favorites, the ones I keep coming back to, are the aforementioned Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, along with Mule Variations. Of the three, I think I like Mule Variations the best. The music is the most varied on that album, but it’s a cohesive whole. “Chocolate Jesus,” “Get Behind the Mule,” and the odd spoken word “What’s He Building in There?” (which ended up in the soundtrack to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). But there were others. “Building” and “Trouble’s Braids” are typical Waits lapses into beat poetry. I even based a loose Christmas poem on it.

Waits is more of a storyteller than a singer, and he’s not as well known as some of the people who have covered his music. Bruce Springsteen did “Jersey Girl.” Rod Stewart did “Downtown Train.” Scarlett Johanssen did very bad things to Waits’ music that we shall not speak of here. (She meant well. But then so did Darth Vader.)

At the same time, Waits can be very playful, even at his darkest. “Frank’s Wild Years” comes off as a long joke with an anemic punchline. That in itself is the joke, and it’s just two minutes where you’re listening to this drunk in a bar somewhere riff on Frank and his life over some bad organ music. The thing is, you’re not thinking it’s a bad song. You’re thinking you’re in the bar with this guy wishing he would shut up. You are in the story.

But if you really want to get playful…