It started with Ray Banks, who could not stop blogging about him. He would quote Waits in story titles and mention him in blog posts and even posted a YouTube of an ad Waits sued over because the company used a Waits impersonator.
And then there is Ken Bruen. Bruen loved waits. And if you were fortunate enough to get pulled into Ken’s orbit, he would tell you all about him. Waits, to him, was one of those guys like Johnny Cash or Neil Young or Warren Zevon. I even found myself in a bar trading Waits lines with JA Konrath, back when he was a struggling midlister. It didn’t hurt that the crime community’s favorite show, The Wire, used various versions of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as its theme song.
So what was it about this guy that attracted those of us who wrote about the dark side of life?
Well, Waits is clearly the last beat poet. If you find Kerouac or Ginsberg beyond you, listen to Waits. Everything the beatniks tried to do, Waits manages to do without imitation or pastiche. This is most obvious on his live album, Nighthawks at the Diner and in the song “Trouble’s Braids,” which formed the basis of a Christmas parody I post every year, “A Very Tom Waits Christmas.”
The essential Waits albums are Nighthawks, Swordfish Trombones, Rain Dogs, and Mule Variations. I should really like Rain Dogs more. It’s his best music, but it’s also Waits at his graveliest. To me, Mule Variations sums up Waits best: Equal parts Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Pete Townshend (without the self-indulgence. Sorry, Pete. You know we loves ya.) “Get Behind the Mule” is as close to raw blues as he will ever get while “What’s He Building in There?” is Waits the beat poet. Then there’s “Chocolate Jesus,” showing us Waits the slumming angel in a song that would not have been out of place on Johnny Cash’s American recordings. During a rare musical appearance for The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said it best: “I hear you, and I think, ‘I’d like to get drunk and fall down in a gutter with that guy.” Waits thanked him.
Tom Waits owns the dark side of America. Oh, Green Day may have staked a claim there, and Trent Reznor might have pumped out a techno vision of one heroin-impaired corner of it, but Waits owns it.
And we all thanked him for it.