The Tom Waits Phase

Tom Waits

By Tom waits in buenos aires 2007.jpg: Theplatypus derivative work: Klausness (Tom waits in buenos aires 2007.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the last decade when I was on my way to fame and fortune as the savior of the PI novel (Pause for hysterical laughter), I was introduced to Tom Waits.

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 NighthawksSwordfish TrombonesRain 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.

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Annual Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the lonlieness, the lonliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the lonliness
The lonliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all

There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

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…

Annual Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas

[Originally posted on Northcoast Exile, December 24, 2006]

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the lonlieness, the lonliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the lonliness
The lonliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all

There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

Annual Tradition – A Very Tom Waits Christmas

Hey, gang, it’s Christmas.  And I cannot let this Christmas season pass without the annual Tom Waits post.

Enjoy!

[Originally posted on Northcoast Exile, December 24, 2006]I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the loneliness, the loneliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the loneliness
The loneliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all

There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

Annual Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas

[Originally posted on Northcoast Exile, December 24, 2006]

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the loneliness, the loneliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the loneliness
The loneliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all

There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.