Heroes Week: Taking the Downtown Train with Tom Waits
Anyone who knows me should fully expect that this article was coming. My love for Tom Waits is pretty extreme. I consider his music to be of the highest quality of any music I’ve heard in my life. And yes, he’s one of the few I can put above The Beatles. Oddly enough, my first exposure to Tom Waits as such was not through his music. I first became aware of him from his role in Mystery Men. I had seen him in other films like The Fisher King and Bram Stoker’s Dracula prior to that, but I didn’t have an idea of who he was. I was exposed to his music thanks in part to Firewater’s cover of “Diamonds and Gold” from Songs We Should Have Written. I went on a three month Tom Waits binge that summer, buying nearly every album he released in his long career, and just fell in love with his gruff voice, his lyricism, his view of the world. Real Gone was released later that year, and I was fully hooked.
What amazes me about Tom Waits is his constant upheaval as an artist. I always implore people to listen to his records in chronological order (although I usually tell them to skip Foreign Affairs) just to watch him turn from piano balladeer to blues balladeer to carnival barker to grim reaper to folk balladeer to something that can only be described as the work of a demon. It’s an incredibly varied career with constant reinvention, but the quality of the song writing and lyricism exists throughout. Old Tom is best when he’s singing narratives like “Invitation to the Blues” or “Blue Valentines” or “Martha.” His ability to evoke a scene or emotion is legendary, and he’s one of the best if you want to wallow in sorrow with a sad song. That’s not to say he’s a one note songwriter. Far from it. Humor, slice of life, surrealism, it’s all on the table. And it’s all done in such a great way.
Even if you think you’ve never heard a Tom Waits song, there’s a decent chance you have without realizing it. Ever hear Bruce Springsteen’s rendition of “Jersey Girl”? That’s a Tom Waits song. Ever see Shrek 2? The song Captain Hook plays in the tavern is “Little Drop of Poison,” recently released as part of the Orphans box set. “Ol’ 55” was covered by The Eagles. “Downtown Train” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues” were (badly) covered by Rod Stewart. He’s around, whether you realize it or not. It’s not surprising that you see a lot of covers of his songs. The man’s voice can be off putting to an outsider. At some point in the eighties, his vocal chords were apparently replaced by steel wool. Despite this, he still brings the emotion, and the gruff vocals often serve to reinforce the everyman feel of his lyrics. He’s a perfect fit for what he sings.
I’m very disappointed that Tom has not toured the northeast since I discovered my love for his music. His stage banter is hilarious (I’m super excited that the new live release coming next month, Glitter and Doom, will apparently have an entire disc of just stage banter), and he has played some of the greatest live songs I’ve ever heard. I hope to see him live one day. Really, he’s the only one left I actively need to see live. It should happen eventually, and that will be a great day. Here’s to you, Tom.
Top Five Tom Waits Albums
5. Blue Valentine (1978)
Tom Waits in full-on bluesy fervor. It’s the beginnings of his transition away from normal music towards the, well, whatever the hell you call what he did in the 80’s, and is a definite precursor to the dirty, sleazy Heartattack and Vine. “Blue Valentines” is one of his best ballads, and “$29.00” might be the best pure blues narrative he ever wrote. The rest of it is solid gold despite the maudlin cover of “Somewhere.” It’s a vision of things to come, but a full album of goodness in its own right.
4. Rain Dogs (1985)
The apex of the carnival barker years. Rain Dogs is a titanic album, with 19 tracks. It’s the first album he worked with Marc Ribot, and has a very distinctive guitar feel alongside the wild percussive styles that began on Swordfishtrombones. It’s a solid record despite its number of tracks, and very few of these songs are throwaways. This used to be my favorite album of his, but I think there’s something generally missing from his work in the 80’s. It’s still fantastic and damned near flawless, but I don’t listen to it as much as I used to. Tough to deny the power of “Cemetery Polka” and “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore” though.
3. Real Gone (2004)
I liked this album when it was released. I love it now. It’s arguably the most bizarre original release (I’m not counting The Black Rider due to its nature as a musical score thingie), with this odd combination of what can only be described as a take on negro spirituals like “Sins of the Father” and “Make it Rain,” with whatever the hell ‘Baby Gonna Leave Me” is, as well as some more solid as a rock ballads. And there’s no piano to be found. NONE. And it features Tom Waits beatboxing, which might be the most demonic sound ever put to tape. “Hoist That Rag” has quietly become my favorite song in the Tom Waits canon, and this album might continue to creep up the all time charts for me.
2. Small Change (1976)
The transition into Tom Waits’ full-time blues persona that would last for the rest of the 70’s. This features two of the best ballads of Tom’s career, the famous “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and the devastating “Invitation to the Blues,” as well as the spoken word title track and the surrealism of “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”. Every song’s a hit, and it strongly evokes both the 70’s and the 40’s at the same time. You can’t go wrong with this album.
1. Bone Machine (1991)
This is the definitive album about death. And I mean DEATH. This thing does not mess around. It’s pure perfection from top to bottom, features some of Waits’ crazier vocals (The breathy falsetto of “Dirt in the Ground” is apparently referred to as his “Prince” voice), and the single greatest break up song in the history of music in “Who Are You?”. I can’t gush enough about this record. The percussion is insane, and basically consisted of Waits, his wife and a bunch of other folks banging sticks on anything they could find that would make a percussive noise when hit. The album is dark and mysterious and foreboding, incredibly cohesive and moody. I think it’s the single best album released by anyone ever. I will always cherish it. Always.