Welcome to the world of… Tom Waits

An introduction to the lyrics and music of one of America’s finest songwriters: Tom Waits.

by Matteo Tiratelli

The world of Tom Waits is one of small-town strip-tease joints, ports and empty highways filled with hookers, midgets, sailors, gamblers and drunks. It is a world of the grotesque but it is also romantic, and this allows him to create the gothic, fairy-tale mood which characterises his lyrics. This mythical world is, however, distinctly American and the characters are as often found waiting at a “tired bus station” pining over the waitress in a diner, as they are on shore leave in Hong Kong “squeezing all the life / out of a lousy two day pass”.

Waits rarely goes in for straight-forward storytelling, preferring instead to present series of vignettes and descriptions, and so the atmospheres he creates are in many ways the most important parts of his lyrics. There is also, however, a darkly comic aspect to his world which comes across in one-liners: “There ain’t no devil / that’s just God when he’s drunk”, as well as in stories like “Frank’s Wild Years”: Frank “hangs up his wild years” and settles down with his wife and her dog “a little Chihuahua / named Carlos that had some kind of skin / disease and was totally blind”. The story ends with him burning down his house (possibly with his wife in it) and he then “parks across the street laughing / watching it burn, all Halloween / orange and chimney red”. “He never could stand that dog”. This sort of black comedy runs throughout Waits’ work and it seems to reinforce the fairy-tale quality of his world.

Another key way in which this mood is created is through elevating the profane images and characters to a romantic, almost sacred level. Whether he is enticing St Christopher to get “jacked up on whisky” or asking “Are those dreams or are those prayers?”, Waits seems to revel in combining the sacred with the profane. This is even mirrored in Waits’ own life with his wedding to Kathleen Brennan taking place at a Las Vegas Wedding Chapel he found in the yellow pages. Tracks like “Shore Leave” epitomise this romanticising tendency. Waits here creates a world that is both romantic and dark, with seedy images painted in a beautifying light. The protagonist is described shooting “billiards with a midget” and taking in “some Filipino floor show” before wondering “how the same moon outside / over this Chinatown fair / could look down on Illinois / and find you there / And you know I love you baby”. The sentimental loneliness of this sailor is somehow touching despite the strangely fantastical descriptions of Hong Kong which take up most of the song.

This gothic mood is also a product of the music Waits writes which, especially since 1980, has drawn on the sounds of early blues music, sea shanties and cabaret. These eclectic influences result in a sound that is constantly surprising and varies between traditional piano ballads (bawlers like “Time”) and strange industrial music (brawlers like “Swordfishtrombone”). In many ways his gravelly, Bourbon soaked voice has a similar effect as it seems at times old-fashioned but is at other times broken into a guttural, otherworldly bark. Waits’ music lends as much to the atmospherics of his world as his lyrics do, as his warped take on old musical styles reflects his Grimm’s Fairy Tales-like take on the past.

These elements create a world which is grotesque and yet filled with sacred and romantic elements and coloured by a dark, gothic atmosphere. This remains the most distinctive aspect of Waits’s music, and the main point of stability in a career that has encompassed a huge variety of genres and styles.

Discography:

Start with Small Change (1976), then move on to his most acclaimed and experimental period with Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), Frank’s Wild Years (1987). Also check out his latest album Bad As Me (2011) which draws together the different sides to his career.

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