Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
As someone who came to Tom Waits’ music nearly 2 decades into his recording career, my perspective on his musical output is probably very different from fans who were listening to him years before. It’s been easy for me to follow his trajectory from piano-based singer-songwriter to beat poet troubadour, from barroom blues/jazz crooner to junkyard percussion howler, but I wonder how fans of his early work responded to these musical changes…and how fans who came to his music in the ‘80s felt about his more straightforward earlier albums. Although his style was clearly changing on his final Asylum album, Heartattack And Vine, the Tom Waits who appeared on Island Records just a few years later was almost completely unrecognizable. Fortunately, he was still writing some incredible songs, so even though these albums are not for everyone, they’re incredibly rewarding to any listener with an open mind (although some of them take a little longer to sink in than others).
His initial offering for Island, Swordfishtrombones (1983), was also his first self-produced record. Percussion drives the majority of the songs, with a clangy, cacophonous production, and the instrumentation gives the album an exotic, otherworldly sound. I don’t love every song here, but there are plenty that are among his best. Album opener “Underground” is like a chain gang work song, with Waits barking out, “There’s a world…going on…underground!” “16 Shells From A 30-6” (aka “30-ought six,” a rifle cartridge) is a steady percussive tune with some abstract lyrics (“I made me a ladder from a pawn shop marimba and I leaned it up against a dandelion tree”). I may not understand what he’s singing/yelling about, but I look forward to it each time I play the album. The song that’s been stuck in my head more than any other for the past two weeks is “In The Neighborhood.” It’s sad but uplifting, like a New Orleans funeral, and it showcases one of his most heartfelt vocal performances. “Frank’s Wild Years” (later to be the basis for a stage play and studio album, minus the apostrophe) is simply spoken word on top of an organ & bass jazz backdrop, and wouldn’t have been out of place on Nighthawks At The Diner. It’s a cool (and twisted) story about a man living a seemingly peaceful life in the Valley until one night he has a few drinks, sets his house ablaze (with his wife and her Chihuahua still inside) and drives off heading North. “Down, Down, Down” is a bouncy, upbeat blues tune with a driving drumbeat accented by tambourine, as well as a tasteful organ performance (both background and solo). “Soldier’s Things” is a touching song about a dead soldier’s remaining earthly possessions, featuring just vocals, piano and upright bass. Is this sung from the perspective of the soldier’s wife? His parents? Are they actually selling these possessions (“Everything’s a dollar in this box”)? It’s one of the more subtle tunes here, and it really stuck with me.
Those are my favorites here, but there are other notable songs and performances. “Shore Leave” is spooky, with sound effects creating a unique atmosphere. I like the tonal shift when the marimba comes in between “I sat down and wrote a letter to my wife” and “And I said baby, I’m so far away from home.” The brief love song, “Johnsburg, Illinois,” is about his wife Kathleen Brennan (it’s her hometown), and other than the off-key “see” during “You see I just can’t live without her,” it could’ve easily appeared on his earlier albums, especially with his tender and unaffected vocals. The short instrumental “Just Another Sucker On The Vine,” featuring harmonium and trumpet, has a sweet little melody. I love the marimba and percussion on “Swordfishtrombones,” although even with some cool lyrics I feel like I’ve heard this done better before. “Gin Soaked Boy” has a dirty little blues groove, in the John Lee Hooker vein, and features a killer guitar tone from Fred Tackett (best known for his work with Little Feat). The album ends with the 3-minute instrumental “Rainbirds,” with piano, bass, and 3 people credited on glass harmonica. It’s quiet, almost contemplative, with a stately and elegant piano performance by Waits. It’s a perfect…and somewhat surprisingly subdued…end to a very strong album. Many critics and fans consider this among his best releases, if not THE best. For me, though, it pales a bit in comparison to the album that would follow it.
The formula for Rain Dogs (1985) was similar to its predecessor, but a couple of key changes set it apart: the arrival of Marc Ribot’s quirky, angular guitar sound, and the fact that the album was written while Waits was living in New York City, giving it the feel of a cohesive song cycle. Most importantly, though, nearly every song is a keeper, and it only gets better with each listen. “Singapore” is a steady, percussive tune that sounds like a psychedelic work song with gruff vocals (“You must say goodbye…to…me”). I especially love the melody in the bridge (“The captain is a one-armed dwarf…”). “Clap Hands” has a great feel with marimbas & other percussion, and his quiet close-miked vocals have even more impact than his usual loud barking. Ribot really rips on guitar here. “Cemetery Polka” doesn’t feel like a polka to me. It has a sing-songy, childlike quality, but it’s a little too weird to be considered kids’ music. “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” has a slinky little groove with a twangy & bluesy guitar melody, and the congas add a great Latin feel. The verse is my favorite section (“Hey little bird, fly away home…”). Rolling Stone Keith Richards joins Waits on guitar for “Big Black Mariah,” a dirty blues tune a la Captain Beefheart. This song, based on the slang for a police van transporting prisoners, wouldn’t be the same without the subtle drumming of Stephen Arvizu Taylor Hodges. “Diamonds & Gold” is slow, percussive, sleepy & dreamlike, yet slightly off-kilter. It also has a great chorus (“What some men will do here for diamonds, what some men will do here for gold. They’re wounded but they just keep on climbin’…”). I could imagine Bruce Springsteen performing “Hang Down Your Head” with a slightly different arrangement, the first Waits/Springsteen comparison I’ve heard in a while. This version would be a pop song if not for the muted production and instrumentation, and I found myself singing along with “Hang down your head for sorrow, hang down your head for me” almost immediately.
[Tom Waits – “Hang Down Your Head”]
The slow ballad “Time,” which closed the Island Years anthology Beautiful Maladies (discussed here), has to be among his all-time best. It’s simple yet awesome (“And it’s time, time, time…that you love me…and it’s time, time, time”), and his vocals are both weary and strong. “Rain Dogs” is a steady percussive tune with a standout 3-note guitar motif, and his gruff vocals are particularly effective (“Oh how we danced with The Rose of Tralee”). “Gun Street Girl” sounds like an old back porch folk-blues song, with Waits on banjo, and has a distinctive feel from the rest of the album. “Union Square” has a sloppy Rolling Stones vibe, and unsurprisingly features Keith Richards again on guitar. Richards also adds some backing vocals to “Blind Love,” sounding like one of the Stones’ country-tinged songs. This one is begging to be covered (Bob Seger already did), as that great melody in the chorus (“The only kind of love is stone blind love”) should be a huge hit for someone. I may not know what “Walking Spanish” means, but I love the funky feel of this tightly arranged walking blues with great sax work. It’s hard to believe a great song like “Downtown Train” could be buried as track 17 out of 19 tracks here. Both Patty Smyth and Rod Stewart recorded cover versions (it was a big hit for Rod), but this version outstrips them both. Guitarist G.E. Smith and drummer Mickey Curry (both from Hall & Oates’ band at the time) bring a slight pop sheen that’s mostly absent from the rest of this Waits-produced album. The album ends with the New Orleans funeral-like dirge of “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” featuring a somber performance by The Uptown Horns. This works great as an album closer, especially with the more celebratory horn and percussion outro. Song-for-song, I don’t think I’ve been this impressed by a Waits album since his debut, Closing Time, yet those two albums couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. It’s hard to imagine him topping this, but I’m hoping to be surprised by some of his later albums that I haven’t gotten to know yet.
His next album, Franks Wild Years (1987), is not an easy listen. Subtitled as “Un Operachi Romantico In Two Acts,” and based on a stage play by Waits and Kathleen Brennan, it features some excellent songs but also some very strange material that often seems like its sole purpose is to make the listener uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s an easier listen for those who saw the play, but for the rest of us we’re often left scratching our heads. Whoever compiled the aforementioned Beautiful Maladies compilation chose just the right songs from this album, although I would have also included the gorgeous “Yesterday Is Here.” Waits plays a Spaghetti Western-type melody on guitar, and it’s even included in the vocal line (“Well today is grey skies, tomorrow is tears, you’ll have to wait ‘till yesterday is here”). The other noteworthy tracks are “Hang On St. Christopher” (like his other percussive work songs, but the sly horn arrangement and processed vocals give it a unique sound), “Temptation” (just an awesome song with a great tango rhythm, his raspy vocals are in a higher register, and his wailing/moaning vocal section…arranged by Brennan…is instantly memorable), “Way Down In The Hole” (a great insistent horn hook, with the shaker driving the groove along, it’s really a gospel song about loving Jesus and keeping the devil down…with a phenomenal Ribot guitar solo), “Cold Cold Ground” (featuring a heavenly accordion melody from Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, it’s one of Waits’ strongest melodies within a simple song structure), and “Innocent When You Dream (78)” (another great melody on a recording that sounds like an old scratchy 78 record, and much better than the “Barroom” version earlier on the album).
[Tom Waits – “Temptation”]
“Straight To The Top (Rhumba)” has a nice subtle horn arrangement and a rhumba feel (obviously), but the muted production doesn’t do it any favors (yet it’s significantly better than the “Vegas” lounge-lizard version that appears later on the album). The glockenspiel on “Blow Wind Blow” is a cool new texture, but the song is too strange and doesn’t bear repeated listening. “I’ll Be Gone” has Waits barking along with a rooster to an insistent rhythm, and features former Captain Beefheart member Morris Tepper on guitar. “Telephone Call From Istanbul” is a standard loping Waits song, but the brief Farfisa organ solo near the end makes it worth hearing. “Train Song” is a sad ballad that kept growing on me with each successive spin. Once again sounding like a funeral dirge, except for the brightness of Hidalgo’s accordion, the lyrics are very strong: He regrets his past actions but is unable to undo them (“It was a train that took me away from here, but a train can’t bring me home”). It’s probably my favorite of all the songs not mentioned in the previous paragraph. A couple of the songs here are so nearly unlistenable that it’s worth mentioning them. “Please Wake Me Up” has some dissonant Mellotron tones and an Optigon (whatever that is). If I heard this in my sleep, I’d be asking someone to “please wake me up.” He sounds like an off-key, twisted Al Jolson on “I’ll Take New York,” which isn’t terrible (until the end) but I really didn’t enjoy it. As I mentioned above, perhaps seeing the play would shed some light on the lesser songs here, but as an album it doesn’t really work, with the exception of the 7-8 outstanding songs I discussed. Following up Rain Dogs wasn’t going to be easy, and I shouldn’t even compare the two, but after listening to these albums numerous times in the past couple of weeks, it’s clear that whenever I revisit Franks Wild Years in the future, I will likely only play my favorite songs, something I rarely do (I tend to listen to albums beginning to end).
For his first true live album, Big Time (1988), which was also a motion picture, Waits focused on the three Island albums I discussed in this post, with 14 of the 18 songs coming from these records, along with two new songs and one each from Blue Valentine and Heartattack And Vine. Of the two new tracks, I prefer “Strange Weather,” which Waits and Brennan wrote for Marianne Faithfull (but she never recorded it). It’s a slow shuffle with nice slowly plucked banjo and a winning melody. I love the horn swells around “And all over the world, strangers talk only about the weather.” “Falling Down” (the one studio recording here) sounds like some of the stronger songs on Franks Wild Years. It’s good but a little too familiar. I like the clangy, percussive version of “Red Shoes At The Drugstore,” with the swirling organ. He sounds like an over-the-top evangelist during the gospel revival section included in “Way Down In The Hole.” I prefer the jump blues/jazz vibe on “Telephone Call From Istanbul” over the studio version. There’s a nice reference to the Motown classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” during the version of Rain Dogs’ “Gun Street Girl” here. Otherwise, these performances don’t vary greatly from their studio counterparts, but Big Time still works as an excellent introduction to Waits’ early Island Records years. I’ve seen the movie once, and I recall some excellent concert performances mixed in with footage of Waits as a demented carnival barker. Now that I know these songs much better, I will have to watch the movie again and hopefully appreciate it even more than I did the first time.
Of the albums I’ve discussed in this post, it’s obvious that Rain Dogs stands head and shoulders above the others for me, with Swordfishtrombones a distant second. I’ve already begun listening to Bone Machine, The Black Rider and Mule Variations, which I will cover in my next post, and even after one listen it’s clear that there are many highs and lows on those records. This is probably the most challenging portion of his catalog, but I’m hoping it will also be the most rewarding. I guess I’ll know for sure next time, so stay tuned.