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List ‘Em Carefully (Hall of Fame Edition): The Essential Tom Waits

on December 22, 2010, 5:57pm
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listn 260x260 List Em Carefully (Hall of Fame Edition): The Essential Tom Waits

First, congratulations to Alice Cooper Band, Neil Diamond, Jac Holzman, Dr. John, Darlene Love, Art Rupe, and Leon Russell, all recently announced 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. But this list ain’t about them. CoS prides itself on not playing favorites when it comes to our coverage, but occasionally (once in a “Grapefruit Moon”, you might say) we succumb to temptation (throat-scraping falsetto and all) and let our inner fanboys and fangirls run the e-presses.

Call this list a love letter to Tom Waits. Call it a Christmas card. Call it whatever.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself stirs mixed sentiments. As a museum, it’s well worth the visit. But the idea of inducting artists (not unlike awarding Grammys) has always been met with an ambivalent response. Music lovers, snobbish as we can be, generally dislike this sort of final verdict when it comes to our music. We’re eager to praise a great live performance and even more willing to lambaste an album that disappoints, but we’re far more hesitant to anoint a band or artist to some higher echelon, which, at least in some sense, downgrades other “lesser” artists whose music matters just as much to us and often more. Part of the problem stems from a lack of agreeable, measurable criteria. The Baseball Hall of Fame can always point to home runs and hits. What numbers can the Rock and Roll HOF crunch? Inductions based on units shifted or Billboard #1 hits? No, we don’t like that either. (And if, like Cooperstown, the Rock and Roll HOF was all about hits, Tom Waits couldn’t land a job in the museum gift shop, much less get enshrined.) What’s our deal? Maybe we fear some ulterior motive or creeping commercialism—some tampering with or cheapening of our music. Perhaps, we simply don’t agree with or trust the taste of the selection committee.

Waits maybe said it best upon hearing that he had been voted in: “I am still recovering from the news. I never really cared about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…but now I am surprised to discover how much I DO care.”

And to be honest, it’s only when artists like Waits get in that we find ourselves caring—when we get the feeling that an outsider has crashed the party.

tom waits List Em Carefully (Hall of Fame Edition): The Essential Tom Waits

But enough of that. On to the list. How did we come up with it? We pinned the name of a Tom Waits song to each country on a globe, spun it, stuck out our index fingers, and played that game we used to as kids, asking, “Where am I going on vacation?” Not really, of course, but it’s probably no worse a methodology given the circumstances. Condensing a career of nearly 40 years and 20-plus records down to 15 songs is a daunting task in itself, and all we love about Waits makes it all the more difficult. Even while recording and touring under the umbrella of mainstream record labels, Waits has always been an outsider artist, equal parts beat poet, jazzman, score/play composer, vaudevillian, pot and pan banger, exhaust manifold, crazy uncle, and walking Ripley’s Believe It or Not! of oddball facts and stories. There has been no real chart-topper and almost zero radio play, though Waits does lay claim to being rather large in Japan—“big,” actually. The result is an eclectic discography that everyone comes to in a slightly different way and a top ten list that feels remarkably fluid; come back next week and things might look completely different. But then again, who has ever been able to pin down Tom Waits?

Enough. Let the gushing commence.

15. “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”/“Bottom of the World” from Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

Waits has a reputation for being a junk collector, but nobody was counting on him having scraps as good as these laying around when he assembled 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” warmly crackles and glows, with Waits crooning like a mainstay in your Grandma’s old record collection. On “Bottom of the World”, Waits, with his voice in all its ragged and worn glory, shares tales and wisdom from a lifelong hobo set to one of the most vibrant and beautiful arrangements he’s ever put forth. Besides, where else can you get a recipe for fried black swan or learn to use egg whites for slicking down your hair?

14. “Soldier’s Things” from Swordfishtrombones

Waits has never really been overtly political in his songs, which made 2004’s Real Gone, “Day After Tomorrow” in particular, somewhat unexpected. A more subtle commentary on the effects of war is the poignant “Soldier’s Things” from 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. The song is little more than a list of possessions set to simple piano. Listeners find themselves at a garage sale, where customers can buy cufflinks, neckties, and medals for bravery. There’s a palpable sense of desperation as a broken radio and a car with a dented hood and bad brakes make for tough sells and a profound sadness as personal belongings are practically given away (“everything’s a dollar in this box”). Waits touches a nerve by playing it cool, letting listeners fill in the story and bring their own emotions to the song.

13. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (an Evening with Pete King)” from Small Change

One of Waits’ more comical numbers (or disclaimers), “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” closes out side one of the brilliant Small Change in fine, inebriated fashion. Waits has admitted to having played a lot of “toilets” as a young, opening act, and you almost have to wonder if a jukebox that has to take a leak and a waitress you can’t find with a Geiger counter are lyrical inventions or reminiscences. Humorous as the situation may seem, Waits is also conveying a weariness and disenchantment with his lifestyle and heavy drinking during these years. Waits often performed this song with a notably drunken delivery—all part of the act, maybe—as can be seen in this abridged version from a television appearance.

12. “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” from The Heart of Saturday Night

For listeners who discovered Waits through more experimental albums like Franks Wild Years or later, gruffer releases like Blood Money, it might come as a bit of a surprise that he started out as a fairly typical (a stretch, I know) piano- and guitar-based singer-songwriter, with a voice that was shockingly smooth before years of moonlighting as a chimney finally caught up with him. This simple, acoustic ballad highlights Waits’ knack for poetry that depicts the late-night scene (“Is it the crack of the pool balls?/Neon buzzin’/telephone’s ringing, it’s your second cousin”). Later recordings would bring Waits back to the world of “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” but rarely with the same innocence or romantic outlook.

11. “Lucky Day” from The Black Rider

The Black Rider, a collaboration with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs and Waits’ first stab at writing for the theater stage, is admittedly a tough pill to swallow. “November” has endured, and it’s still a kick to hear Waits as a carnival barker announcing a freak show lineup during the overture, but “Lucky Day” is the real gem on this mostly inaccessible record. As is the case in a number of Waits’ songs, the protagonist of “Lucky Day” leaves his love and life behind for the allure of “bummin’ around,” adhering to the hobo-esque wisdom of his father: “When you get blue/And you’ve lost all your dreams/There’s nothing like a campfire/And a can of beans.” “Lucky Day” has been a live staple and fan favorite on a number of tours, including 2008’s Glitter and Doom Tour.

10.  “Singapore” from Rain Dogs

We might still be on a boat here, but we are oceans away from “Shiver Me Timbers”. A maniacal Captain Tom takes the helm as “Singapore” opens the classic Rain Dogs with chaotic, jarring dissonance. A teetering Waits rattles off lines about “tawny Moors” and “making feet for children shoes” atop a hull’s worth of oddball percussion. Clearly we’re not in Kansas anymore. Hell, this ain’t even Swordfishtrombones. “Singapore” made it quite clear that while listeners might spy land, they definitely would not spot Waits’ retired lounge act anytime soon.

09. “House Where Nobody Lives” from Mule Variations

Waits had a lot of expectations to fulfill on 1999’s brilliant Mule Variations. It was his first proper studio album since the stripped-down, blues-rock of 1992’s Bone Machine, and fans were anxious and salivating to know what a seven-year gap would yield. Probably most surprising was the number of gorgeous piano ballads found on the record, the most moving being “House Where Nobody Lives”. As always, Waits tempers any sentimentalism or sappiness with concrete, nitty-gritty detail, and the result is a universally resonating message about love and family.

08. “Burma-Shave” from Foreign Affairs

Admittedly, Foreign Affairs probably isn’t a record you need to run out and pick up, not even for that duet with Bette Midler. But tucked away on side two is “Burma-Shave”, a song about a juvenile delinquent and a girl with hair like spilled root beer, who follow the Burma-Shave advertising billboards right out of a crummy town and towards a tragic fate. This jazz number perfectly captures the cinematic feel Waits was going for on the album and later morphed into a full-blown, spoken-word performance piece, as seen below.

07. “Falling Down” from Big Time

Big Time is both an LP and a concert film consisting of theatrical live performances of material primarily drawn from Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years. “Falling Down” is the LP’s lone studio recording. When someone asks how Waits’ gravelly, shot voice can possibly be beautiful, you need point them in no other direction than this track. Waits’ rasp and growl have never been more powerful than here, as he roars over a pump organ and light percussion about all that’s destined not to work out.

06. “Time” from Rain Dogs

Amid the general chaos and clanging of Rain Dogs sits “Time”, a bare-bones, acoustic ballad that has no earthly business being there, and yet it’s somehow the highlight of the record. Waits is at his poetic best here, softly singing (almost mumbling) of a rain-drenched city and its dispossessed inhabitants: “Well, the smart money’s on Harlow/And the moon is in the street/And the shadow boys are breaking all the laws/And you’re east of East St. Louis/And the wind is making speeches/And the rain sounds like a round of applause.” See a performance of “Time” below from the Big Time concert film.

05. “Heartattack and Vine” from Heartattack and Vine

Heartattack and Vine marks the transition from the jazz piano lounge act of Small Change and Blue Valentine to Waits’ harder, more experimental, percussion-based ‘80s work. There are still piano ballads like “Ruby’s Arms”, “Saving All My Love for You”, and “On the Nickel” (complete with lush orchestration), but they’re harshly juxtaposed with several crunching jazz-rock numbers. When listeners first spun this opening title track in 1980, they had to be taken aback by the big, fuzzy guitar and Waits raggedly spitting out lines like “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil/There’s just God when he’s drunk.”

04. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” from Blue Valentine

While Waits was already beginning to change gears with the recording of Blue Valentine, the creativity of a track like “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is a reminder of just how good Waits sitting down at a piano could be. He tickles the familiar spots on the ivories while growling through a letter from a prostitute to some guy named Charlie. She tells him about her pregnancy, new man, and kicked dope habit, only to, by letter’s end, admit that she’s lying and needs money. The closing line might be the finest sign-off of Waits’ career: “Charlie, hey, I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s Day.”

03. “On the Nickel” from Heartattack and Vine

Originally recorded for the Ralph Waite film of the same name, “On the Nickel” has often been introduced by Waits as a “wino’s or hobo’s lullaby.” It might be the irony of this song that makes it so compelling, even three decades later. It’s cinematic in composition and scope, with Waits’ gruff delivery and piano riding an undercurrent of lush, sweeping orchestration. But the song itself is about perhaps the most frowned upon and neglected faction of American society: the homeless. And here is Waits, with orchestra-style backing no less, displaying such tenderness toward people in this situation. Who but Waits would have written this song, and who can listen to it without feeling a sense of compassion or shame?

02. “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six” from Swordfishtrombones

Swordfishtrombones was the proverbial line drawn in the sand, and no song better indicated which side Waits stood on than “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”. With his lounge act days firmly behind him, Waits put the piano and strings aside and began to, well, bang on things. On “16 Shells”, electric guitar and acoustic bass negotiate a coarse rhythm with snare, brake drum, bell plate, and a drawn-out trombone, atop of which Waits barks out a series of actions (“And I blew me a hole ‘bout the size of a kickdrum”) that seem to have little or no connection with one another. And it all comes together to be this abrasive and primitive romp from hell. This song was truly a moment when listeners had to decide whether they were onboard with Waits or needed to retreat back to his Asylum catalog.

01. “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” from Small Change

What’s better than having your work bastardized by Rod Stewart once? (See “Downtown Train”.) Having it bastardized by Rod Stewart twice, of course! “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” should rightfully be the song with which Waits will forever be associated. From the opening lines (“Wasted and wounded/It ain’t what the moon did/I’ve got what I paid for now”), it’s Waits at his most achingly beautiful, with a simple melody and a story that turns the streets and seamy side of life into something the average listener can grasp. Part of the inspiration for “Tom Traubert’s Blues” was an evening Waits spent on skid row. “Every guy down there…everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there,” he observed. Near the end of the song, Waits sings, “And it’s a battered old suitcase/To a hotel someplace/And a wound that will never heal.” There’s not a man or woman alive who doesn’t know what the feeling in these lines is all about (even Rod Stewart knows).

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