Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

The first I ever heard of Tom Waits was through a Henry Rollins spoken word record. Rollins told of a paramedic who accompanied an incredibly beautiful and incredibly naked girl in the back of his ambulance and fell in love with her only to watch her die before they arrived at the hospital. The paramedic wrote to Rollins and asked what he could do to get this woman out of his mind. When Rollins related this story to Tom Waits backstage at a show, Waits offered sage advice. "Forget her. She's haunting you from the grave. She'll do it every time. She did the same thing to me."

When someone is able to out-do Rollins in the sick humor department, I make it a point to remember the name. Which is why when I saw the name Tom Waits flash by as I channeled through my mom's satellite TV while home from college, I had to stop and check it out. It was Big Time, Waits' concert film. And it was the most amazing and enthralling sound I had ever heard. A rolling yawn of percussion and wind instruments that sounded like they were counting time in Roman numerals and every now and then confusing their IVs and VIs. And in the midst of this ruckus, like Satan guiding his own Damnation Army band, was the voice of Doom. Waits can do amazing things with his voice: slide from glassy falsetto into a strangled yodel that sets your hair on end; affect the greasy charms of a sideshow barker; howl like a drunkard or a wounded sailor alone in a friendless town. The first time I saw him, he dropped into the deepest register, like banging on the low end of a piano, and wielded his voice like a bludgeon. I didn't know the song, could only pick up a few of the lyrics, but I had to have more.

Waits is known as much for his vocal delivery, his strange instrumentation and arrangements, and his drinking as he is for his actual songwriting. But when you look at his lyrics, you see... Well, you see a lot of things.

In the early days you find winos and drifters and prostitutes. Waits chronicled life on the street: the poverty, the violence, the hopeless nights alone in a bottle. Characters like Small Change gunned down with his own .38. A hooker who sends a Christmas card from jail. Romeo slowly dying with a bullet in his chest but still keeping up a macho front for his friends. But Waits could easily swing from the ramshackle spirits of the slums to the beautiful innocence of childhood. Look at lyric samples from two of his best ballads.

This from "Tom Traubert's Blues"

I begged you to stab me, you tore my shirt open
And I'm down on my knees tonight
Old Bushmills I staggered, you buried the dagger
In your silhouette window light

And this from "Kentucky Avenue"

I'll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie's wings
And I'll tie 'em to your shoulders and your feet
I'll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs
And we'll bury them tonight out in the cornfield
Just put a church key in your pocket, we'll hop that freight train in the hall
We'll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall

For very different reasons, both these songs send an electric shiver through my spine, and depending on the mood I'm in, either can reduce me to tears.

Around 1983 Waits gave up writing about booze and life on the streets. Surreal, sometimes nightmare-like imagery entered his lyrics.

"Underground" informs us that below our feet subterranean inhabitants swing from town to town on roots, like Tarzan. In "Singapore" someone makes "feet for children's shoes." Then there's the "Eyeball Kid" and "Table Top Joe," two oddities of nature who make their living as entertainers.

From the very beginning of his career, Waits has established an enormous lexicon of images. From a "grapefruit moon" to a "dark huddle" of "umbrellas arranged in a sad bouquet" to a tree "scratching at the sky" like a "rusty black rake digging up the turnips." With their jarring visuals, Waits' songs often resemble short films, sometimes directed by Scorsese, sometimes Fellini.

Waits' black view of humanity is on display on just about all his records. The earth is a "damn good address for a rat." A pimp eyes a girl on the corner and bets she's still virgin, but notes the night is young. People break promises, lie to each other, kill each other and themselves. But you can hardly blame them when God is no better. In "Heartattack and Vine," we learn there is no devil, "just God when he's drunk." In "Georgia Lee," when a girl is found murdered in a grove of trees, Waits asks, "Why wasn't God watching?" And in "God's Away on Business," the creator leaves "killers, thieves and lawyers" in charge while he's off peddling his wares. As spokesman for the downtrodden and damned, Waits has never shied from from questioning God's complacence while humans suffer in misery.

Sprinkled throughout Waits' songs are a roll call of people and places, exotic names like Burnt Face Jake and Mayor's Income, Tennessee. They lend his lyrics a mythology while grounding his strange tales in the hidden burgs and forgotten back roads of America. Even if Waits never rode the rails as a hobo or drifted penniless looking for work, it certainly seems like he has, and in his scrapbook is a collage of a grainy photographs taken by the light of a fire barrel.

What amazes me most is Waits' ability to visit love songs and murder ballads, to be angry and forgiving with the same mouth. Just when you think you got him figured out, he changes shape. Becomes a different monster. One with eyes soft and bright. And teeth enough to strip your bones.

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