Have you ever loved a piece of music — a song, a symphony, an album — and listened to it so many times it that it seemed to soak into the cellular structure of your brain? Did you then learn, after the fact, that what you thought the music was “about,” or how it made you feel, was completely different from what the composer intended? And realized that it didn’t matter? If you thought Appalachian Spring was an evocation of mountains and forests while Aaron Copland thought he was tailoring music to a particular dancer’s style, the music was big enough to accommodate both of you, and millions more as well. That’s the special quality of music: unlike other arts, which create objects with their own rules and definitions of reality, music is a catalyst that interacts with your consciousness to create something other than what the composer intended and the listener expected. It doesn’t even have to be great music. Better still, it does this over and over.
That’s why I hate most music videos. They short-circuit the waking dream effect of music by marrying it to a standardized set of images. Years after I first heard, say, the Rolling Stones perform “Undercover of the Night,” I automatically think of Mick and Keith pretending to be terrorists in Central America, because that’s what the crappy video showed them doing. It’s somehow worse when the video is actually good. “Every Breath You Take” shouldn’t just be the soundtrack to a miniature noir film, but that’s what it became through the joint efforts of the Police and Empty-Vee.
Having said all that, I now say that this video for “Hell Broke Luce” off Tom Waits’ Bad As Me disc is brilliant, because it uses images the way Waits uses phrases — combining them in ways that seem disjointed but follow an interior logic, which is revealed by multiple listenings (and viewings). That doesn’t mean I’m going to start watching Empty-Vee again. Maybe it helps to know a song well before seeing the video. (I certainly have no qualms about posting the video for “Fairytale of New York” every Christmas, probably for that reason.) Maybe it just means Waits is an artist who breaks rules every time he breathes, though I’m still glad I got to memorize Rain Dogs without the benefit of a video showing me what “9th and Hennepin” is all about.
Another great Tom Waits quality is his penchant for treating interviews as extensions of his stage performances. For that reason I commend this link in which the maestro plays a benign version of the way Bob Dylan used to run rings around journalists trying to nail him down on the meanings of his songs.