Tag Archives: Tom Waits

Up where the air is fresh and clean

Tom Waits on the simpsons

Tom Waits will never be immortalized on Mount Rushmore or blessed with a platinum album — probably never — but as of tonight he can always say he was on The Simpsons, so there. I guess it’s only to be expected that he would meet Homer at Moe’s Tavern, but they’ll have to go a long way to beat this scene:


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I’m home, I’m blind, and I’m broke

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.    

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(Scary) Blue Monday

“The only strings that hold me here/Are tangled up around the pier/And so a secret kiss/Brings madness with the bliss/And I will think of this/When I’m dead and in my grave/Set me adrift/I’m lost over there/But I must be insane/To go on skating on your name/And by tracing it twice I fell through the ice/Of Alice/There’s only Alice.”

Tom Waits wrote the Alice songs for a 1992 stage play directed by Robert Wilson, and for the next decade they were available only as bootlegs in various configurations.  I haven’t seen the play, but I was delighted with the 2002 release of the songs. As much as I love Tom Waits’ music and growling, sardonic stage persona (I speak as someone who’s been buying every new Waits album since the Nighthawks at the Diner era), I sometimes get tired of the whole carny barker routine. The Alice songs have none of that posturing. This is the great overlooked Waits album — tender, spooky, full of longing and a sense of loss — and “Alice” is the great overlooked Waits song.

Shortly after the CD came out, I was playing it in the living room and Dances With Mermaids (then about eight) came in to listen with me. After a while, she said, “Daddy, this music is scaring me.” Smart kid. It scares me, too, when it isn’t doing a lot of other things besides.

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Tom and tide

Though I don’t particularly give a damn who gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the news that Tom Waits has been invited into the club does offer a handy excuse for posting clips of this ridiculously talented musician and poet, who has traveled farther stylistically than just about any performer I can think of. From the ballads and Beatnik poetry of the first phase, to the deep-voiced blues of the late Seventies and early Eighties, to the Harry-Partch-meets-Kurt-Weill style that started with Swordfishtrombones, the guy has had more creative lives than a cat He’s also frequently hilarious.

Most importantly, he’s the underground Irving Berlin. Everyone from the Eagles to Bruce Springsteen to Rod Stewart has covered a Waits tune, and while some cover versions are better than others, they remain the property of Tom Waits.

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Blue Monday (Business Edition)

I’m getting ready to open a bookstore later this month, and along with the minutiae of daily operations — where to get credit-card processing, what kind of coffee-makers to get, LLC or INC — there is one overwhelmingly crucial matter: what should be the first song I play on the sound system? Since irony and black humor are my default setting, my first thought was “Busted” by Ray Charles.

On the other hand, as a child of the Seventies I retain a great deal of fondness for Bachman-Turner Overdrive and its chunka-chunka meatball anthem “Takin’ Care of Business.”

Interesting to think that Neil Young cites Randy Bachman as an early role model for his guitar playing.

Speaking of the Seventies, this Pink Floyd number comes to mind:

Heard it before? Kind of an obscure tune, I know.

Actually, I’m pretty sure the first song will be “Step Right Up” by Tom Waits. When it comes to Waits I tend to prefer the weirder, more recent stuff, but I still love this cut off his fourth record, Small Change:

“The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.” The guy has so many great lines, Bartlett’s should print a special Tom Waits edition.

Chiefly, I hope to avoid ever having to play this song:

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Friday finds


Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant animated film Spirited Away, viewed as “a nightmare of capitalist Japan.” Considering that the story is set in a class stratified resort for the gods where even spirits are turned into consumers, under a greedy owner who steals the identities of her employees and turns anyone without a job into an animal, I’d say the analysis is at the very least arguable. (The fact that whiny Chihiro, the heroine, becomes a better and more resourceful person while maneuvering under Yubaba’s thumb deserves consideration as well.) Meanwhile, I’m eager for the U.S. release of Miyazaki’s latest film, Ponyo, on August 14.

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is up.

Luc Sante thinks Georges Simenon was an odd bird. Tell me about it.

Funny how the Scandinavian countries, with the most peaceful and happy people on Earth, produce so much bloodcurdling crime fiction.

James Baldwin’s years in Istanbul.

Chris Hannan lists the ten best books about the American frontier. Hannan’s rundown omits Butcher’s Crossing, Lord Grizzly, Flashman and the Redskins and Lonesome Dove, but he includes Roughing It, so what the hell.

Michael Chabon on the wilderness of childhood. Terrible Yellow Eyes offers works inspired by Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Click here to order the “fur edition” of the storybook for the upcoming film version.

Beck Hansen: Hey, I wanted to ask you about being from Los Angeles. You grew up there . . . Tom Waits: Yeah, Whittier, La Habra, Downey, that whole area. Yeah, Los Lobos, they’re from Whittier. So is Nixon. I remember Nixon’s market. He had his own family market. BH: He was? For some reason I thought he was from the Midwest. TW: No, California, and we used to get a visit every year from the Oscar Meyer wiener mobile, which was an enormous vehicle shaped like a hot dog. The driver was a Dwarf, and the wiener mobile would broadcast music while he sang the song “I wish I was an Oscar Meyer wiener.” He drew quite a crowd. Pretty exciting for a shopping center.

A love poem in an appropriate shape.

Poets describe the words that make them wince.

African album covers influenced by Michael Jackson’s covers.

Vladimir Nabokov vs. Alain Robbe-Grillet vs. Vladimir Nabokov vs. Alain Robbe-Grillet vs. Vladimir Nabokov vs. Alain Robbe-Grillet. . .

“Once experienced, it is hard to let Heart of Darkness go. A masterpiece of surprise, of expression and psychological nuance, of fury at colonial expansion and of how men make the least of life, the novella is like a poem, endlessly readable and worthy of rereading. Academics need write nothing more about it for another century. It should be handed back to readers simply to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Conrad composed a book where we see ourselves, darkly. Its relevance echoes forever, fizzing with understanding us then and there, and here and now, written for us all to live with today, whenever ‘today’ will be.”

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