Monday, September 27, 2010

Admiration [people,places, ideas, and other culturally relevant topics]: Tom Waits

8/1/2010-So begins a series of blogs which focus on specific people, places, ideas, etc. that have all interested me or influenced me at some given time period. I will attempt to make these interesting even to casual readers, although if you really want to you could simply discover these things on your own and make your own mind up about it. Either way, I hope that you enjoy these selections and as always- comment!
9/21/10- This blog project became so bulky that I had to literally stop writing it for awhile, and recently picked it up

Tom Waits
"The piano has been drinking, not me."- 1976 
How do the angels get to sleep / When the Devil leaves his porch light on?-1980
"I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things"- 1986
"The Moon ain't romantic, its as intimidating as hell"
 "You can pour me a cab, I just can't drink no more"
"On my gravestone I want it to say, 'I told you I was sick'"
"My father was an exhaust manifold and my mother was a tree"
"I primarily worry about whether there will be nightclubs in heaven"
"If you live it up, you can't live it down"
"If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?"
"I've learned how to be different musical characters without feeling like I'm eclipsing myself. On the contrary, you discover a whole family living inside you"
"I was born in the back seat of a Yellow Cab in a hospital loading zone and with the meter still running. I emerged needing a shave and shouted 'Time Square, and step on it!'"
*All quotes reviewed and cited from:

Tom Waits is interesting folk. His music combines, almost seamlessly, the fundamentals of jazz, folk, and americana with combining his own blend of beatnik spoken word, bellowing piano ballads, and experimental instrument arrangements done up in a variety of a gruff vaudevillian composure that have in themselves become their own unique brand of music. His songs are riffled with downtrodden vagrants, and drunken lovers; and yet, somehow in the midst of sometimes chaotic or even scattered orchestrations, Waits somehow brings a humanity to even the lowest social chain unmentionables. It is almost cinematic watching his albums unfold in post modern disenfranchised stories where morality is always a question based on the voyeur's perspective and not on a universal set of philosophical sanctions. Never adhering to mainstream sentiments, Waits is an accomplished playwright as well, and has based many of his 1990s albums around his own subject material. His involvement in the music industry has led him to partnerships in film as well, resulting in several supporting roles under directors like Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Coffee and Cigarettes, Mystery Train), Terry Gilliam (Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and close friend Francis Ford Coppola (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and Bram Stokers Dracula). Waits continues writing to this day with his wife and greatest inspiration, Kathleen Brennan

What makes him noteworthy?

On popularity and the limelight:
The answer to the question above is personality. As I noted before, Tom Waits is interesting folk, and with an introduction like that it should be semi-obligatory that he should be virtually unclassifiable in his style. Somehow this is an artist who attempts to recreate himself with every album, and does so without the slightest regard for what remains popular. A good example of how others have reacted to him and his stance on "the limelight" is seen in this interview from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (and the song he played, just for kicks! hah) Waits was discouraged by the music of the 1960s and took it upon himself to seek out music from "lost generations" to find the essence of a true sound, instead of listening into what others were deeming good. It is this approach that has followed him throughout his career, and has made him a legend in the industry. 

Notorious for his stance against appearing in advertisements, Waits has successfully sued three major companies for misusing his songs. When asked he replied, 
"apparently the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car . I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor." 
On Sound and Creation: 
Waits is a musicians musician, in that he isn't a typical pop culture figure. His lyrics speak as a caretaker for the downtrodden would, and his musical philosophy echoes in his usage of sound arrangements to capture raw emotional pathways. In several interviews Mr. Waits has declared that his greatest interest is the discovery of new sounds, and that when he happens upon new ways for creating unique sounds, he takes advantage of the opportunities. Sometime after Heartbreak and Vine, he began to use instrumentation uncommon in rock music such as the bagpipes, pump organs, offbeat percussion, bassoon, waterphonechamberlain, and stroh violins. Information on these and numerous other instruments can be found at:
On the matter of sound creation, Waits noted:
 "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing."
His most noteworthy contemporaries include characters such as Keith Richards (contributed to the album Rain Dogs on songs such as: Black Mariah, Union Sq., and Blind Love), Warren Zevon, and Frank Zappa. Waits is one of the most covered artists with something around the avenue of 100 verified versions of his songs sung by other artists. Waits is also an avid contributor to film soundtracks, and even met his wife on the set of One from the Heart.

Many Tom Waits songs have been covered over the years, sometimes to greater success than the original Waits' version. Much of this has to do with Waits inconsistency in large tours, his lack of music video collections, and his much less accessible song style (as compared to say, The Eagles or Rod Stewart).

Notable Covers of Tom Waits:

The Eagles- Old '55
Neko Case- Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
Scarlett Johansson- the album Anywhere I lay my Head, is a cover album full of Tom Waits songs. Anywhere I lay my Head
Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, and T-Bone Burnett- Trampled Rose
Tori Amos- Time
Holly Cole- the album Temptation, Jersey Girl
Rod Stewart- Downtown Train
Bruce Springsteen- Jersey Girl

Noteworthy Songs/Albums:
To recommend just one song from Waits 40-year career that could possibly sum up his entire being is difficult. Some artists this comes naturally, e.g. "Stairway to Heaven" for Led Zeppelin, or "Free Bird" for Lynrd Skynrd; but with Waits it comes down to the question, "which era was his best?"

As previously stated, Waits has systematically changed his style every decade for the last 40 years. For the 1970s he was a crooning piano ballad writer with poetic sensibilities following him from rundown motels to hole in the wall taverns over the course of an entire album.  It seems that the albums themselves reflected real life struggles as Waits relays his emotions during his career at the time,
"I was sick through that whole period [...] It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot — too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable" (McGee, 29)
The 1970s period is full of some of Toms' most unique and memorable songs, such as: "Old '55" (popularized by The Eagles cover version of the same name), The Piano is Drinking (Not Me), Fumblin with the Blues, Drunk on the Moon, Heart of Saturday Night, Tom Trauberts Blues, Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, Red Shoes by the Drugstore, The One that Got Away, Hope I don't Fall in Love with you, Whistlin' Past the Graveyard, and A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun. Personally I always found "Blue Valentine" to be the most fascinating of Waits' 70s pieces, with "The Heart of Saturday Night", running a close second, and pieces of "Closing Time" coming in third.

#1- Blue Valentine (1978)

Notable Tracks:

Red Shoes by the Drugstore- A quick jabbing tale of a downtown street at night. Waits' voice echoes down the alley walls, banging off trashcans and puddles of rainwater, as he moves us to an amassed state of observational sustenance, as if to say the world has more to see than what any one person could identify by experience alone.

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis- Typically most music critics will associate "Christmas Card" as one of Tom Wait's most popular tunes. It certainly earns that position by simply telling a good story and telling it well. The premise behind the song is simple: A prostitute from Minneapolis gets pregnant and writes a letter to her former lover/client Charlie, updating him on all that's happened to her in the last few months. Tom Waits gives us a "prostitute of gold", in the sense that we truly feel connected to this woman's struggles without ever harnessing a sense of judgement. Waits portrayal gives her a humanity, that other artists may not have included. Check out this video of Waits singing "Christmas Card" live back in 1978.

"Romeo is Bleeding"- My all time favorite Tom Waits tune, as it truly conveys Waits' southern California roots. The tale of a gang member shot up in Los Angeles, Romeo is a perfect example of tragedy outside the law, and  Wait's streetwise jazz growl brings out the nit and grit of Los Angeles's underside with a true atmosphere of ego dueling.

Other Notable Tracks include: Whistlin' Past the Graveyard, Somewhere (from West Side Story), and Blue Valentines.
#2- The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)

The Heart of Saturday Night is probably the most accessible album that Tom Waits has issued. The style is very down to earth and Wait's plays upon the subtleties of a nightclub lifestyle as if the world after dark is somehow brighter than the daytime. It is in this sophomore release from Waits, that he discovers the rythm that would carry him until swordfishtrombones, and manifests the persona that would eventually become the public notion of Waits.

Notable Tracks:
- Shiver me Timbers: a very Billy Joelesque tune that really plays well to Wait's vocals.
-Drunk on the Moon: a precursor to "The Piano has been Drinking (not me)"
-Please call me Baby
-Heart of Saturday Night

#3- Closing Time (1972)

Closing Time is probably the most overlooked Waits album, as it was not only his first album but also included his first coverable song (Old '55 which was covered by The Eagles). The album doesn't really find its true sound, and thus it is mentionable only for the fact that it was his first; yet avid Waits fans may find solace in works such as: Old 55, I Hope that I don't Fall in Love with you, Closing Time, and Lonely.

The Midaisle Critiques Tom Waits Playlist
  1. Old '55 (Closing Time)
  2. I hope that I don't fall in love with you (Closing Time0
  3. Lonely (Closing Time)
  4. Burma Shave (Foreign Affairs)
  5. Fumblin' with Blues (Heart of Sat. Night)
  6. Drunk on the Moon (Heart of Sat. Night)
  7. The One That Got Away (Small Change)
  8. Piano has been Drinking (not me) (Small Change)
  9. Christmas Card for a Hooker in Minneapolis (Blue Valentine)
  10. Red Shoes by the Drugstore (Blue Valentine)
  11. Whistlin' Past Graveyard
  12. Downtown (Heartattack and Vine)
  13. Singapore/Clap Hands (Rain Dogs) 
  14. Hang Down Your Head (Rain Dogs)
  15. Gun Street Girl (Rain Dogs)
  16. Time (Rain Dogs)
  17. Union Sq. (Rain Dogs)
  18. Walking Spanish (Rain Dogs)
  19. Downtown Train (Rain Dogs)
  20. anywhere I lay my head (Rain Dogs)
  21. swordfishtrombones (swordfishtrombones)
  22. just another sucker on the vineyard (swordfishtrombones)
  23. down down down (swordfishtrombones)
  24. alice (alice)
  25. I Don't Wanna Grow Up (Bone Machine)
  26. little drop of poison (Orphans)
  27. trampled rose (Mule Variations)
  28. Get Behind the Mule (Mule Variations)
  29. Hold On (Mule Variations)
  30. Big in Japan (Mule Variations)
** As this blog has taken me over two months, I have decided to end it here. Waits is a fantastic artist with much to offer. If you find that you like his 1970s work, definitely check out the triage: Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones, and Frank's Wild Years; as well as later works such as Alice, Glitter and Doom, and Mule Variations (for which he won two grammys for). Thank you, and goodnight.

In closing.... a clip from Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes! and a video for "Jockey full of Bourbon"