My friend Will, a university professor of English literature, came round to visit last week. We talked, on and off, for about 6 or 7 hours. We talked about mutual friends, about politics and the state of the world, we talked about the music industry, we talked about artists we know, we talked a lot about literature. And then, as always, for the last hour or two, we got tired and just degenerated into the ‘Isn’t Tom Waits Great’ game. The game is very simple. One of you names a random Waits song, and the other coos and says god yes, isn’t that song amazing, and then they have to point out 2 or 3 little genius details that you hadn’t noticed, and then they get to name their own song, and so on.
Tom Waits doesn’t have fans: he has worshippers. He is Bob Dylan’s ‘secret hero’. Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam and Jim Jarmusch have built Hollywood films around him. Scarlet Johansson chose the crest of her first wave of stardom to make an album of Tom Waits cover versions. Everyone loves him, and I’m certainly no exception. There are a handful of musicians who I might consider to be my absolute favourite, and they run in soft rotation, but the person who has worn the crown the longest is probably Tom Waits. And while all the artists of his generation seem to be settling into a gentle career as a rootsy elder-statesperson, he’ll still make something like this:
Which is why I was a bit surprised to sit at my computer to write this, and then draw a complete and utter blank. I had assumed this would be easy, like turning on a tap. The album I had picked to eulogize is Rain Dogs, the second in the trilogy that began with Swordfishtrombones and ended with Frank’s Wild Years, which marked one of the most extraordinary artistic reinventions in modern music history. He was known as a sort of beatnik wino, singing beautifully crafted Tin Pan Alley songs about broken hearts and petty criminals. And then he met his future songwriting partner, and wife, Kathleen Brennan, and the world turned darker and weirder, and had a finger or two cut off.
Will and I disagree on this (then again, he actually dislikes Phantom Menace and Quantum of Solace, can-you-believe-it!), but for me Rain Dogs is the best example of what makes just about all Tom Waits albums so great. This eulogy could easily apply to most of them (and I have at least one other I’m earmarking a eulogy for).
Rain Dogs is a joyfully nightmarish folk album inspired by New York City, full of madness and sharp edges, and I think it’s the point where the experimentation of the previous album matured and settled into something that feels very familiar, yet at the same time sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. The name comes from when heavy city rain washes a dog’s scent away and it becomes disorientated and can’t find its way home, and it’s a great metaphor for the feeling of urban tension that forms the cultural backdrop to the album. We hear ghostly Klezmer-like accordion solos next to chaotic free jazz, Cuban conga next to tangos next to rock and roll (Keith Richards, no less, guest stars on the album), Nashville country and rural blues. And then there are tracks that sound completely otherworldy, as if they’re played by skeletons in some fairytale graveyard.
I could go on describing it, but describing is not the same as explaining why you love it. And yes, it’s something I find strangely difficult to crystalize into words. Perhaps because it’s hard to pick out examples of great lyrics. Whereas, say, Suzanne Vega and Stephin Merritt are master songsmiths who can weave perfect and compact little stories, to me Tom Waits is fundamentally a poet. Sure, he can write narrative songs with the best of them, but on Rain Dogs the songs are these intricate patchworks of seemingly disjointed lyrics and sounds, and there is little on the album that makes a great deal of sense when you put it between shout quotes. It isn’t about narrative, it’s about description. And perhaps this is my favourite Waits album because it is him at his most poetic.
It’s not so much because I have a love of New York, or ‘small time Napoleons who have shattered their knees’, or even the famous barking carnie sound of Waits himself: it’s his extraordinary ability to paint a scene, lyrically and musically. He reminds me of Shakespeare, in that I don’t particularly have much desire to watch a 3 hour play about some Italian nobles squabbling over who gets to marry who, but if it’s written by Shakespeare I feel there’s a good chance it’ll be enjoyable, because part of the pleasure will be how the characters describe their emotions, ambitions and fears. Storytellers keep you hooked by promising you big reveals, whereas poets keep you hooked moment to moment, just by the way they see the world.
Is it a bit pretentious to talk about people like Waits as poets? Well, yes, unless you’re being specific about what you mean by poetry. Neil Finn once said that jazz is like whisky: you have to be a certain age before you can swallow it without wincing. I think the same might be true of poetry, because I never used to like it. Or, at least I never thought I did, but now I realise the likes of Tom Waits were slipping it into my drink. Perhaps it means different things to different people, but for me, poetry is fundamentally about beauty. It is all about trying to pinpoint and describe the things in life that are beautiful, and what makes them so.
Really? you might say. But there is so much poetry which is deliberately dark and disturbing and ugly! And I would agree, but I don’t believe that’s a contradiction: as the painter Paul Gauguin once said: ‘Ugly’ can be beautiful but ‘Pretty’ never is. The opposite of Beauty is not Ugliness; it is dullness and flat boredom.
And no album expresses that better than Rain Dogs. It is the most mangled, chaotic, discordant, anarchic, insane and warmhearted album you could imagine. It is the thalidomide baby in the destitute hospital that is reaching up to hug you. It is all about the beauty of the unfortunate, the displaced and the ugly, and it doesn’t have a superior bone in its body. This is what separates Tom Waits from the darlings of art rock like Frank Zappa (a man whose work I like a little less with each passing year). Waits was never in the gutter because he wanted to show his contempt for the boring mainstream sheeple. He was in the gutter because he was, and still is, looking at the stars.