Monday, March 19, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Tom Waits, American Orpheus

Tom Waits has always had more imagination than he knew what to do with. In the seventies he imagined a drunken beat poet alternate reality to the tough-but-sensitive singer songwriter milieu of his Southern California surroundings. Even so he beat them at their own game with songs like "Old 55" and "San Diego Serenade". It was music that most of his contemporaries would have traded their souls to the Devil for, if only he wanted them. Songs Waits today repudiates.

In the early eighties Waits was getting bored with the romantic drunk shtick and was looking for a way forward. Every album had contained great songs, vivid characters and imagery, but the context was becoming repetitive and confining. Nietzsche's Hell was eternal recurrence, and Waits had been there long enough. 

Then he met his collaborator and wife-to-be Kathleen Brennan. Brennan challenged him to head out cross-country. Waits and Brennan began to write songs that incorporated everything from American folk song, Country, and Blues, to the European art song of Kurt Weill, to the sound of circus bands. The glass harp, the musical saw and strange percussion instruments devised  and played by Waits made their way onto albums that, starting with Swordfishtrombones, Waits produced himself.

Much of what follows is nightmare, as Waits and notable collaborators like percussionist Michael Blair and guitarist Mark Ribot clang and thrash with a menace that echo the desperation of Waits famous rasp of a voice. This would get old in the hands of a musician with less empthy, (Beefheart, anyone?) but Waits is willing to remind us of why it matters. The horror of "In the Colosseum" is countered by the hope of love, bent, but unbroken in "Downtown Train".

Both strains come together in his great anti-war song "The Day After Tomorrow" It's not an anthem,  it's a quiet letter from someone who has seen too much too soon.  Waits makes  the character real with lines like "What I miss you won't believe, shoveling snow and raking leaves". The writer still clings to life in spite of what he's done "We just do what we are told, we're just the gravel on the road", and what service in the war has cost. "And I know we too are made of all the things that we have lost, dear." he sings, and... ahh, but what are you doing listening to me? Go listen to Tom.

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