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Rediscovering classic Tom Waits

Tom Waits Franks Wild Years

Maybe I’m in one of those moods, or maybe it’s because Christmas is rolling around and gruff voices and abrasive songs are a welcome antidote to ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ but I’ve been enjoying three classic Tom Waits albums again recently. I remember being introduced to these by my friend Rustum Kozain [1] who, incidentally, writes eloquently about our musical explorations while listening to University of Cape Town student radio in the late 80s/early 90s – a shared experience – in his blog [2].

These three Waits albums are his ‘departure’ pieces, a move into a more abrasive, harder to swallow, edgier style. For the non-initiate (if one is to imagine there are people who’ve not heard Tom Waits at least once…), his style is a combination of blues, cabaret and a sort of deranged, clangy circus music that’s both gritty and deeply musical. Noise and poetry combine into powerful music that’s emotionally raw and goes directly to the heart of its subject matter. Impossible to really classify, I struggle each time I rip a Tom Waits CD with what genre to put it into. (‘Rock’ typically wins as an unsatisfactory default choice.) Maybe Tom needs his own genre.

Each of these records features such incredible music, and they’re each so highly recommended, that it makes little sense to provide a blow-by-blow. I will pick three representative songs, one from each CD, just to give a sense of why I appreciate them:

Tom Waits Swordfishtrombones

Swordfishtrombones (1983) has my favourite Tom Waits track of all time, ‘Shore Leave.’ All about the debauchery and regret of an off-duty weekend while the narrator is in the army (presumably in Vietnam?), this is beautiful and lyrical in its sparse instrumentation and mumbled lyrics, yet so powerful when the xylophon-driven chorus underscores the feelings of love and longing, of being “so far away from home, and I love my baby so.”

Rain Dogs (1985) features ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon,’ an incredible, hard-driving rhumba with strong percussion and dry, ironic rhythm guitar. While the lyrics – try as one might – don’t exactly offer any obvious insights as to what they may be about, lines like “I’m on the lawn with someone else’s wife” and “I’m full of bourbon, I can’t stand up” may provide some clues. Like all superb poetry, knowing what it’s about is the least important thing.

Tom Waits Rain Dogs

Finally, Franks Wild Years (yes, it really doesn’t have an apostrophe; 1987) offers the unforgettable “Way Down in the Hole.” A mock gospel tune (or maybe the truest gospel you’ll ever hear…), this showcases one of the cleverest uses of a horn section to provide rhythm I know. Against the stark background of just a shaker and a double bass, these horns are both sarcastic commentary and the grooviest thing you’ll hear all week. And, of course, don’t forget to take note of the guitar solo (you’ll have to hear it to know why it’s great). “He’s got the fire and the fury at his command, but you don’t have to worry if you hold onto Jesus’ hand…”

Abrasive enough to appeal to any punk yet lyrical, fragile and sensitive at the same time, Tom Waits is and remains thoroughly unique. His latest, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, is possibly his strongest yet.