After my family stranded me in the cool sterile solitude of a dorm room on my first day at college, I wondered what type of person my roommate would be. He showed up the next day, a baseball nut with aspirations of playing pro and a penchant for “Mech Warrior” and “Unreal Tournament.” He was occasionally obnoxious and unduly concerned about his biceps. Everyone on the floor wanted to hang out with him, particularly the girls who, for some reason, didn’t see the appeal in his geeky roommate with a pouch of Dungeons and Dragons dice. Maybe the Clockwork Orange poster that dominated my side of the wall frightened the fairer sex away.
The reason I bring up this collegiate odd coupling is the unspoken music duel that took place that first semester. Constantly blaring from his stereo was “Back That Azz Up,” Juvenile’s poetic love ballad to a big booty ho who’s a fine motherfucker. Sometimes when I got back late at night I’d see him sitting on his bed mouthing the lyrics over a double cheeseburger. But there was a weapon against the Big Tymer.
Enter Frank’s Wild Years.
My roommate could not stand the sandpaper, chain-smoke delivery of Tom Waits. Whenever I put on the album in question, he’d curl and writhe like an earthworm on hot pavement, fleeing our room for sanctuary and often cursing me as he left. We were not enemies, but an unspoken animosity arose once the horns of “Hang On St. Christopher” overtook the rhymes of Manny Fresh.
I don’t blame my old roommate for his aversion to the eclectic bad trip of Frank’s Wild Years. It’s not the friendliest of Waits’ albums for the uninitiated. Most of it is entrenched in uncomfortable bad dreams, oddball eccentricities or eerie state fair attractions. “Please Wake Me Up” plays like some quiet circus nightmare. “I’ll Take New York” sounds like a horrific delusional version of “New York, New York,” Waits singing like some barely standing former starlet. Adding to the mad mix is the mournful “Yesterday is Here” which could have been from some subtle, bipolar spaghetti western. A few people have perhaps rightly joked that when listening to Frank’s Wild Years it’s best not to operate heavy machinery or bring a child to term.
Frank’s Wild Years was born out of a collaboration between Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan, though vestiges of the play turned up on the song of the same name on Swordfishtrombone and an unproduced script Waits co-wrote with Paul Hampton titled Why is the Dream so Much Sweeter Than the Taste? Described as a cross between It’s a Wonderful Life and Eraserhead, the off-Broadway work is billed on the album cover as “operachi romantico in two acts.” The musical made its premiere in 1986 at the Briar St. Theater directed by Gary Sinise and with Waits in the lead. It played for two months to packed houses but received mixed reviews.
The story of the hard-luck, accordion-playing hero Frank O’Brien opens with “Hang on St. Christopher,” a sinister carnival ride of a song that sets the tone for the album with wonky percussive bass pedals and drums like rusty trash can lids. The smoky drunk of the opener is followed by the first version of “Straight to the Top,” here a tumbling song about Frank’s dream to drift up where the air is clean. The same song appears later in a lounge lizard iteration, Waits crooning with the requisite “whoas” and a rhetorical question about his backing band.
If there was one song guaranteed to drive my roommate to the TV room, it was “Temptation.” Over a languid though darkly seductive arrangement, a scratchy, falsetto Waits weaves a tale of alluring illusions. The room clearing moment came midway through when Waits operatically moans like a ghost with a tracheal ring. If my roommate somehow weathered through “Temptation,” he would have probably been gone by the chorus of “Innocent When You Dream.” Like some mug swaying barroom sing-a-long, a pair of growling, off-synch Waits belt out the titular refrain. There’s something surly and nostalgic about the song, a drunken whimsy added by the tinkling bells or the quick piano punctuation.
When Waits puts on a preacher’s collar for “Way Down in the Hole,” there’s still something eerie about his sermon. The creep and scratched voice squalor of “Telephone Call From Instanbul” offers some pretty sound advice: “Never trust a man in a blue trench coat / Never drive a car when you’re dead.” The banjo picks of the song are something one imagines an Eastern European jack-in-the-box from hell would sound like just prior to springing open. The album winds down with the soothing “Cold, Cold Ground,” the deadbeat epiphany of “Train Song” and a much less surly version of “Innocent When You Dream.” The muffled, congested finale sounds as if cranked from a beaten phonograph, a fitting choice for song that returns to fond, seemingly sepia-toned memories.
Listening to Frank’s Wild Years still reminds me of the first few months in college. Between studying and becoming a convert to hi-speed internet connections, I’d escape with an accordion playing dreamer from big booties and get-it girls. Or, more accurately, a creepshow calliope would cause big daddy to retreat from the room so finally I could dream, like Frank, innocently and in peace.
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