Tom Waits is a character mistaken for a caricature. He’s alternately viewed as whiskey-drunk boho or a cartoon hobo, with a voice that syncs a little too perfectly with videos of cookie monster. He peppers interviews with fabrications more entertaining than the truth, an extension of his onstage persona as a peculiar and funny raconteur, which was documented for posterity on 2008’s Glitter and Doom Live as the bonus disc, “Tom Tales.” He’s also amassed a collection of peculiar musical instruments that have made their way onto his records, the likes of which—the stroh, the T-rodimba, something called “The Conundrum”—are just as confusing to play as they are hard to find.
The widely held assumption, to borrow a turn of phrase from Waits himself, is that he “growls about booze and gargles with nails and screws.” He’s seldom released a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll song, and certainly never an ordinary rock album, less a stubborn refusal to play what most people want to hear than a genuine curiosity in choosing to get lost on untread paths and untamed wilderness. Records like his alternately satirical and affecting 1999 album Mule Variations are all or nothing propositions, patchworks of looped, lo-fi scat-sing rhythms and oddball effects, inward-turning stories about suspicious neighbors and heartbreaking ballads about horrific crimes. It’s this version of Tom Waits that has amassed a large cult following, rarely touring but selling out every damn date in an instant whenever he does—and bridging the gaps between his best-known junkyard singalongs with outlandish tales that have, I would guess, at least as much veracity as the seemingly specious details about his biography that he publicly shares.
The Tom Waits that we hear today isn’t the one that made his debut with the singer/songwriter focused Asylum Records with 1973’s Closing Time. That piano-playing balladeer, in scruffy goatee and tam o’shanter, was inspired by the Beats, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, lawbreakers, derelicts and small-time hustlers. A regular performer in San Diego clubs and coffeehouses in the early 1970s, he shared the stage with the likes of Tim Buckley and Jack Tempchin, eventually moving up to Los Angeles for better career opportunities, which he found to varying degree of satisfaction. His early signature song “Ol’ 55” was covered by Eagles, a rendition he called “a little antiseptic”; he opened for Frank Zappa but was pelted with fruit thrown by Frank’s unruly fans. And just as he was growing more confident in his own songwriting, thanks to breakthroughs on early albums such as 1976’s Small Change and 1978’s Blue Valentine, he found his label paying increasingly less attention to him in favor more commercially successful artists such as, well, Eagles.
Waits’ first act didn’t come to a dead stop at the dawn of the ’80s, but the first stage of the metamorphosis had already begun with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, his final album for Asylum/Elektra, and the one with the most distinctively dirty, bluesy, guitar-based sound. He had ended his relationship with singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones and left Los Angeles for New York, with no intention of looking back. At least until director Francis Ford Coppola approached him about writing the soundtrack for a film he was working on, titled One From the Heart, a project featuring singer Crystal Gayle that Waits approached with trepidation. Returning to both Los Angeles and his earlier sound wasn’t an exciting prospect, but then again how do you say no to the director of The Godfather? While on the project, however, he met Kathleen Brennan, an assistant story editor to whom he became engaged to be married within a week and officially legally wed that same year.
Immediately smitten with his now longtime partner—they’ll celebrate their 43rd anniversary in August—Waits also found a crucial new creative collaborator in Brennan. She introduced him to artists like Captain Beefheart and avant garde composer Harry Partch, a fellow onetime San Diegan who often incorporated the kinds of homemade instruments into his work that would influence Waits’ own pursuit of such oddball implements. In time, Brennan increasingly became a greater presence in his work, co-writing and co-producing albums like Mule Variations, Alice and Blood Money. She’d also inspire Waits to stop drinking by the early ’90s and better himself on a personal level in addition to challenging his own songwriting. In essence, becoming a wife guy was the most critical event in Tom Waits’ career.
After delivering the made-for-Hollywood ballads of One From the Heart, Tom Waits returned as an entirely different kind artist on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, his most consequential album, if not necessarily the one with his greatest songs. Barflies and lovable losers were shown the door and a carnivalesque cavalcade of freaks welcomed in, with songs that mostly left behind piano melodies in favor of an abrasive skronk and a dingier shade of scuzz. The emotional pangs of his earlier material weren’t gone, exactly, but they took the form of an inventory of a soldier’s belongings or a simple love song about a midwestern girl, interspersed between Lynchian spoken-word narratives about weirdos committing murder and arson to escape a drab middle-class life or the telephone-game whereabouts of an ex-military outlaw. Darker, weirder, rife with experimental sounds and black humor, Swordfishtrombones isn’t what Asylum wanted from Waits, and they refused to release it. Instead, he received an offer from Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, and with that, Waits emerged from a grimy cocoon, fully formed with wings of dust and burlap.
If Swordfishtrombones is his most important album, however, Rain Dogs is his best. A disorienting 53-minute tour through backrooms and alleyways, basements and steam tunnels, Rain Dogs applied the avant garde carnival barker aesthetic to an even stronger set of songs, partnering with a fittingly demented instrumental foil in guitarist Marc Ribot as well as, on a handful of songs, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards—who, per Waits, had a tendency not to memorize or write anything down, instead calling out “scribe!” But the complete picture, however seemingly fragmented, formed something unique and captivatingly odd. From the opening of “Singapore,” Waits proclaims, “We’re all as mad as hatters here!” and the 19-track pastiche of vagabonds and villains bears this out through tipsy blues and bloodstained burlesque.
Inspired in part by the 1984 documentary Streetwise, depicting homeless youth in Seattle, the world of Rain Dogs exists beneath the surface and on the fringes, populated by gamblers, phantoms painted on pews, prison-bound paramours and outlaws too drunk to shoot straight. Where Swordfishtrombones feels at times like a patchwork of impeccable fragments, Rain Dogs fashions a more cohesive picture out of its dimly lit vignettes. But it’s still deeply, deeply weird.
Most of Rain Dogs finds Waits channeling his character sketches and impressionistic place-making into his most memorable and by-and-large best songs. “Clap Hands” concocts a nursery rhyme from the motley crew riding the A-train (“The fireman’s blind/the conductor’s lame“) set to a hypnotic marimba rhythm, while the brief “Cemetery Polka” is like a Disney soundtrack gone horribly, hilariously cynical and macabre; “Uncle Phil can’t live without his pills” and “Uncle Bill will never leave a will.” Marc Ribot lets loose his best licks on the mambo noir of “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” a seedy gangster scene with a swivel in its hips. And the title track is perhaps the most grand and dramatic in its opening overture—maybe the most majestic accordion solo in all of American popular music—ushering in an anthem for lost souls celebrating going nowhere in particular. “Oh, how we danced and we swallowed the night,” he sings, “For it was all ripe for dreaming.”
Not coincidentally, Rain Dogs is also the first to feature a writing credit from Brennan, on the ballad “Hang Down Your Head,” as direct and simple a song about a broken heart as you’re likely to find here. It’s ragged, yet tender, the purest reconciliation of this observer behind bullet-pocked glass with the bohemian romantic he had previously been. Yet the best-known song here is “Downtown Train.” Likewise one of the most mainstream-friendly songs of the bunch, Waits’ gruff growl of a vocal mostly sanded down to Springsteen wheeze, with some choice licks from Richards. Much like “Ol’ 55,” it saw greater success as a cover, this time by Rod Stewart, reinforcing Waits’ prowess at pop songwriting, however scuffed up it might be in its rawest form.
The cracked sidewalks and after-hours diners of Rain Dogs aren’t necessarily on the other side of the tracks as the nightclubs and dive bars of Waits’ 1970s records, but they’re a few blocks east, where the streetlights have burned out. Yet even this Waits is still a romantic, drawn to the outcasts, drifters and outlaws stumbling through the shadows—in love with the sound of oxidized brass and moonlit accordion. That this is also the same Waits who found his own true love and tranquility is the real conundrum. Despite whatever the conventional wisdom might tell us, domesticity and stability didn’t tame his wildest impulses—they made them flourish.
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