By Darran Anderson
“There ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.”
Rock ‘n’ roll is a thing of myths and, more often than not, authenticity is its curse. Since when is ‘truth,’ that most subjective of things, worth the hairs on a rats ass? Doing more damage than good it haunts art turning us, the audience, into spectators at a bullfight or the crowd outside Pilate’s temple shouting “Free Barabass!” We demand our heroes suffer, insist they’re ‘4 real,’ die young and leave beautiful corpses, pop their clogs before they compromise themselves or fail to keep fulfilling our lofty expectations. Decorate the ceiling with your brain matter or scurry off into the desert to become an outsider artist, just don’t dare let us down. Media scrutiny plays a part, robbing the world of the magic of mystery, thus pushing authenticity to the fore, but it’s not a new development. Sylvia Plath‘s poetry means more to us because we’re always aware that she put her head in the gas oven and we’re intrigued all the more by Nietzsche‘s philosophies because we know they ultimately sent him cuckoo. Wilfred Owen will always be held in higher regard to Siegfried Sassoon because Sassoon lived through the war and Owen didn’t. The madness of Vincent Van Gogh or Syd Barrett or Edvard Munch or Roky Erickson, the deaths of Modigliani or Kurt Cobain, the disappearance of Richey Edwards or Hart Crane inform everything we think about them. The problem with this fetishisation of suffering is that it overlooks the central purpose of artists – what they create. Who gives a flying fuck if the Stones aren’t from the Mississippi Delta? Listen to the first twenty seconds of Gimme Shelter or Monkey Man and tell me they aint got soul. And what of the tiresomeness of ‘the truth’? I’ve no doubt Bono genuinely believes in what he says and sings but, in all seriousness, does that make him any less of a cunt? Appreciation of talent is too often overshadowed by a strange, morbid nearly gloating fascination with the tragedy of fates or tedious sincerity resulting in amongst other things a sort of ‘mad for mad’s sake’ phenomena where sad cases like Wesley Willis are adulated by the hip, painfully sane cognoscenti.
Some of those sons of bitches sure is smart though. They know we demand myths and they provide them. Crucially though they’re myths of their choosing, smokescreens to distract us so they can live their real lives in peace and privacy. When Dylan burnt out in the mid-Sixties and needed a rest, mainly from hippies trying to turn him into a modern-day Christ, he spun a yarn about taking a corner too fast on his motorbike. Then there’s the mighty Jack and Meg with their old ‘are they/aren’t they brother/sister, husband/wife’ issue? It don’t matter, just keep the public entertained and crucially keep them off the real scent. It’s all about the myths after all. There’s no greater proponent of myth-making, a venerable Zen master of it, than Tom Waits. An eternally subversive one-man sideshow bursting with demented ideas and daring Waits knows the power of the maxim: never let the truth get in the way of a good story. For what is art, my good man, but the telling of beautiful lies?
In a way you can’t blame him. Who, but a halfwit, would offer themselves up to the meat market of public consumption? It’s like the Native Americans who shunned cameras believing that with every photograph part of their souls were stolen. Maybe they had a point. Waits is obscure and contrary in both song and interview, dodging and weaving outlandish tales instead of that most horrible of phrases opening his heart (shudder). It’s an approach that has made him the delight and the scourge of the music press, enlivening numbskull questions with absurd answers, “What category do I fall under? I’ve never fallen under a category. I fell under a car once and I haven’t been the same since.” In response to questions of his legacy he replied, “Achievement is for senators and scholars. At one time I had ambitions but I had them removed by a doctor in Buffalo. It started as cyst, it grew under my arm and I had to have new shirts made, it was awful. But I have them in a jar at home now.” During a recent promotional appearance on the Letterman Show he barely said a word about his music concentrating instead on the artistic prowess of a gifted horse he had encountered at the track. All the hacks furrow their brows desperate to uncover the man behind the red herrings. “Where is the real soul of Tom Waits?” Who fucking cares who he really is? Leave him alone. Stop sucking the magic out of the world. I don’t care if he sells boot polish door to door or is a closet stockbroker, that’s between him and his God. It’s the music that counts, everything else is a soap opera. And of the music his absolute masterpiece is Rain Dogs.
There’s Waits in the early seventies. A smoky basement jazz bar in the shadows thrown by the lights of Times Square. Propping up a piano with a cigarette in his mouth and an Old Crow on the rocks. Too late to be a beatnik, too bohemian to be a crooner. Singing of hookers and hustlers, romanticizing his years working in Napoleone’s pizza parlour “a stone’s throw away from Iwo Jima Eddie’s tattoo-parlour and across the street from Club 29, Sorenson’s Triumph motorcycle shop and Phil’s Porno.” There he is lonesome in the sweet melancholy of night-time in the city, living in an Edward Hopper painting, singing beautiful piano laments like ‘Martha’, ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, ‘Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night’. It seemed he’d be like that forever. Then he did something extraordinary and completely unexpected. Before Vegas beckoned, aided and abetted by his wife Kathleen Brennan, he pressed self-destruct on this persona. And with a trilogy of astounding albums, Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years he opened the gates of some other world, a metropolitan Sodom and Gomorrah full of deformed sailors, Puerto Rican mistresses with wooden legs, Cuban Chinese and slaughterhouse bosses named Uncle Vernon.
It may seem pretentious to compare Waits to Picasso, but what was Picasso after all but a genius wine-sodden Spanish womanizer? (I say that with no negative connotations some of the finest people I’ve met have been wine-sodden Spanish womanizers). Like Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods Wait’s early career consisted of works of sublime, if somewhat sentimental, beauty. If you continue these tenuous parallels then Swordfishtrombones was his Mademoiselles des Avignons, a primitive half-mad attack and yet a leap into the future, something that had nothing to do with the mainstream progress of modern art and which thus threw everything into pandemonium. Like Picasso’s work it left many shocked and bewildered but it changed everything. After punk you felt anybody could play music. After Swordfishtrombones anybody could play anything. No matter how fucked up.
The secret is in the title. Rain dogs – wandering creatures that lose their way home because the rain has washed away their scent, the perfect metaphor for the cast of freaks and outsiders, the only interesting ones left and Waits, the poet laureate of warped Americana, holding a loose rein on the madness. There are moments on this record where you feel you’re listening to something that has nothing to do with the course of modern music, that he has excavated a network of crazed forgotten paths far removed from the tired old route of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. The ghosts of Weimar cabarets waltz with the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta, sea shanties and nursery rhymes bubble up in the midst of fairground music. All performed by his Junkyard Orchestra including amongst others the guitarist of genius Marc Ribot, all idiot savants jerks and angles, and the old warhorse himself Keef Richards. From the opening track ‘Singapore’] it’s a heady uncompromising brew, music to melt your head and a litany of characters that would’ve haunted your childhood dreams. Gone are the dives of Greenwich Village instead we’ve the seven seas and all the (mis)adventures out there, “I’ve fallen for a tawny Moor/took off to the land of Nod/Drank with all the Chinamen/walked the sewers of Paris.” Piloted by a one-armed dwarf the motley crew barrel through the breathless sea shanty of a song with it’s disturbing promises to “Let marrow bone and cleaver choose/while making feet for children’s shoes” and the warning/curses “From now on boys this iron boat’s your home/So heave away, boys.”
You’re just about regaining your bearings when the album glides into the eye of the storm, the blissful lullaby ‘Clap Hands’ with it’s swirling marimba percussion and it’s surreal narrative of pulp fiction gangsters, “I said steam, steam, a hundred bad dreams/Going up to Harlem with a pistol in his jeans/A fifty-dollar bill inside a paladin’s hat/And nobody’s sure where Mr. Knickerbocker’s at.”
The respite is brief. ‘Cemetery Polka’ is Bertolt Brecht if he were reincarnated as a senile organ grinder. It’s music for a funfair where human heads rest on coconut shys and carousels are built of mutilated horse cadavers. Each character, barked at the audience, is more decrepit and fascinating than the one before, “Auntie Mame has gone insane/She lives in the doorway of an old hotel/And the radio is playing opera/All she ever says is ‘Go to hell’…Uncle Phil can’t live without his pills/He has emphysema and he’s almost blind/And we must find out where the money is/Get it now before he loses his mind.”
Arguably the pinnacle of the album comes with the twin odes to drunkenness ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’ and ‘Tango Til They’re Sore’ the former a delirious samba showcasing the scat-rapping of Waits (“Schiffer broke a bottle on Morgan’s head/ And I’m stepping on the devil’s tail/across the stripes of a full moon’s head/and through the bars of a Cuban jail”) and the irregular funk phrases of Ribot then the latter the embodiment of Wait’s phrase “the piano’s been drinking not me,” a whiskey-sodden 19th century New Orleans brothel soundtrack with the uproariously intoxicated chorus, “Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair…”
You could say the rest of the album never betters the shock and awe of the opening. Indeed it settles down somewhat, adopting more conventional forms that nevertheless still astound: the thundering blues of ‘Big Black Mariah’ and ‘Gun Street Girl’, the gorgeous lilt of ‘Diamond & Gold’, the smooth swing of ‘Walking Spanish’ and a handful of music concrete-style instrumentals that evoke the near-chaos of busy city intersections. Then there are the classics: the downbeat poignancy of ‘Hang Down Your Head’ and ‘Time’ (“And you’re east of East Saint Louis and the wind is making speeches/And the rain sounds like a round of applause”), the stunning mournful wake of ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’ (“My head is spinning round, my heart is in my shoes, yeah/ I went and set the Thames on fire, oh, now I must come back down”) and the closest he’s had to a hit, ‘Downtown Train’. The real soul of the album though exists in the raw title track with it’s thinly veiled threats, “Oh, how we danced with the Rose of Tralee/Her long hair black as a raven/Oh, how we danced and you whispered to me/You’ll never be going back home,” and the spectacular spoken poetry of ‘9th & Hennepin’, his finest portrait of the city and it’s denizens,
“And the steam comes out of the grill
Like the whole goddamn town’s ready to blow…
And all the rooms they smell like diesel
And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here…
With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by
And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet
’til you’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…
And I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all
Through the yellow windows of the evening train…
The ripples from Rain Dogs are still being felt. Much of the influence has been in style but a great deal has been in having the balls to confound expectations, a lesson in not playing safe. Radiohead‘s sharp lurch leftfield with Kid A and Amnesiac bears the grubby fingerprints of Waits, a suspicion certified with ‘Life In A Glasshouse’, the closing track of Amnesiac which owes more than a passing nod to ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’. Then there’s the carnival lunacy of Mr Bungle, the riotous debauched poetry of The Pogues, Willy Mason‘s ‘Letter No1’, Nick Cave‘s ‘The Lyre Of Orpheus’ and ‘The Carny’, and a host of Fence Collective, New Weird America and freak-folk artists if any of those things really exist.
Musicians grow old, they mellow, sell out, renounce what they once believed in. Some try to fight the tide, ship in some hip young producer to polish their metaphorical turds or embarrass themselves duetting with some disinterested bright young thing. Most of the old guard get less vital with each album, you hang in their with some sad loyalty in the hope they’ll revive the fire of youth, clinging to scraps rather than jumping ship. A few hang onto the old magic the way the old bluesmen did. Waits doesn’t apply to these clichés. As the years go by he gets stranger, more ornery, more compelling. From Rain Dogs to Real Gone, it’s been an exhilarating ride, at times bemusing but always weird and wonderful. There was the Expressionist theatrical collaboration with William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson, The Black Rider, the industrial blitzkrieg of Bone Machine, the warped dustbowl ballads of Mule Variations, the twisted pairing of Alice and Blood Money, the “cubist funk” of Real Gone, plus unforgettable appearances in a succession of films Francis Ford Coppola‘s Rumblefish, The Outsiders, Dracula, Jim Jarmusch‘s Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes and Robert Altman‘s Short Cuts. He’s been covered by Johnny Cash, Springsteen, Tindersticks even inspired the piano playing dog Rowlf in The Muppets, all the while creating what he calls “movies for the ears.”
One thing he isn’t is easy listening. Vocally he sounds somewhere between Captain Beefheart and the Cookie Monster, musically it’s a deranged maelstrom of sounds and ideas. But why should music not be difficult? Why should it be anaemic and so bloody eager to please like those wretches Snow Patrol, Coldplay and Keane (the musical axis of evil)? Why should it be so goddamned… vegetarian?
Waits don’t sound like anybody else today, a testament in itself, the most interesting certainly the most adventurous musical outlaw still out there, part Pied Piper, part Jack the Ripper, calling on us all to get free, to wander off far from our bearings and lose our way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson once slept through an earthquake.