It’s funny that one of my few posts (so far) about music that inspires me is about Tom Waits. Don’t get me wrong–he’s obviously worthy and I’m thrilled that The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is recognizing that this year. But anyone who knows me would quicker think of me in terms of Metallica, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or The Ramones.
I discovered Tom Waits late, when I was 38, just a couple of years ago, but I think it was the perfect time to find him. I never would have understood why he was so brilliant and intense when I was a teenager or college kid.
Waits’ voice was once described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”
Yeah, that’s about right.
Such a detailed description suits Tom Waits because his lyrics are so very specific themselves–each song looks at a world that is fully drawn and rounded and fleshed out, sometimes not in a very pretty way, but that is so evocative that we are completely within it by the time the last note is played.
Rory and Lorelai Gilmore (“The Gilmore Girls”) liked Tom Waits—Lorelai even tried to convince Rory her first high school dance ‘might’ be cool because maybe they would play Tom Waits. I don’t know if the deejay played Waits or not, but I’ve always doubted that pampered, sheltered, teenaged Rory really “got” Tom, though. Tom Waits’ music, while always unique and a thrill, seems to get better as you get older. I think you have to grow into Tom Waits and you keep doing so with each passing day and year.
Experience informs Waits’ lyrics—for both the songwriter AND the listener. He’s not the guy you turn to when you want to amp up a party. By his own admission, he would find such an intention suspicious at best: “I just don’t like the word ‘fun’–it’s like Volkswagen, or bell-bottoms, or patchouli-oil or bean-sprouts…it rubs me up the wrong way.”
Tom Waits’ songs are what you listen to when you’re alone. It’s music under which you smoke a long, drawn-out cigarette. It’s music you sip bourbon to at midnight and then drink black coffee to at 3 a.m.—“in the dark, warm narcotic American night.”
It’s the music you listen to when your boyfriend leaves you and, more importantly, when you leave him and you’re not sure why. It’s the shot of whiskey that gives you courage, or at least obliterates you enough to give you the courage to move on.
Waits appeals to the poet in me. He uses lyrics the way I like words used—evoking memories and smells and moments, even sticky diner counters, but he gives them a beat, a groove you can move to, even if it’s just to sway unsteadily in your melancholy.
“I’ve always been a word guy,” he’s said. “I like weird words and I like American slang and all that and words that are no longer being used… I like to drag them out of the box and wave them around…it’s amazing how in addition to punctuation just a little pause in the wrong place can just completely transform the meaning of something.”
There’s no doubting the poetry and movement in phrases like “pool-shooting shimmy sheister” or “take off you skin and dance around in your bones.”
He sounds imperfect, he sounds tired, he sounds worn out…but he sounds like he’s joking with you—or possibly commiserating with you—and you are immediately at ease. He’s moody and gravelly and gritty and you immediately believe that here’s a guy that will get where you’re coming from; whatever life has thrown you, Waits’ bloodshot eyes have seen much more.
Waits is not for the hipster, despite what that hipster might think. Facades and artifice and trends leave him cold; it’s obvious he’d prefer to smash open a cool outer shell and lay bare the embarrassments inside: “I’ve never been a fan of personality-conflict burgers and identity-crisis omelets with patchouli oil. I function very well on a diet that consists of Chicken Catastrophe and Eggs Overwhelming and a tall, cool Janitor-in-a-Drum. I like to walk out of a restaurant with enough gas to open a Mobil station.”
Like Tom, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” And those things are never as terrible or as beautiful as when Tom Waits writes a song.
Congratulations, Tom, on today’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.