I’m a bit of a Tom Waits freak. And by a bit, I mean a lot (a lot of a Tom Waits freak…that doesn’t make much sense). I’ve found an excuse to mention him in at least two other Rover articles that didn’t really have anything to do with him. There may be more sprinkled throughout, I can’t remember. The truth is, his music is very dear to me. Aside from maybe Bob Dylan (maybe) I can’t think of an artist that’s had a bigger impact on how I listen to music than Mr. Waits.
It’s not just Tom Waits as a musician, though. It’s Tom Waits as a personality. It’s Tom Waits as an actor and comedian. It’s Tom Waits as a story teller. It’s Tom Waits as a performer. From my aspirations as a writer to a comedian to a musician (a very poor musician), Waits has influenced me in almost any creative endeavor I’ve embarked upon since first discovering his music.
I thought it would be pretty easy to pick five songs from one of my favourite (again, Bob Dylan comes pretty close) musicians. I found creating a list of 20 songs was hard enough. How I managed to whittle this list down to a mere five is beyond me. Every song reminds me of at least ten other songs I wish I could have included in this list.
Many a time have I subjected unwilling listeners to Tom Waits (mostly while driving — if they don’t like it they can walk!) and now it’s my turn to do the same to you, dear Rover reader.
Jockey Full of Bourbon
Aside from all the songs covered by infinitely lesser talents (Rod Stewart, the Eagles) this is probably one of Tom Wait’s more popular songs. Where this song is supposed to take place, or what it’s supposed to be about still isn’t quite clear to me, but I can sure tell that it’s not somewhere you want to be.
The song’s greatest crime is that it’s over much too fast. But I guess that’s the sign of a great song; it leaves you clamouring for more by the end of it. And I can’t forget to mention the guitar work by the wildly talented Marc Ribot.
Waits wrote this song (and the album which shares its name) as the soundtrack to a theatrical reproduction of “Alice in Wonderland” and goddamnit if this song isn’t brilliant.
The only word I can use to properly describe this song is scintillating. Slow and meditative, it feels like a dream. Waits (or some would say Lewis Caroll) chases the elusive, yet dangerous Alice. A woman/girl he shouldn’t /doesn’t/can’t want, but that he finds himself desperately trying to grab onto.
Romeo is Bleeding (live)
I’m more inclined towards Tom Waits’ later music (post Island records). After meeting his future wife and eventual writing partner, Kathleen Brennan, Waits’ music took a sharp stylistic turn. He traded in his piano ballads and lounge jazz for bizarre Captain Beefheart-esque songs and a set of marimbas.
If I were to rank my favorite Tom Waits albums, his later work would comprise about 90% of the top ten. That other 10% belongs to “Blue Valentine,” particularly because of this stand-out track. The song perfectly captures the aura of a night out gone awry, as Romeo bleeds out on the side-walk in front of a gang of Mexican onlookers somewhere on the sleazier side of town in the 1950s. Romeo tries with all his might to keep his cool until he can find himself a dark balcony to die on.
The Earth Died Screaming
(I dunno what’s up with the video, it’s pretty cool though.)
I picked up Bone Machine on a whim at a used CD store (hahah, remember CDs?) because I lived with my parents and had a ton of disposable income (hahaha, remember disposable income?) It instantly became a favorite and still is to this day.
I popped it into my discman as I walked home from the used CD store. It was a gloomy, rainy day. The plodding, rattling march of percussions of “The Earth Died Screaming” came on, followed by a creaking, old growl of a voice. Then a loud boom and the chorus and I was hooked. Waits paints a devilishly creepy, but still comic, circus-like picture of the apocalypse only the way he can, setting the tone for the rest of this superb album.
Cold, Cold Ground
Probably one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, “Cold, Cold Ground” is a heartbreaking ode to poverty, simplicity, booze, loneliness, and life. About having nothing and everything and how it all doesn’t really matter because one day we’ll all be in the “Cold, Cold Ground” with our dreams and our junk and all the money we had or didn’t have. This couplet, to me, says most everything you need to know about the song:
the piano is firewood,
Times Square is a dream