Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Measures of Waits (An Introduction to a Three Part Series)

To mark the recent induction of songwriter/musician Tom Waits into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on how I came to his music, and how my experience with it has changed over time. Tom Waits represents many different bridges for me. He connects the singer-songwriters I listened to in my teens with the jazz leanings of my college years. He brings the implied rhythms of poetry to the primal spontaneity of raw percussion. And perhaps most significantly, he combines the sacred music of the church I heard as a boy with the muddy grit of humanism.

I could write volumes on the Waits catalog, but will choose to divide my analysis of his music (and my relationship to it over time) into three areas. These areas coincide with the generally accepted three eras of Waits career as a recording artist. The first era focuses on his first decade of albums, starting with 1973's Closing Time and ending with 1980's Heartattack and Vine. I'll next focus on standouts from Waits' early - mid '80's output, which includes his "Frank Trilogy" of albums (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank's Wild Years), along with a word or two about the live Big Time album. And finally, I'll spend some time looking at the third era of Waits, encapsulating the past two decades worth of albums from Bone Machine through his most recent Orphans three disc set.

Waits' initially impressed me solely for his balladry, but over time I learned to appreciate his showmanship, the musicality of his arrangements, and the multitude of ways his songs can be interpreted. Some listeners understandably can't get past Waits' gravelly "Cookie Monster meets Louis Armstrong" brand of vocalizations. If you are willing to try, though, you'll experience a vast array of influences, genres, themes, and characters who walk the line between concrete reality and hyperbole. Waits' music isn't for everyone, but don't disregard his value as an artist and entertainer. He is a legend, abet one who seems unenthusiastic about the trappings such a status might afford. The reluctant Californian star, the poetic prince in pauper finery; the wolf in sheepskin still howling at sheep and other wolves alike.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to your thoughts on Waits, Seth. Tom's music has meant a lot to me over the years (only Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen can rival the level of love and respect I have for him). The first of his records I ever bought was Bone Machine and I intially didn't get it. But I couldn't quit listening to it either. Eventually I got Small Change and Rain Dogs and he had won my heart forever.