Monday, March 28, 2011

Measures of Waits Part One: "What Becomes of All the Little Boys Who Never Comb Their Hair?"

Measures of Waits is a multi-part series of posts, in which Seth relects upon Tom Waits and his musical influence.  The introduction can be found here

Tom Waits in the early 1970's was a clear product of his influences. The menagerie of folk, blues, pop standards, jazz, and beat poetry was ever-present, albeit unrefined. After all, how many artists are fully developed in their craft by their early twenties? However raw those early records were, they were what initially drew me to the artist's work. As an aspiring songwriter in my own state of development, it's understandable that I would gravitate toward the more melanchoic strings of nostalgia and wanderlust Waits' early work provided.

One of the funny things about young songwriters in particular is how sometimes they speak so longingly about their glorious pasts, oblivious to the fact that they might not be that far removed from it. Having been one of those young songwriters, I can see that pattern in myself and others. Part of the reason so many young artists fall into this type of creativity could be their lack of figurative depth perception. With age and experience comes a wider and deeper perspective that young creators aren't mentally, emotionally, or spiritually adept at tapping into. The luster of youth shines more brightly when it's still relatively close by. The same is probably true in regards to tragedy. If you go through difficult experiences in youth, those scars will inform different types of art depending on the creator's spatial relationship to the event.

What does this have to do with Tom Waits' music? I see Waits as being indicative of these kinds of qualities found in so many young artists. This isn't so much a critique of those early albums, but as an observation worth noting. Waits appealed to me early on because at times he as a young artist seemed to be mourning the passing of his youth with songs like "The Ghosts of Saturday Night." There is in every young artist a restlessness and desire for mobility that can't be fully attained. There are a plethora of reasons, financial and experiential, why such movement isn't possible. It could be that a desire for wisdom might exist, but not the means of adequately achieving it through means of impatience.

Waits' restlessness seems especially apparent on songs like "Shiver Me Timbers," "Old Shoes," and the classic "The Heart of Saturday Night." Elsewhere on songs like "Martha," we see Waits' mourning the lost past to great melancholic effect. While he always had the knack for the dramatic in his songs, it wasn't until Waits' mid-'70's milestone album Small Change that we see the complete synthesis of his influences and original thoughts. While there are successful representations of the influence of both spoken word and jazz, the three major ballads on the album ("Invitation to the Blues," "I Wish I Was In New Orleans," and "Tom Traubert's Blues") see Waits' best use of restraint in dealing with his once overly exuberant imagery. There's also a simplicity in the music of these songs that belies the honest difficulty it takes to play them. Dare I say it, there's even a healthy dose of soul in these pieces. Not the jumping, horn-driven soul of James Brown, but rather the quiet soulfulness of a writer who seems aware that he's actualized something in his art over time.

It is true that Waits' remaining '70's albums lacked some of the emotional and artistic depth he found on Small Change. While there is a more noticeable presence of electric guitar and horns (as opposed to earlier albums' heavier emphasis on piano and strings), in reflection, the most significant role of albums like Heartattack and Vine and Blue Valentine is one of transition. These albums mark the passage of an artist from his early '20's to his early '30s, and from his studies of songcraft so prevalent in the '70's to his much more experimental work of the 1980's. There are still songs worth hunting down, particularly the more uptempo bluesy pieces like "$29.00" and "Mr. Siegal," as well as slower songs like "On the Nickel" and one of my all-time favorite Waits' narrative ballads, "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis."

Next time I'll try to put a frame around Waits' exploratory albums of the early '80's, and attempt to determine whether they are simply Waits' stabs at postmodernity, or if they're just examples of a writer stretching out and reinventing himself.


  1. I kinda feel like Tom Waits is the kind of guy who was always an old man at heart. Much like Robert Crumb. You see pictures of Crumb and Waits in their 20's and they're dressed like retirees in Yonkers waiting for a bus to arrive. I suppose much of that comes from being obsessive and observant of the culture of the past. Thinking about what kind of music was flooding through from the airwaves of the early 70’s, Waits’ interest in gin soaked jazz and tinkling piano key melodramatic ballads seems remarkably anachronistic. In a lot of his earlier work I do think that Tom Waits was trying to distill the essence of an age that he was born too late to really participate in. Something that he knew primarily from scratchy records and yellowed magazines. You see the same thing in Dylan, when he was trying so desperately to be Woody Guthrie. That sometimes the songs don’t quite come off is, as you’ve said, because the life experience is not there in his voice yet. He’s a great song writer, one of the best, and he creates a mood and a place and a time so effectively in his stanzas, but once his life experience catches up with his desires, I do think you can hear it in his singing.

    Small Change is one of my favorite albums of all time. The sweetness of “Can’t Wait to Get off Work” and the bawdiness of “Pasties and a G-String” somehow find a way to synthesize with the further strangeness of straight out carnival barking (“Step Right Up”) and the colorful account of a small timer gunned down in the gutter that gives the album its title. It’s amazing stuff. And while I love Blue Valentine and Closing Time an awful lot, soaked as they are with rainy nights and melancholy, Small Change is the king of my heart so far as the early stuff goes.

    Really great article, Seth, I love thinking back to what made me love this man when I first heard his music. Really looking forward to the 80’s: Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years and, especially Rain Dogs. For I am a rain dog too.

  2. Henry, thanks a lot for reading and offering feedback. I'm glad you're enjoying the Waits' posts. I'm just now starting the '80's Waits article, and think I've got an interesting take on those albums. I too, after all, am also a rain dog.