Friday, April 15, 2011

Measures of Waits Part Two: "Beat Out the Dustman"

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. The first part of the series can be found here.

Between 1983 and 1987 Tom Waits produced a highly respected trilogy of albums often called "The Frank Trilogy." In addition to these albums (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank's Wild Years), Waits toured a good bit alongside many of those albums' contributers, and even staged something of an opera based on those works, which resulted in a live album and film called Big Time. Oh, and he also acted in films like The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and The Cotton Club. That's a lot of work done in a relatively short amount of time. But enough about the history lesson. Before digging in to what makes these works remain relevant, is should be noted that first and foremost, should you put on one of these records, the undeniable fact of this music is how utterly unique it sounds in relation to other works recorded during that time period. Compared to albums from Michael Jackson, Def Leppard, Madonna, and Prince, Waits' '80's work bears little resemblance to the production values and subject matters being tackled by so many mainstream artists of that time. Eschewing the commercial tendencies of his peers has always been a mark of Waits' work. What's important in looking at Waits' '80's albums in relation to other artists of that era is not to proclaim his artistic superiority (interpretation is entirely subjective), but to point out the stark difference and originality of Waits' music.

Original as it might be, there's still an issue about this era of Waits' music that's always nagged at me: Can we infer that the experimental elements of these albums are due to Waits' enjoyment of his newfound creative freedom (i.e. a new, open-minded record label), or are they indicative of Waits' unshackling himself from the binds of his influences? I guess in the end it's probably a little bit of both, among other things. It's also hard not to mention the grounding affect that a happy family life had on Waits' songwriting. Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, was and still remains a major component in his creative confidence. Having found stability undeniably wiped the chalk dust from Waits' slate. That foundation coupled with a record label that was willing to release his odd albums without much interference makes the transition between Waits' '70's troubadour into a bonafide avant garde junkyard operatic all the more noticeable. With the aid of Brennan's encouragement and edits, Waits brought in elements of Harry Partch-influenced percussion, European waltz, and the slinky guitar work of Marc Ribot. Ribot deserves an article all to himself, and maybe at some point I'll get around to writing it, but for now it's worth noting how he seamlessly melded his free jazz and punk leanings with Waits' inherently left of center elements in a way that didn't sacrifice the cracked melodicism that made those '80's albums so unique.

For all the aspects that make these albums so original, some fall into the trap of labeling them as being simply postmodern for the sake of being difficult. This music was crafted in the era of Reaganomics, so there's always the possibility that Waits was using his songs to reflect the fragmentation of the American society. But to categorize this music as being simply postmodern is to ignore the still very traditional threads woven throughout the work. There is a marked textural difference between Waits' '80's albums and his beat-influenced work of the '70's. All the same, it's hard to ignore the minimalist beauty of "Johnsburg, Illinois," a simple love song Waits wrote for Brennan. There's also "Train Song," a song that hearkens back to Waits' early restless anthems but with a greater appreciation for the foundation of home life. Elsewhere on the spoken word pieces "9th and Hennepin" and "Frank's Wild Years" Waits' humor and narrative deftness make him sound like he's finally grown into his singing and writing voice. Songs like "16 Shells from a 30.6" and "Singapore" signify the new Waits' sound, but others like "Time," "Innocent When You Dream," and "Anywhere I Lay My Head" show a more comfortable influence of blues, folk, gospel, and anthemic waltz. There's even a Keith Richards-aided take on country music with "Blind Love." These albums could be considered postmodern, but in a very real sense they represent Waits' acceptance of his own creativity within the varied frameworks of the American cultural landscape.

In studying Waits' music from the 1980's my opinion of it has clarified a bit. In my first encounters with the work I considered it to be too difficult to enjoy at times. The songs got lost in the textures. In reflecting on it now, I see these works as a sign that Waits had finally reached a point of maturity as a songwriter. Even now the album Rain Dogs stands out as a rare, fully developed record. As a result, the more operatic and theme-driven followup records Frank's Wild Years and the live album Big Time don't quite measure up to the standard set by Rain Dogs. A similar scenario took place for Waits in the '70's. After reaching such a high level on the album Small Change, the ones that followed seemed to lack something. This isn't to suggest laziness on Waits' part, only that Waits might be an artist who is self aware enough to know when a plateau has been reached. After Big Time it would be four years before he worked on another album. By the time the 1990's rolled around, Waits was finished with the second era of his music. He was a little older, considerably wiser, and ready to embark on yet another odd chapter in his life and work.


  1. I’m actually angry with myself that it took me so long to find the time to read your take on Tom’s Eighties output. But, once I did sit on down and stare at the screen for a while, I found myself well pleased with what I read. I agree with you very much that over his 3 albums of that decade, Waits is moving well beyond working within the sphere of his influences and is bravely forging new ground as a strange and singular creature imbued with his own cacophonous sense of the world. I’ll have to admit that the first time I heard “Swordfishtrombones” it confused the hell out of me. I guess it still seems like a strangely put together affair even now even though I’ve come to really like many of its oddities. “Rain Dogs,” on the other hand, is a record I took to at first listen and that means a lot to me now. You’re totally right about how it is the perfect distillation of this era of his career. Where I find both “Swordfishtrombones” and “Frank’s Wild Years” a little disjointed from song to song, “Rain Dogs” perfectly builds an environment, a time, a place and it takes you there and you can exist in the record for as long as it plays. Seriously, one of my favorite records in the world. The theatrical elements of “Frank’s Wild Years” will reassert themselves later on in “Bone Machine” (thinking especially of “Earth Died Screaming” and “In the Coliseum”) and in the still perplexing to me “The Black Rider” and I’ll be even yet more interested by your thoughts there. Anyhow, I’m really enjoying these reads about one of my favorite musicians ever, keep up the fine work and remember to never drive a car when you’re dead.

  2. Thanks, Henry. I'm glad you're enjoying the Waits pieces. I'm a little behind on part 3, but have several notes to draw from once I sit down to finish it, probably not until after HeroesCon. Hope it's worth the wait. And as you might have already known, "Rain Dogs" is still one of my favorites Waits albums.