Whenever and however one first comes to hear Tom Waits, their immediate thought will most likely be “I have never heard anything like that before.” It is likely that this thought will occur almost on a visceral level, Waits is a very visceral artist. It does not matter if one is hearing one of his almost assaultive, lurching, dissonant, kinetic safaris into the jungle of auditory possibility or one of his stardust covered, heartfelt, hand made ballads, soaked in pathos and whiskey, there will be no easy category to assist the listener. Tom does not domesticate well. To say he is original is to trifle, he is primal, bypassing the normal constructs of how one hears music and going straight into the bone. He is one of those artists that people either love or that they hate, there is little room for indifference when it comes to him. To say that he is an acquired taste is not being truthful. He is an immediate taste, pro or con. This may limit his audience, but it also affords him the conviction to create with a freedom that is almost savage.
He does not pander, he commits totally to the music and takes risks that seem reckless at the time but that repay with abundance later on down the line. Part of his appeal, or, depending on who you ask, part of his lack of it, is his voice. It is central to everything that he does musically. It is an instrument in its own right. Actually one should say “voices” since when he sings it seems he has several. There is The Terrible Pirate, which sounds like a cross between Captain Ahab and God’s bookie. If you could feel a voice this one would feel like shark skin, it is that deep and gruff and jagged. There is Bar Room Tommy, a somewhat less gravelly baritone that is quite versatile, the Waltzing Lover, a warm, husky alto that best handles Waits’ plaintive sawdust and gossamer ballads, and, the most intimidating and puzzling of all, his “Howlin’ Wolf” voice. When he invokes this Delta swamp infused hoodoo man growl of a vocal it sounds as if The Wolf is THERE, strutting with Tom in full chain gang gloriana, that heart beat anvil clang chorus bearing witness. It is not an act of mimicry. Where ever Waits pulls that voice up from it is some where so dangerous and dark that even Robert Johnson would be reluctant to visit.
His music is informed by: Americana, New Orleans blues, Tin Pan Alley, cabaret, jazz, saloon singers, Beat poetry, country, medicine shows, rockabilly, big band, carnival barkers, minstrel shows, hobo songs, circus calliopes, and who knows how many other roots buried deep in the fertile swamp that is his muse. He takes it all in and somehow morphs it into something that is uniquely his own. It sounds effortlessly ancient and immediate all at once.There would be the expectation that with so many voices speaking to him his music would feel cluttered, but it rarely does. He really does practice the virtue that less is more. He is the true prophet of minimalism. Tom often works with simply a piano or a guitar or just his voice. His songs feel stripped down but never gaunt, he has that uncanny gift for knowing exactly how durable or delicate they need to be. He takes a craftsman’s pride in them.
When he does invite other instruments in it is always for a reason, not to fill up the space, he is not afraid of space. He can also write the saddest songs in the world, rock bottom ballads that are peopled by broken hearts and broken dreams. Like all true romantics, he knows more about goodbyes than he does hellos. But even at his most despondent he rarely comes in search of pity. He wants to lick his wounds, have a drink and tell his story but he shuns the maudlin. One would think such naked grief would be depressing, but in the oddest way, it is not. In truth hearing him embrace his pain so deeply heartens one. Perhaps it is the camaraderie of the fallen, the knowledge that someone else has been there and survived. As someone once said “survival is success”, something that only those who have walked the black dog can fully understand. That is the feeling that Waits communicates, that he is a survivor. One does not detect the corrosive water of bitterness in him. For all his bleak ruminations he is not tainted by nihilism. He has room in his garden for some balanced hope. This is heard to touching effect on his ballad, “You Can’t Hold Back Spring” a lovely, buoyant (but not sugar laced) miracle that is a simple affirmation that life continues on, and you can join in if you wish. You can hear Louie Armstrong’s’ finger prints all over it and Tom tipping his hat to him as he sings.
Sometimes a man needs to know that he can endure failure as well as he can success. There is a fierceness in Waits that only comes with the knowledge that not only is defeat not fatal, it is probably welcome at times. He can be a beast when he is in pursuit of the unknown in his music, stalking with that confident primacy that only those who have defied their limitations have. That is where the menace in his music comes from, and the menace is as important as the beauty. To hear him in full predator mode, take your chances with “Starvin’ In The Belly Of A Whale”, a swirling, alarming, blazing maelstrom of a song which sounds deceptively out of control. Waits growls as if his voice is dancing a jig, so rakishly gleeful it is. The music is jaunty, but skeletal. The feeling is as if one is dancing around and around in ever expanding circles and unable to stop, like some macabre witches ball gone mad with Tom at the center, barking out the lyrics and fiddling away. There are bells chiming in the mix, bells and horns and a surging harmonica fueling the intensity. Somehow all the disparate noise distills strangely into some kind of unity that you know Waits has orchestrated. It leaves one feeling oddly satisfied, as if you had just witnessed an act of magic. It is obvious that the entire thing could has collapsed into screeching dissonance in the hands of one less comfortable with chaos than Tom. It is this implicit trust in the music that enables him to take such leaps.
To say that his music is “weird” at times would be a fair assessment. His is not the weirdness for weirdness’s sake of Captain Beefheart and Zappa, nor is it the shrill, exploratory weirdness of free form jazz. He isn’t banging things with a hammer to see how they sound. An artist reverting to weirdness is often demonstrating a poverty of ideas, which is not Tom’s problem. Tom has a vision of what he wants and he is not afraid to go to the Wilderness to find it. He likes to work without a net, however harrowing that may be to the listener. He is not afraid to be selfish now to bring forth greater rewards later. Admittedly, some of his more undisciplined ramblings presume upon ones’ patience. Being in the fire with Tom can prove uncomfortable and even a little frightening. Sometimes his more dissonant exercises feel as if they are simply something he wants to get off of his chest, but once his curiosity is satisfied he rarely returns to them. Fortunately his catalog is so rich and varied one can easily avoid that which is not to ones taste and find much else to enjoy. That being said, a sense of adventure concerning his music that one has not heard can bring many unexpected surprises, and unearth a few things that just puzzle the hell out of one.
His latest offering, Bad As Me, which was released in 2011, is his first album of entirely unreleased original material in seven years. On it he sounds as gruff, courageous, idiosyncratic, mischievous and lively as ever. There are wild and gleeful romps, pensive introspections, heart break ballads and even a risky foray into jagged white noise which at first repels, then compels and finally triumphs on sheer, savage energy alone. Not recommended for daily consumption but wonderfully bracing at the right time. The album is neither ground breaking or any kind of an attempt to revisit past glories for Waits. It shows him at full stride and moving, in total control and application of his many gifts. And it sounds as if he is having as much fun as ever, perhaps even more. It can stand as well as anything he has done as a testament to the range of his vision and ability. It makes one curious as to where he will go next. It is unlikely that he will ever stop taking chances, and that is good news for us. It is possible that those risks maybe a little more within the lines than they are now, but who knows with Waits, he likes surprising himself best of all. He may do an album of him doing nothing more than telling stories in spoken word; he loves to tell stories, and rarely confuses the Facts with the Truth. There is a funny story he likes to tell on himself. It seems he overheard his older children talking to his younger boy advising him to never EVER ask Tom to help him with his home work. It seems Mister Waits took poetic license and simply MADE UP a war once. His flamboyant imagination is forever abundant. I pay him my highest compliment. He is a constant joy and tonic to me. He is like friendship and money, showing up in the most unexpected places. Is Tom Waits essential? My vote is yes, but, as with all things concerning Tom, it depends on who you ask.