Dylan, Springsteen and Waits: Three of the Essentials. An Essay
What is it about any particular musician that makes them essential to us? Is it the way they craft a lyric, render joy in our hearts with their voice, or how reverently we attend upon their music? It can be many things. The wild surge of emotion that floods us when we hear them, the effortless way they make the universal personal or even how they make the most every day things have import and meaning. It is almost an alchemical reaction of turning the dross within us to gold, it feels that good. Of course each of us have our own, entirely subjective, criteria we apply to music when we hear it. Whatever internal geography we have the music must match in some way for us to welcome it as part of us. Perhaps “essential” is too dramatic a word, but it does imply that one will be diminished and poorer for the lack of that which is deemed primary for the soul to thrive, so perhaps “essential” is apt. In any event we know it when we hear it, like something instinctual. The artists that provide to us that intangible “something” may be long time companions to us or recent introductions. It is always fun to discover more, a new voice or song that fills the heart and comforts or encourages. There is a commonality that runs through all of those that we invest so much in. They become touch stones to us, places we can return to again and again for pleasure, shelter, succor, ecstasy or just plain fun, whatever we need at the time.
Three of the musicians that are essential to me are Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Their appearance here is by no means meant to be authoritative or exclusive in any way, simply as subjective preferences of mine. I will not burden this conversation with excessive adjectives concerning them. It would seem likely that they would be found among the lists that many would present as their own essentials, but that is only speculation. All three of them are masters at what they do and can claim legions of ardent devotees. They all have been true to their talent, working both within it and at times beyond it. And, perhaps most importantly, they all have that gift of the truly great, of being able to take music that is as old and shopworn as God’s house shoes and making it sound new, fresh and unmistakably their own.
To reference Dylan is almost obligatory. It is amazing he still renders so much pleasure. When he first surfaced, all those many years ago, it seemed as if he appeared in a flash of light, full grown and fresh from the Wilderness, singing and writing songs as if Elvis had never been and as if Woody Guthrie would live forever. It is both instructive and revelatory to return to those old films of him from that time, to see how steeped he was inthe ancient music that fed his muse, how he had taken it into the very pores of his skin and his breath. He was infused with it, but was not a supplicant to it. His performances were not reverential acts of devotion to those field recordings that he ferreted out of libraries and second hand record stores, they were a proclamation that this music was not dead and old and wizened, not stagnant and frozen in time, but alive and that he was giving it voice! You can see Woody’s hand upon him, guiding him but not as his master. He had already studied his tuition and now it was bearing fruit. He was, as has been written of Robert Johnson, that moment when music and musician become one. It was quite clear, even then, that Bob was following his own star.
He is still a work a day guitar player, always dependable but rarely dazzling. His voice today has matured to a husky growl, still as enigmatic as ever. He has learned the beauty of economy, and if his lyrics do not surge with the fervent tsunamis of imagery they once did, his songs still delight. But now more often with the voice of the detached observer rather than that of the reluctant oracle. To say he is a master song writer is to border on the redundant. There is little in the genre of singer song writer and beyond that does not have his finger prints upon it in some way. There are those who would have him return to conjuring forth those churning, exciting, cryptic and acerbic screeds of discontent he once did. They are missing the point, Dylan has always been about having the freedom to change. The moment he finds any label too confining he is gone and on to something new. For those who can’t keep up he is not in the habit of leaving maps. It is doubtful that he would care much about bringing to life such musical edifices like his old songs again. Protest is a young man’s game, where you have to believe you are absolutely right and that what ever villainy you are calling out is absolutely wrong. Maturity does not allow for such a black and white world view. And another truth is that the whole thing would probably just bore him anyway. He never wanted to be Jeremiah, or even Phil Ochs for that matter. Let’s be honest, some of the songs were SO long that sometimes even God was checking his watch. They were never very melodic so you had Dylan and his guitar and the words, so the words better be pretty amazing. And they were.
Dylan created, rather unintentionally, a veneration for the lyrics that had not existed in American popular music before. Elvis may have had The Voice and The Moves and The Beauty, but Bob has the words. It is fair to say that before him it was pretty much the Dick Clark cliché “it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it, I like it.” The lyrics were secondary. So when Dylan began to court his muse to ever greater effect, there were a lot of young people huddled around record players actually LISTENING to what he was saying, and in many cases reading far too much into it. This may be why he rejects any sort of orthodoxy about his songs from that time. He treats them rather flippantly in his live shows now, often changing tempos and keys and rendering them almost unrecognizable, so he might be twenty bars into “Stuck Inside of Mobile” before you even know what the hell you’re hearing. In effect what he is saying is “I have moved on”.
One of the things that continue to make Dylan primary is his seemingly natural resistance to nostalgia. He makes no reference to the “good old days” of the 60s. nor does he himself seem dated in any way. He always seems present and in the moment. The disconnect with many legacy bands is that they are always asking their audience to relive their old material with them, so they are trying to recapture a moment that is gone forever. This cannot help but make them seem frozen in time and irrelevant. If a legacy band does have new material, it is rarely of the same quality that their older stuff is. Dylan always seems immediate, even when he is singing songs that are old beyond imagining. The true artist is not defined by their medium; their medium is defined by them. Dylan’s recent music is as alive, difficult to categorize, and relevant as ever, he even seems to be having more fun doing it these days. It is to his everlasting credit that he has never attempted to palm off on his audience slavishly accurate renditions of his 60s catalog in order to appease their desire for it. One may feel confused upon leaving a Dylan concert, but one should never feel pandered to.
What a thing of wonder his voice has become. Wry, elusive and mysterious, with just the right amount of grit. It is well suited to his songs; the rugged tool of a true bluesman. There will always be those who say he cannot sing. It all depends on what you mean by singing. He has never had a classically beautiful voice, but he has always had an interesting voice. Elvis had a beautiful voice. It sounded like sunshine on silk, it was that warm and alive. But you were never curious as to what he would he would sing next. There were few surprises when he sang. When Dylan sings one is immediately curious about his next word and his next twenty words. His voice has that magnetic quality that just draws you in, strange for a singer who tries so ardently to be distant. He has the gift of detachment in his voice, which usually works against a singer but with Dylan it is an asset. He so often appears in his songs as The Witness, offering his quite astute observations, but never investing himself that much emotionally. Where once he was cryptic and teasing he is now matter of fact, offering no resolutions. For this kind of work his voice is perfect. You can almost imagine him mounting up and riding out of town at the end.
Dylan once said in an interview that “it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers”. He was referencing himself of course, and there is good advice in what he is saying. But for the mature devotee, who is far from the extremes of youth and knows who they are, it is quite gratifying to admire the arc that his bright and still moving star is taking. To see the hipster arrogance of “Ballad of a Thin Man” give way to the embracing of uncertainty that is “Things Have Changed” is to witness the man mature.
Of all the outlandish, overheated and just plain silly bombast that was showered upon Bruce Springsteen when he first appeared on the radar of the main stream in 1975, some of the silliest was the idea that he was the “new’ Dylan. You can just see him smiling and saying “didn’t know there was any thing wrong with the old one.” If he were Woody Guthrie he would have written a song about it. Heady praise for one so young, but Bruce knew all the clamorous outcry for what it was, the passing of the crowd. To his good fortune he has always possessed an unerring interior moral compass that forever shows true north for him. It would have been quite easy for him to have become a cautionary tale. All the ingredients were there: bright, young talented, charismatic artist, sudden fame, hordes of attention, endless accolades with the resident temptations of women, drugs and money thrown in besides. Fortune takes the measure of a man as well as failure does, sometimes better. But Springsteen calmly sidestepped all of that and did what he has continued to do though out his career, work.
He has always approached performing and song writing as a job. A job he wants and likes very much, but still a job, requiring discipline, practice and time. So he got on with releasing Born to Run and continued performing and rode the wave which did, as he knew it would, eventually fade to a dull roar. Not that he wasn’t amazing right out of the box. He was and is an explosive, riveting, joyous and supremely gifted performer. Add to that the very, very talented E street band when they are hot and one is hard pressed to think of anyone who does it better live. So his touring then was a kind of evangelism, and there were many converts.
After all these years Born to Run is worth a revisit. The songs that worked best, “Thunder Road” and “Jungle Land”, still work. “Thunder Road” for its sheer exuberance at being young and alive and in love and “Jungle Land” for its epic scope and masterful success. We still cheer for Mary and Bruce to make it to The Promised Land, although we now know the adult realities that involves, as does Bruce. It is the rare person who can hear that song and not end up singing the chorus all day long. To this day one is touched by the firm tenderness with which Bruce woos Mary, the subtle eroticism of “from your front porch to my front seat, the doors wide open but the ride ain’t free.” is thrilling without crossing over into titillation. The openly human reassurance of “you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right, and that’s alright with me.” must have won Bruce a million women’s hearts when they heard it. “Jungle Land” is that treasured occurrence of an artists’ talent and vision and application all converging together to the desired affect. It conveys the wild and urgent expectation of Saturday Night that the adolescent feel, anchored by the knowledge of the cost of risk, whether that risk be romantic or illegal, one must still pay. It traverses the arc from celebration to tragedy. Bruce displays that most welcome of gifts in a song writer in it; knowing when to whisper and knowing when to roar.
He is the most inclusive of singers, and is immediately recognizable. One always feels welcome in a Springsteen song. And if the terrain seems a bit strange he provides enough information for you to orient yourself. He is also fearless in a song, willing to dance with his demons in full view and to sometimes take on the demons of others. On the title track of Nebraska he channels the unrepentant and horrific psyche of mass murderer Charles Starkweather. The song is worked to eerie affect by the stark bleakness of Springsteen’s’ voice and harmonica, Bruce uttering the last line of “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”. as if he were talking about the weather both puzzles and chills us, again amazed at the utter banality of evil. Balance that against the ragged desperation which is his voice on the title track of Darkness On The Edge of Town where he sings….
Tonight I’ll be on that hill ‘cause I just can’t stop,
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got,
Lives on the line
Where dreams are lost and found,
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found…
In the darkness on the edge of town,
In the darkness on the edge of town.
He is willing to go there with us because he knows his demons are not much different than ours. Any artist that spends much time communing with the ghosts in his own soul knows that. A great artist knows that the true riches lie only in embracing all aspects of themselves, that the only way through is to risk. That is why Springsteen is such a revelatory singer, he is not afraid of that journey.
He began, and continues, as a story teller. He is also deeply invested in the mythology of America, not in any jingoistic, flag waving sense but in the basic ethos of Steinbeck and Guthrie, that one is a decent person and that the guy next to you is a decent person and with that understood we can get on with the business of living. He often references The Promised Land in his work, not with irony or detachment but with it being a real place, more in the soul than in any geographical sense. He does not speak of it as an idealistic dream but as a place of realistic hope. Lately his muse has been unsure of it, that it is getting harder to see and believe in. But he never breaks stride and gives way to decadence or despair. When the people who inhabit his songs strive for the heroic it is always life sized and believable. He knows that we must each reach, or not reach, the Promised Land in our own way. What makes him so believable as a song writer is his confidence that he, also, is a decent man, well aware of his limitations but still a man to be trusted. One of the things that grants him such creditability is that he has never aligned himself with any political agenda, although he is drifting perilously close to that territory in his relationship with Obama. Somewhere in Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet there must be the warning “the artist should keep himself far from the seats of power”. But he remains his own man, trusting in his inner compass to keep him true.
Some musicians blossom onstage, some in the recording studio. Springsteen for the most part has been quite successful in both. His live performances are legend, seemingly not dulled by age or familiarity. There are those among his bedrock fans who report they have seen him dozens, even hundreds, of times. I have been a witness and he was extraordinary. His recorded catalog is equally impressive, though presently it may be depending more on past glories than current triumphs. But if one is only passingly familiar with his work it is always worth while to go prospecting about for surprises from him on YouTube, there are many gems to be found. Bruce is rather conservative in the studio; he doesn’t indulge in wild experimentation for its own sake. This doesn’t mean that he lacks curiosity, simply that he knows which tools work best for him and doesn’t need to go looking for new ones. He does have a signature “sound” with E Street, but that may change with the absence of “The Big Man”, Clarence Clemmons. Thankfully he doesn’t muck about with his voice much, going for a natural sound. Springsteen does like to tinker with his songs in concert, revealing him for what he is at heart, a frustrated mechanic. Does ANYONE, except for the Beach Boys, have as many songs about cars? Nine times out of ten it is to the songs’ benefit. Usually a change in tempo or key, which shows that he desires a certain fluidity in his live shows in order to keep them fresh. He does not rearrange with the abandon that Dylan does, providing enough landmarks so one is still able to recognize the song.
Springsteen remains fundamental because he has never confused having fame with having purpose. He has gracefully journeyed into middle age with his eyes on the horizon of the present, not cast wistfully back toward the past. It is unlikely that we will devolve into self-parody and become irrelevant. What is probable is that as time has its’ way with his voice and his body he will edge away from the anthemic celebrations that are such a huge part of his live shows with E street and spend more time crafting the kind of haunting and compelling ballads that give works like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad their heft and gravis. He still offers a sense of camaraderie and inclusion in his music that few other artists provide. He is definitely one to watch and no doubt he will still have a few surprises for us down the road.
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.