Tom Waits Glitter and Doom Live
Glitter and Doom Live
By Tom Waits
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Tom Waits doesn’t tour much anymore. At this point in his life and career, he probably doesn’t have to do much of anything he doesn’t want to do. At a time when many artists of his vintage have – with a ‘heigh ho it’s off to work we go’ – embarked on long greatest hits tours and charged exorbitant prices in order to feather their retirement nests, Waits has preferred to work from the seclusion of his rural California home and leave the road for others to plunder.
Though Waits doesn’t release new music with the regularity of his more stalwart contemporaries such as Van Morrison or Neil Young, neither does he seem to spend a lot of time staring at life through the chicken wire of his ranch as he continues to put out music imbued with a quality and singularity of vision that would be the envy of any artist. As spontaneous and offhand as the persona Waits has cultivated in his music may seem to be, the trajectory of his career and the choices he’s made related to it, indicate an unparalleled sense of control and purpose. There is nothing accidental about the wheezing careening sound he’s perfected, and anything that seems offhand is often the result of an obsessive search for just the right effect. Musicians who have worked with him have described Waits as a steely perfectionist who to create the desired junkyard timbre will patiently set up a ten thousand dollar microphone to record the sound of a hammer hitting a rusty pipe.
Since his second album, ‘Small Change’, Waits has etched out a persona that is as inseparable from the artist as the little tramp was from Charlie Chaplin. Most people may not even realize there’s any difference between Waits the man and the isopropryl sucking tin pan alley ditch sleeper that sings his songs, but events have proven that the reeky little bastard he’s spawned is very dear to him. It’s not a character that he’s been willing to hire out as Mr. Waits has consistently resisted commercial endorsements and turned down lucrative opportunities that he perceived would cheapen his art. So, when his style and voice were copied for a European Opel commercial – after he declined to do the endorsement himself – he successfully sued them after the ads aired in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway.
To the uninitiated, Waits’ music often remains an acquired or elusive taste. Many otherwise open-minded people in my acquaintance continue to be baffled by his critical appeal. They hear only the grunts, groans and the dissonant banging of a rake trying to talk his way out of trouble at the gates of Hell. Yet, as the years go by, the sound he’s been pursuing since the early eighties – beginning with a trio of albums Swordfish Trombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years that still remained unparalleled for musical innovation – has become more refined (if one can use that word when describing Waits’ music) and confident.
Many other singers have tried their hand at interpreting Tom Waits’ music with varied results. While John Hammond’s ‘Wicked Grin’ CD was castigated by some critics, Waits’ contribution to the project along with the singer’s wise decision to stick to the bluesy side of the repertoire, made for a satisfying album. Other attempts – such as actress Scarlett Johansson’s embarrassing ‘Anywhere I lay my head’ weren’t nearly as successful. In the end, other artists have occasionally managed to capture Waits’ rhythm and poetry, but the ineffable alchemy of his performance melded with his offbeat approach to conjuring music have allowed him to create a body of work that truly stands on its own.
Taken in the light of a consistently evolving discography that is increasingly more adventurous and outside of the aural mainstream, ‘Glitter and Doom Live’ is most certainly not the easiest vantage point from which to begin appreciating Waits’ music. Yet, it is – at the same time – perhaps the best way to catch up with the evolution of his sound and theatricality.
Even though Tom Waits doesn’t tour often, when he does play in front of an audience, he clearly doesn’t hold anything back. I had the opportunity to see all of Waits’ artistry come together when he did a two (count ‘em two) city tour in 2004 – with one date in Seattle and two shows in Vancouver, BC. He played because he wanted to and brought the house down again and again as he clocked in performances that ran over two and a half hours. Then, perversely, inexplicably, he refused all offers to continue the tour down the west coast. The dates reflected in the ‘Glitter and Doom Live’ CDs follow a similarly erratic trajectory as they’re taken from a limited tour of Southern US dates and European shows that bypassed all of the big markets on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Glitter and Doom Live’ is a glorious concert document that sounds effortless as Waits creates a universe of sound that operates on an internal logic and ambience that resists definition. The music is ragged as Hell, puncturing to the ears and synapses, and is definitely not for the weak kneed. Waits rips the melodies to shreds, upends the percussion and generally slurs, yelps and howls like William S. Burroughs heading into a bad night of the DTS. But, given all of that, the music is inexplicably beautiful, uplifting and life affirming as inside of every song, like an old fakir lying on a bed of nails, Waits gathers flowers from the garbage to create silk purses from sow’s ears.
‘Glitter and Doom Live’ is Tom Waits’ third live album after ‘Nighthawks at the Diner’ and ‘Big Time’, so this time out, he understandably concentrates on music that he hasn’t played in public before. Some favourites like ‘Singapore’ and ‘Get Behind the Mule’ are featured, but for the most part ‘Glitter and Doom Live’ eschews offering a nostalgic trip for old fans who’ve missed out on Waits’ recent work.
As a special bonus for those who haven’t heard Waits stage banter, ‘Glitter and Doom Live’ features a bonus disc simply entitled ‘Tom Tales’ that captures his spontaneous offerings from the piano bench as he waxes on about everything from the eating habits of rats to traveling with a lawyer.
Once all the timbers have been shivered, and the mules have returned to the barn, ‘Glitter and Doom Live’ stands alone in popular music’s vast wasteland. It is a rare gift from a true eccentric to be savored and experienced over and over. Who knows when Tom will hit the road and do it again? This may be as close as we’ll get for a long time to come.
Enjoy every delirious minute of it.