Tom Waits to be inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
On March 14th at 8:30 pm a ceremony will commence at the historic Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where legendary singer/songwriter Neil Young will induct equally legendary American singer/songwriter Tom Waits into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Quite an honor, to be sure, but a well-deserved one.
Just how is Tom Waits to be classified as a singer/songwriter? As a bluesman, perhaps? A folk troubadour? A rock’n’roll artist? A lounge singer? An avant-garde performer? A storyteller? A poet? The answer is: he is all of those things…and more. Since beginning his career in music in the ‘70s, Waits has envisioned a world of music without borders or boundaries, where the vast gaps between genres could be bridged and explored. In that pursuit he has succeeded many times over throughout the years, with several eclectic and unique album releases — twenty-some album releases, actually — countless gigs, small acting parts in films, assisting with movie scores, and developing a rather substantial fan base.
And just how is Tom Waits’ sound to be described? In a word: idiosyncratic. To go into it a bit more, I’d say it is not only idiosyncratic but also gritty, soulful, intelligent, wonderfully bizarre, creative, and endlessly diverse. That doesn’t even tell the half of it, really. I mean, his sound differs from song to song, album to album, performance to performance, though it is always marked by his deep, gravelly vocals, haunting instrumentation, and masterful lyricism. In a way, he often brings to mind a disheveled carnival barker in a rumpled black sports coat and gray fedora, not much facial hair save for a five o’ clock shadow and a patch under his bottom lip, speaking gruffly into a megaphone that’s seen better days. He is one cool cat, that Tom Waits. Pretty weird, too, but cool nonetheless. Unquestionably one of a kind.
Not only is Waits a genius singer/songwriter, he is a consummate storyteller as well. That is to say, a good many of his songs include lyrical narratives about interesting scenes and situations, and strange characters that range from slightly shady to altogether disreputable. These are absorbing tales in so many ways, true enough, and accompanied by the background music they tend to hold the whole of one’s attention until all the way through.
Though Tom Waits hasn’t achieved much commercial success as a singer/songwriter, he has been very successful in a number of ways. After all, he has earned himself quite the cult following over the years. He has been a source of influence and inspiration for generations of bands and singer/songwriters, as well as several artists involved in a handful of other mediums. And he has done it all without selling out, without feeding himself into the mouth of the corporate music machine, without injecting himself into the mainstream, and without any artistic corruption or personal compromise whatsoever. All of this time, he has remained somewhere between the underground and the surface crust of the music world, where seedy characters lurk in the shadows, lovers lose themselves in nighst of closed-door ecstacies, the bottle becomes a companion, and cigarette smoke clouds the interior of alleyway dive bars. It is also where strange dust bowl circus tent worlds are to be found within the world we think we know, where apocalytpic cityscapes line the burning horizon, where one finds oneself at the crossroads between heaven and hell, where cluttered pawn shops house the wonderful and yet unwanted wares of the material realm, where all manner of folk drink heavily and share fascinating tales round roadside campfires, and where lines of white glowing christmas lights are strung from tree to tree in gypsy-like encampments.
In his songs Tom Waits has created another world entirely, a world not too terribly different from the one in which we all live right now, but a world where there is still mystery and magic, where there is still wonder and belief and endless possibilities. It is also a world where hearts in love can swell to bursting and broken hearts can lament in their way, the madness of things is ultimately revealed not as madness at all but something akin to brilliance, the pure and the tainted share tables in dimly lit water holes, every face in every crowd is a story waiting to be told, lovers exchange poetry through the moonlight hours of urban seasons, so much beauty is to be found in the unkown and bizarre, and the creative spirit soars with wings that never tire. Strong coffee, stronger booze, ashtrays overflowing with chain-smoked cigarettes, an old dusty phonograph spining endless vinyl selections, and countless pieces of crumpled notebook paper on which moments of genius have been scrawled, all bring to mind Tom Waits as a younger man. Now, since putting down the bottle and becoming a family man, Waits is the same old artist, just a less polluted one. Age certainly prompts one to withdrawal from the madness…to a degree, at any rate. Besides, getting older is another kind of madness altogether.
We are certainly a long way down the road from “Closing Time” and “The Heart of Saturday Night.” 1983’s “Swordfishtrombones” marked a significant shift in style and compositional effort for Waits. “Frank’s Wild Years” in 1987 is the end of a musical trilogy of sorts, which began with “Swordfishtrombones.” ’92s “Bone Machine” has been praised as one of Waits’ best albums up to that point, with such notable songs as “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” “The Earth Died Screaming,” and “Murder in the Rad Barn.” “Mule Variations,” “Blood Money,” and “Alice” all proved exceptional releases from Waits, while the more recent three-disc collection of songs “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards” showed the full scope of Waits’ musical talents, and “Glitter and Doom” is a two-disc collection of songs recorded during Waits’ highly acclaimed Glitter and Doom tour of 2008.
In between all of these albums and tours, Waits made the time to make appearances in such films as “Domino” (2005), “Wristcutters: A Love Story” (2007), “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009), “Book of Eli” (2010), among others. Not only did he get acting roles in films, he worked on film scores as well, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “One from the Heart” (1982) and Jean-Luc Godard’s “First Name: Carmen” (1983), and so on.
Surely I am not alone when I dare to say that if ever an artist deserved to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it would undoubtedly be Tom Waits.