Would Tom Waits Win “The Voice?”
Social media has turned birthdays into the time to remember old friends. So those who might have noticed that Tom Waits turned 67 on Wednesday could have used it as a chance to refamiliarize themselves with his unique (understatement) style of music. Depending on where you start, there’s a chance your first reaction might be, “holy crap, he turned that into a music career?” To which the answer would be, No, he turned that into a music career, an acting career and more.
Tom’s history, however, is not the main subject of this article. That’s what Wikipedia is for (they’re seeking much needed donations now, by the way). Up for examination is how well Tom’s music would fare if he were starting out today. More specifically, what would happen if he went up against all the other talent that is out there on shows like NBC’s The Voice?
Odds are, when you start refamiliarizing yourself with Tom Waits, you land on something that more resembles gutteral croaking than singing. Assign all the words you want – deep, scratchy, haunting – none of them do justice to its uniqueness. What does come consistently to mind for me, however, is shock that someone’s vocal chords could sustain that over the course of a concert, let alone an entire career.
Let’s go there, to that deepest chamber in Tom’s vocal range, as demonstrated in “Rain Dogs” from the 1985 album of the same name.
Now, imagine that voice on The Voice. Set aside the theatrics for a moment. After all, in the blind auditions, the four coaches have their backs to the musician. Just focus on the song. Imagine he’s on stage, and he starts howling like a wolf. The accompaniment starts, and he continues to sing like the same old wolf. Twenty seconds in, he’s still in his wolf voice, and the audience is in stitches. Not a coaches’ chairs has turned. Then, at the phrase “huddle a doorway with the raindogs,” his tone changes to that of an evil Popeye. The camera zooms in on Adam Levine who raises an eyebrow.
That’s the moment, all of a sudden, when anyone who appreciates the beauty in anything different is going to root for Tom Waits.
Turn your chair around, Adam, some of you will say out loud. Yet, just as many of you will still be stuck wondering is this really music? You’ll remember all the elegant voices that came before him, and want to save a spot for all of those that will come after him. You’ll think of how, when the judges have said in seasons past that they’re looking for “distinctive” voices, they didn’t really mean anything like this.
While you’re lost in thought, Adam will press his button. When his chair swings around, he sees Tom Waits, crouched on The Voice stage, wearing his signature hat and feigning bench presses with the microphone stand. Adam will laugh. Then he’ll clap once. He’ll turn to Blake Shelton, who just shakes his head at him like he’s as crazy as the voice they’re hearing.
About a minute in, something else happens. Tom sings “we’ll never be going back home,” and there’s a purity in the line with an actual trill of the voice on “home.” Blake does another shake of his head, this one quicker with a confused look in his eyes: a double-take. Before the camera pans out from the close-up, Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys have simultaneously turned their chairs. Within a minute of the first howl, all four coaches (the just named “grand slam” of The Voice) are facing the artist.
Because that’s what Tom Waits is – an artist. As the season progresses, that becomes abundantly clear. In the battle round, he convices coach Adam (who he chose because he found the gap in their vocal ranges amusing) to let him use a megaphone to sing about “Chocolate Jesus” (released on his 1999 album Mule Variations and shown here on the Letterman show).
Spoiler alert: he beats out the “country singer with the perky voice” from Nashville.
In the knockout round, he grunts out “God’s Away on Business.”
In the post-song banter amongst coaches usually reserved for praise, Alicia playfully imitates him.
“The ship is sinking.
The ship is sinking.
The ship is sinking.”
Yet, it isn’t. He beats out the “flawless Latin artist who used to sing backup for C&C Music Factory.”
The final live show culminates with the unexpected. Even Tom Waits himself might not have planned for this. Yet there he is, on stage, subdued, not the same man who pranced like a crazy wolf all season, bench pressing the microphone stand, using a megaphone and wearing down several vocal chords getting to that final night. The stage is dark, and all you see is a silhouette of Tom’s hat. The lights come up just enough to make him out, seated at a piano…something the audience hasn’t witnessed all season. Even more surprising is his tone as he begins as song called “Martha.” “Operator, number please, its been so many years.” Granted, it’s still distinct (there’s that word again), in that every other note sounds like it might be slightly out of tune, but it’s infinitely smoother than anything else he’s done (reality check, “Martha” is actually the earliest work I’ve highlighted, from 1973’s classic album Closing Time).
It’s still art, and the touching lyrics about Tom Frost and Martha combine with a newfound subtlety in Tom’s voice have many audience members, and Miley, in tears.
His competitors, one of which had been compared to Adele (whose “Hello,” funny enough, has been said to have lyrics surprisingly similar to “Martha”), follow, yet in the end it’s Tom Waits who is the last one standing.
Would it actually play out like that? Who knows, but for a brief moment in a fictitious recap of The Voice, there was an appreciation of the beauty in that which is different.
Happy birthday, Tom Waits. It has been so many years.
Author credit to his cousin who inspired him by an odd vision of David as Tom performing “Rain Dogs.”