Graham Reid | | 12 min read
Think about it for a moment: "Stirring my brandy with a nail". Delivered in Tom Waits' oaken croak, it has everything: the mean spirit of drinking, the bitter taste of melancholy, the sheer aloneness of it all. It is a great Waits line.
But it was also a typical Waits image.
If there was a surprise about Waits' Mule Variations in 1999 -- from which the line came -- it was that his first album in many years (and his last before the new millennium) didn't surprise as might have been expected.
After the spoken word, short story miniatures on Nineties albums such as the musical shadowland of Bone Machine (92) and eerie Jim Jarmusch soundtrack to Night on Earth in '92, and his cabaret-noir collaboration with William Burroughs and Robert Wilson on The Black Rider (93), it was always going to be difficult to anticipate a new Waits album.
By Mule Variations, Waits was off a major label and on Epitaph alongside skate-punks like Offspring and Rancid -- although that didn't stop him calling on the old school of white blues legends Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica) and John Hammond (guitar), alongside longtime collaborator Marc Ribot (guitar), bassist Les Claypool out of Primus, and Smokey Hormel (guitarist from Beck's band) for the Mule Variations sessions.
And his wife of almost two decades Kathleen Brennan -- whose presence in his life marked a serious emotional and musical turning point -- was again sharing writing duties.
Out of that conjunction of personalities, history, and present circumstance anything was possible. But in places on Mule Variations he wrote just like "Tom Waits", a figure who was once a persona -- and seemed to be again.
So "stirring my brandy with a nail" sounded exactly like "Tom Waits". This was Waits back to being the Waits of familiar legend.
Which might explain why it was his highest charting and most critically acclaimed album of his career since 1980: it debuted at 30 on the Billboard charts. After the seven year gap since Bone Machine, and more than a decade since he completed his Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years albums which many read as a trilogy, here was Waits back being Waits. And although critics have usually acclaimed his left-turn, sonic clank albums post-Brennan, most actually preferred the music of the barfly crooner and misanthropic persona of the Seventies.
The opener on Mule Variations was the sonically abrasive, wryly cynical Big in Japan ("got the smile, got the face, got the style, got the grace") and stepped straight out of the Tom tradition of distorted, buzzing, guitar-driven blues. And along the way there were familiar landmarks like the lovely ballad Hold On, which was a kissing cousin to the style and sentiment of the earlier Jersey Girl or Downtown Train.
What's He Building? was the semi-spoken track which got the greatest attention: "He has no friends and his lawn dying ... enough formaldehyde to choke a horse, what's he building in there?"
And, as with everything on this diverse and wilfully ragged album, the cannily appropriate production is varied and a crucial component. Take It With Me sounded like the microphone was right on top of the old upright piano in an empty, alcohol-dank room. Waits was muffled and intimate. Beautiful - and Waits at his songwriting, mood creating best.
And the wobbly Chocolate Jesus sounds like it was recorded on the back porch; there are roosters crowing in the distance. The wonderfully bizarre Filipino Box Spring Hog was a kind of electric blues, back alley, sea shanty. Cold Water was in the great Tom tradition of clanking percussion rants, and there was the almost obligatory death ballad in Georgia Lee.
And there was Get Behind the Mule, with its "stirring my brandy with a nail" line.
Yes, Waits was signing off the Nineties by referring back to his classic Seventies style (with a touch of Eighties production) for the most part.
Mule Variations posed more questions about Waits than it answered. The biggest being: where to Tom in the 21st century?
But if after those wonderful oddities in the early and mid-Nineties, Mule Variations -- good as it was -- sounded like Waits-by-rote then not so the way he emerged in 2002, with two albums simultaneously: Alice and Blood Money which were both drawn from music he'd written for plays by Robert Wilson.
"Yeah, it's a bit of gimmick to kick'em out on the same day," he said at the time. "How are they different? One's chicken. One's fish. But if you're going to turn the oven on you might as well make dinner."
Where Mule Variations seemed to retread his many previous styles in Waitsean genre work, on the better songs across these two releases the aching ballads rubbed shoulders with beautifully dissonant songs from some nightmare cabaret.
The discreet jazz references, mournful cello or accordion were assimilated throughout and could appear anywhere.
They didn't make for easy listening, although there is still beauty in a broken spiderweb. And Waits'n'Brennan wrote evocative images which suggest so much but overtly stated so little.
On Alice his affecting love songs are made even more engrossing by virtue of that rasping delivery.
Originally conceived as a Wilson opera about Alice Liddell (of Alice in Wonderland), Alice was performed in Hamburg in '94, around the time of Bone Machine and Night on Earth. But there were few direct reference points between the three, other than Waits' angular approach and intuitive feel for a simple, emotive melody.
Its theme is the relationship between author Lewis Carroll and the little girl for whom he wrote Alice in Wonderland. That's difficult to discern -- it was a play, you probably had to be there -- but the tone of melancholy longing, unconsummated love and evocations of a dream world are scattered throughout.
In language which evinces a heartfelt response, and some gorgeous lines ("the air is wet with sound") Alice is mostly a melancholy and quiet album. There's a jazz-noir feel in the elegant ballads, which include Flower's Grave ("someday the silver moon and I will go to Dreamland") and Poor Edward (possibly about Alice author Reverend Charles Dodgson and his alter-ego Carroll), which are among the most moving songs Waits has written.
I'm Still Here is an eloquent song of love and longing, one of the best he, perhaps anyone, has sung. It's a spare piano ballad of mystery and regret - "You haven't looked at me that way in years ... but I'm still here."
Alice is exceptional, and those who enjoyed either Mule Variations or Night on Earth could have embraced it with absolute confidence . . . if they had been willing to step away from their expections of Waits.
Blood Money, another collaboration with Wilson, is darker, more direct but less rewarding. Based on the story Wozzeck (which Alban Berg turned into an opera of the same name in the Twenties) it is about a soldier who slides into madness, murders his girlfriend Marie after a perceived infidelity, then commits suicide.
This isn't necessarily as grim as it sounds: the opening songs (especially Coney Island Baby and All the World is Green) are love songs to Marie. But then with God's Away on Business ("I'd sell your heart to the junkman baby for a buck") the mood turns murderous.
By Waits' standards it's musically conventional, and suffers in the inevitable comparison with Alice.
If that weren't enough Waits for you, he contributed two new songs on the Big Bad Love soundtrack alongside T-Model Ford, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Tom Verlaine and others. Long Way Home is simple, country-styled ballad (Springsteen could cover it) and Jayne's Blue Wish is a brief, cracked 2am barroom lullaby.
At the same time his former label Elektra rleased a compilation Used Songs, 1973-1980 which Waits disowned: "I have a hard time listening to my old records, the stuff before my wife". His past always came back when fellow travellers like Chuck E. Weiss or former girlfriend from his boho-LA days Rickie Lee Jones released albums. Inevitably his name would be mentioned.
So that was a lot of Tom Waits in a short period - but after Alice you'd want to hear more of the man. He had that rare gift of making those often threadbare emotions of love, longing and regret seem real again.
And he was back soon enough, just two years later with Real Gone.
On a cursory listen to Real Gone in '04 you might have been inclined to quickly dismiss it as too much of the familiar clanking sonics with Tom's easily parodied rumbling bucket-bottom vocals growling over the top.
After the superb Alice and marginally less exceptional Blood Money, Real Gone could have sounded disappointing. Those who tuned in for his million-selling Mule Variations might have been mystified because Real Gone was closer to his disturbing and difficult Bone Machine of over a decade previous. And piano was absent, the guitar which he had eschewd on Alice and Blood Money now returned with disturbing vengeance.
Just a couple of listens, however, and the nuances came out, the depth of his disturbed vision became clear, and the individual songs started to grip.
Waits didn't let you in easy, however. The long grinding opener Top of the Hill -- with a scattering of turntable scratching from son Casey and a repeated guitar figure -- was a bluesy cruncher with the hook "get me on the ride up". It was typically impenetrable: "Opium, fireworks, vodka and meat, scoot over and save me a seat."
The second track Hoist That Rag was where things got going, it is based around guitarist Marc Ribot's stuttering Cuban-style playing and is a dark sea shanty-like meditation on life and death ("God used me as a hammer boys to beat his weary drum today").
And after this the album lives up to its title: the music scours the bottom of the lake for rusty bicycles and bodies dumped there, Waits takes a reggae structure on an epic journey down to the pond to wash away the Sins of the Father, is out in a low-rent motel for the seedy blues of Shake It, and tells a typically menacing story on Don't Go Into That Barn.
There is also haunting beauty here: the snakelike uneasiness of How's It Going To End; the sympathetic Dead and Lovely about a middle-class girl who thought she could stand in the deep end; and especially the final track Day After Tomorrow in which he returns to a stylistic device he used three decades ago in a weary letter from a soldier "not fighting for justice/not fighting for freedom/fighting for my life".
It asks that eternal question: "If they pray to the same God, how does God choose from all the prayers he hears?" Waits had seldom sounded so current in his concerns.
But mostly this was music suffused in noir-blues and ancient folk narratives, and during its 70 minutes explored some of the most fearful and fragile aspects of being human. Of being a bone machine, in fact.
Waits -- a man who started his career in the Seventies as a young man prematurely old and referring to the Beat Generation of two decades previous -- has been busy in the new century.
He toured again, appeared in movies as strange variants of personas he had created in his music (in Domino, Wristcutters: A Love Story and with old friend Robert Benigni in La Tigre a La Neve) but he also spent a lot of time gathering up his past for the impressive Orphans three-CD collection of 2006.
The American journalist Robert Wilonsky once observed of Tom Waits' music, either you like the sound of a barking dog, or you buy yourself a cat.
Those of us who love and admire Waits' work can live with the sound of the barking dog.
Waits may have often made a beautiful noise, but it was a noise nonetheless. From a boho poet with an affection for the Beat Generation and Raymond Chandler to the clank'n'grind noir-noise of his Nineties albums, Waits' career had been one of the most rewarding to follow.
In it he'd cobbled together a surreal amalgam of country'n'western, French chanson, New Orleans jazz, Berlin cabaret, and sea shanties -- and somewhere deep within there was an affection for the sentimental Sinatra. Looking back on this long career it is clear he had to abandon his early persona, the one which sang of waitresses and bourbon.
For too long Waits' audience mistook the music for the man. Tom was the drinking man's singer.
The break from his increasingly cliched image as the boozy lounge singer had come with that extraordinary trilogy of mid 80s albums (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years) where he abandoned piano, strings and whiskey-soaked sentiment for guitar, bullhorn and uncompromisingly aggravating percussion.
He went from Beat to beats and that shift in direction opened the door for him to stage his own one man show Frank's Wild Years, embark on soundtracks and then to write for theatre productions.
Inevitably along the way some songs were sidelined and never made it onto albums, others appeared and just as quickly vanished.
The Orphans set -- in a handsome cover like a battered old manuscript found on dusty shelf -- scooped up 56 little-known or unreleased tracks from all parts of his long career and put them under loose categories: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards.
Waits described the collection as "songs which fel behind the stove while making dinner" but in truth he had never been much of an archivist and so found himself having to acquire bootleg DATs from all over the world. The collection also included new songs recorded after Real Gone for which he could find no other home.
The titles are self-explanatory: rowdy bar songs, sentimental songs, and off-cuts which don't seem to fit anywhere.
The Bastards disc is poetics, drunken conversations on a corner, an eavesdropped slur with friends . . . And a refined and reduced version of all that. Waits may have sometimes sounded like the drunkards' poet, but if ever you listened carefully -- soberly possibly? -- to what he said, it was always refined and distilled. Among the songs was a cover of Skip (Moby Grape) Spence's Books of Moses, Daniel Johnson's King Kong and a homage to Bukowski and the Beats who had inspired him all those decades ago.
Waits reallly was clearing out the vaults.
Of the Bawlers there are some genuinely moving songs almost designed to have you . . . He even covers Young At Heart which Sinatra made famous.
Brawlers speaks for itself, but also included covers of the Ramones' Return of Jackie and Judy and Leadbelly's Ain't Goin' Down to the Well and his own version of Rains On Me which he'd given Weiss for his Extremely Cool album.
The song that got the most attention however was The Road to Peace, a rare political song in Waits' massive catalogue and which addressed the never-ending conflicts in the Middle East: "The song ain't about taking sides," he said. "It's an indictment of both sides."
Inevitably with this much music, critical opinion was divided and some argued -- as many still do about the Beatles' double-vinyl White Album -- that some judicious trimming might have made for a better collection. There was also a sense that many of these songs illustrated how Waits recycled certain characteristics and styles, often perilously close to self-parody.
That said, this was a remarkable collection of off-cuts, ony Dylan's Bootleg Series matched it for genius left on the cutting room floor.
And -- with the subsequent touring, in which he played some of his most popular songs from the Seventies -- it took Waits almost to the end of the first decade of the new century.
He was the subject of a tribute album by actress Scarlett Johansson (Anywhere I Lay My Head) -- which followed other tributes by noir-chanteuse Holly Cole (Temptation) and one his old friend John Hammond (whose 2001 album of Waits' songs Wicked Grin Tom produced and played on). In 2006 there was a collection of his interviews Innocent When You Dream, as the decade drew to a close he was the subject of a an unauthorised biography by rock writer Barney Hoskyns, Lowside of the Road.
Dylan had announced himself a fan, so had Ry Cooder. Historian Simon Schama wrote a considered piece about Waits for the Guardian: "something almost Shakespearean about the breadth of Tom Waits' take on modern American life".
Tributes came from all sides and there were few dissenting voices by 2009, the year in which Waits would turn 60.
An article in the Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine in early 2007 neatly summed up Waits' place: "the mainstream media's most beloved non-mainstream recording artist".
And a new decade beckons.