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Arguing With A Hipster About Tom Waits

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Tom Waits' Orphans debuted recently, and I, being the obsessive Tom Waits fan that I am (a promo poster for “Downtown Train” hangs over my bed, and I went through a phase where I was dressing like said idol, which, on a girl, is not especially sexy) was frothing to own it. But, like a character on The Heart of Saturday Night, there’s nothing in my pockets except for small change. Forty-nine bucks is a little out of my price range, Tom.

So, hands shoved deep in the empty pockets of my trousers, I moped my way down to Oneonta’s Hipster Paradise, Maxwell’s, hoping to at least catch a listen of Waits’ musical miscreants. Sure enough, the Guy Behind the Counter (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Rick Ocasek, if Rick decided to stop showering for a week or so) had Orphans blaring from the scratchy speakers.

I asked him which one of the three discs (Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards) we were listening to. We were listening to Brawlers. Good stuff. Generally I tend to stay towards the earlier end of the Tom Waits spectrum (The Heart of Saturday Night gets my pick as the second greatest album ever, lagging only behind The Who’s immortal Tommy) and end my listening around the Swordfishtrombones era. I like Alice (which, although released in 2000, is very obviously from earlier recordings) and own Blood Money. Mule Variations is a good borrow-listen-return, but Real Gone was just too hipster-friendly—that is, clanging banging nonsense that every wank-job reading this is shaking his flippy-haired head and saying, “She doesn’t know anything about Tom Waits.” I understand what he’s trying to do in later albums and it’s freakin’ awesome how he’s stretching the bounds of what we consider music, but it’s just not appealing to me—I feel like Real Gone lacks any sort of truth to it, like it’s just a manic man’s ramblings, and simply being crazy as hell doesn’t make a genius of a man. “Dead and Lovely” is a unique track in the same vein as Alice, but “Day After Tomorrow” while a sweet sentiment, sounds like something John Mayer might write on a good day.

I explain this to Hipster Rick, and he disagrees. He would, after all, he works in a head shop and has flippy girl hair.

"Waits’ albums are like paintings, and each song blends together to form another aspect of that painting."

We’re discussing Small Change, a crucial album in the spectrum of my Waits timeline (January 2006, broke as usual, living with a pervert in Brooklyn) but I disagree with his interpretation. The songs that flow together work towards the larger picture, that is, the portrait of a disenchanted and lonely individual seeking solice in whiskey, strippers and strangers, but just as the painting is starting to form, (“Tom Traubert’s Blues” is one of the purest Waits songs in existence) “Step Right Up” jars the listener out of the painting. It’s a wonderful song, but it’s random both melodically and lyrically — cool as hell, but random. The album settles back into “Jitterbug Boy,” “I Wish I was in New Orleans” and “The Piano Has Been Drinking” before another razz-ma-tazz spike-heel paced number, “Pasties and a G-String,” this one fitting a little better than “Step Right Up” in terms of lyric material, but still jarring the listening from the scope. The pieces that do work as a painting blend together too much, forming a murky soundtrack in gray and brown, without much to discern between them.

I point out The Heart of Saturday Night as a better illustration of the painting theory. Hipster Rick disagrees. He does not like The Heart of Saturday Night. Musically, however, it fits his argument. Each song on that album blends into the next, not in a monotonous, unending way (as on Coldplay’s Parachutes) but rather each as a gentle brushstroke, illuminating the world Waits wants us to see-all night diners, truck drivers, weary girlfriends and sympathetic bartenders.

“I used to listen to your music and think “Boy, I’d love to lie nearly dead in the street with that guy” — Jon Stewart on Tom Waits, 11/28/06

Waits lost much of his charm in expanding the definition of music. The smirking, down-and-out master of metaphors (among my favorites, “It’s colder than a ticket-taker’s smile at the Ivar theater on a Saturday night” from Nighthawks at the Diner) We loved him when he was a little drunk, sheepish, his voice raspy but not the stuff of nightmares. Now his music is much darker, twisted growling ramblings, like a carnival barker from hell. And it works—sometimes. “Underground” (Swordfishtrombones) is an outstandingly cool, shivery-weird song that also gets bonus points because it was used in the Ewan McGregor movie Robots, which I saw with my boyfriend, therefore creating a scene of unparalleled happiness. Too much of that, however, and aspirin is needed. It’s music, yes, but so are little kids smashing wooden blocks together and neither are pleasant to listen to.

Sometime in the eighties we lost the Waits we loved, and loved the Waits who came back, but it’s the equivalent of seeing your old high school sweetheart ten years later and he’s still just as charming, but life has changed him so it’s as though he’s another person completely different than the boy who pushed you on the swings in Norman, Oklahoma. Like most of my ex-sweethearts who’ve long since gotten boring, I blame their wives. Kathleen Brennan, I love you because Tom Waits loves you, but you managed to simultaneously save him from becoming a lounge-parody of himself, but you turned him into something only you could love. It’s romantic and, like most great romances, it’s depressing to the rest of us.

Hipster Rick and I finish brawling and I’ve got to get to work, so I bid both Rick and Waits a goodbye. Outside the mongrel wind gnaws my face and I think about every time I’d put on a Waits tune, how each song wasn’t simply an illumination of a moment, but the moment itself. Whether he’s crooning or clanging, it is those moments which make his music unparalleled.

The Retro Music Chick’s Five Favorite Tom Waits Songs:

1) “Drunk on the Moon” (The Heart of Saturday Night)
2) “Tango ‘til They’re Sore” (Rain Dogs)
3) “Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love)” (Closing Time)
4) “Alice” (Alice)
5) “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Three Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” (Small Change)

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  • That’s funny; I was just talking about this subject today with a guy at work when we discovered that we both liked TW, but when I mentioned that I thought that the good stuff started with Swordfishtrombones, and he said that was exactly the opposite of most people’s opinion.

  • Vern Halen

    I’mm a Swordfishtrombones kinda guy myself. I think it’s kinda the same thing as with Coltrane some like his 50’s stuff, some prefer his Impulse! recordings that started to go all squirrelly (I mean that in a good way). Of course, count me in for Ascension over Giant Steps.

  • MightyTiny

    I really enjoy the Waits of all eras; the early bar-stool poet era, the wonderful swordfishtrombones-raindogs re-invention of Waits, The out-there-experimental-yet-oddly-appealing Black Rider, and the brilliant Bone Machine. Alice was a beauty, and Blood Money wonderfully Kurt Weilish. Real Gone took a little getting used to, but it has some real gems on it; It is, I think, among the least accessible of Waits’ material though, so I understand why someone might not enjoy listening to it.

    Orphans however… I REALLY recommend you save up for it, or drop a hint to someone looking to buy you a Christmass present. I think Orphans ranks among Waits’ all time best. And I think, from what you describe liking of Waits, you’d be in heaven listening to the “Bawlers” disc. 🙂

    I’ve been listening to Orphans daily now for a few weeks, and I can’t seem to get enough of it. It was WELL worth the money.

  • Of course I’ll get Orphans! I’ll probably end up with six copies of it, since it’s what I told everybody I wanted for Christmas! 🙂

  • Michael

    You can download Orphans from emusic.com for cheap (and yes it is a legal site).