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Vinyl Tap: Tom Waits – “Hang Down Your Head”

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I raid my record collection and randomly rediscover the tracks of my years…

I saved Tom Waits from the rabid clutches of zealous zombies.

I exaggerate for effect. But it was a unforgettable few concert-setting moments way back in the mists of time – I call them the ‘80s – during a five-day stint when Elvis Costello brought over the first incarnation of his Spinning Wheel shows (he’s currently touring with a “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” edition) to Los Angeles’ elegant and historical Art Deco-style Wiltern Theater. In these shows, he gives the festooned stage over to a three-ring-circus setting, replete with cameos and go-go dancers, and a different emcee every night. It’s a hustle and bustle of hurly-burly in which a big spinning wheel entitled with a multitude of Costello (and some cover) song titles – taking advantage his breadth and depth – is audience-generated the lucky chosen are invited to spin the wheel so that “where it stops nobody knows.” That’s his cue to get happy or almost blue, whatever the case may be.

Anyway, I got into three or four of the shows – and though the names of the special masters of ceremonies were not announced beforehand (though I remember Jools Holland, then with Squeeze, and John Doe of X, getting the spotlight) — on one particular evening anyone arriving a little early got a sneak peak of the who’s who. About 10 feet within the lobby of the Wiltern, I was crow-barred between some people, and as I happened to look up spotted Tom Waits, looking like he wasn’t exactly enjoying himself, maybe even miffed, being orbited by what looked like too many over-eager fans.

As it turns out, Waits was going to be in the Spinning Wheel concert in carnival barker mode that night. Ideal casting that goes right along with his theatrical showmanship, and the snake-oil smarm and hard sell huckster persona he assumes in Small Change’s “Step Right Up,” where he promises new and improved satisfaction guaranteed, though ultimately, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away”: “That’s right, it filets, it chops/ It dices, slices, never stops/ lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn…”

As I continued on into the lobby, thinking how much I would like to meet Waits — shake his hand, stammer out thanks for the music, I’m a big fan – I dismissed it because it was going to be hard to cut through the crowd and I would be taken for just another smothering hanger-on. At the last second, however, he caught my eye and seemed to nod me over, and I got confirmation as I circled around and he, taking the initiative, seized the opportunity to turn away from his surround-sound mini-mob, greet me with a gravel-voiced “Thanks, man.” That was my cue to go through my spiel thanking him for the music, I’m a big fan and …what else?: Seems I had the floor.

Here I had a musical hero to myself, and no one else was around. The spurned also-rans has dispersed, Tom Waited for no man. So we had the chance to chat, probably not too long before this calm was interrupted by another storm of ‘brushes with fame’ seekers. So I asked a very gracious and accommodating Waits a couple of questions about his most recent album, 1985’s Rain Dogs, which had quickly become one of my favorite LPs. It wasn’t too much longer, however, that other people came up and diverted his attention, so he had to excuse himself, and we shook hands and parted.

Simple, memorable, but a standout moment that made an impression, much like the distinctive though loosely “Tom Dooley” derived “Hang Down Your Head” is a highlight of another hue on an otherwise wonderfully cacophonous and multi-layered album full of highlights. Rain Dogs was released two years after Swordfishtrombones, when Waits had changed direction from singing about late night barfly life in a mix of folk, blues, and jazz, to more experimental, rhythmic, and surreal “soundscapes.”

The imaginative fever-dream of Rain Dogs carries on in the same spirituous vein, being by turns disquieting and quirky, but pervasively inventive and inspired with creativity and musical and lyrical smarts. Peppered with some subduing poignancy here and there are more cohesively reflective songs such as “Downtown Train,” which became a good-sized hit for Rod Stewart, the moving, Dylanesque “Time,” in which “the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget.” And especially, the ever-stellar melodic and melancholy “Hang Down Your Head,” co-written with his wife and future collaborator, Kathleen Brennan.

If the brooding “Hang Down Your Head” finds – with guitarist Mark Ribot’s angular and bristling punctuation — instrumental complement with Rain Dogs’ more adventurous intonations and raucousness, it distinguishes itself from recent Waits-style stream-of-loquaciousness with lyrical yearning and tenderness.

Hush a wild violet, hush a band of gold

Hush you’re in a story I heard somebody told
Tear the promise from my heart, tear my heart today
You have found another, oh baby I must go away
So hang down your head for sorrow, hang down your head for me
Hang down your head tomorrow, hang down your head Marie

Hush my love the rain now, hush my love was so true
Hush my love a train now well it takes me away from you

So hang down your head for sorrow, hang down your head for me
Hang down your head, hang down your head, hang down your head Marie
So hang down your head for sorrow, hang down your head for me
Hang down your head, hang down your head, hang down your head Marie

“Hang Down Your Head” is as heartfelt and direct as a Tom Waits’ handshake and hello.

Listen to “Hang Down Your Head.”

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch