If I could have one wish come true, I would wish for the time I spent trying to “get” Tom Waits back. Tom Waits isn’t a musician – he’s an actor. And acting is a noble pursuit, except when the actor writes their own scenes. If Tom Waits didn’t put out CDs, he’d be on a stage somewhere doing his Captain Beefheart-meets-Andrew Lloyd Webber schtick for an audience of 25.
Reviewers always reference drinking when they talk about Waits: his impression of Rolf The Dog is “whiskey-soaked vocals”, and when he gets poetic, it’s because he’s been “influenced by Jack Kerouac”. Why is it that all Americans ever got from existentialism was to become an alcoholic? Like the only free will is to be a nomadic divorced dad who thinks microbrews are pretentious because delicious isn’t the point, delerium tremens is.
Sure, I guess. Being at the dentist is anguish too, but the second you mention that, people get all high and mighty with you because you aren’t paying to suffer at a bar. where everyone wants to stab you because you still have teeth.
That’s Tom Waits territory: he imagines horrible places to drink so you can imagine that he actually went there. As long as you believe it, you’re as good as there; and because now you’ve heard about being so drunk you can drown by smoking a cigarette, you can judge your friends for thinking having the tartar scraped off their teeth with a wafer-thin metal hook is tough to sit through.
Why does Tom Waits think making fun of muscular dystrophy is cool? Let’s be clear: he’s been as close to a “thirty-ought six” as he has been to “an old pack mule”. Which is nowhere close, ever in his life. Waits’ aesthetic is a mix of grandpa things: Sinatra, the blues, french buskers, the first drunk adult you ever met who lectured you about Mark Twain (or was it F. Scott Fitzgerald?) and then he tosses all of it in between an aspiring English major’s copy of Ham On Rye and an art student’s unwashed jeans. Then voila! A big stupid mess.
He also tosses in a little bit of surrealism so you can feel okay with having gone to college, or at the very least, an art gallery (by choice, and only once). It’s a little nudge that says “we’re all smart for listening to this.” That’s why a black crow flies in from a hole in the sky, you see. And why this mule he’s never met or even seen in person hates him playing a guitar he made by shooting a tree and ruining a corvette.
Singer-performer dicks playing “characters” is the kind of amaranthine drudgery that plebeian middle managers who think that they’re smarter than geniuses because they’ve figured out how to avoid feelings go nuts for. Especially when they “explore the mindset” of, say, a stalker. And why are NPR-types so enamored by romanticizing misogyny? I suppose that’s what “gothic” means.
This is what I mean by “Tom Waits is an actor”- this isn’t a song. It isn’t a poem, either: it’s a monologue. “Your house is so soft and fading as it soaks the black summer heat”- men are gross when they think something’s pretty. Everything becomes a vagina, and then that gets turned into a steak. And “black summer heat” doesn’t mean anything. It sounds like he’s revealing the truth about the summer, but really all it does is sound apt. Like this tossed-off line: “I hear your champagne laugh”. That sounds good because it’s about fancy hooch. But it’s not the laugh, it’s the booze talking. The booze we wish we drank more of but because we can’t, we listen to Tom Waits tell us about fantasy booze. It’s like he mashed up the movies Legend and Barfly.
On the subject of poetry: “You wear two lavender orchids / One in your hair and one on your hip”; nevermind that no-one has ever worn two lavender orchids, I’m not even sure what he thinks those are going to look like, but on her hip? She’s wearing a lavender orchid on her hip? That’s as dopey as hearing “a banjo tango”. Banjo and tango are cheap words to pick, because they’re fun words. Say them. Out loud. Right now. Apart, then next to each other. That’s about as disciplined as Tom Waits’ writing process for Alice, and he had been writing this junk for 29 years.
The Piano Has Been Drinking isn’t nearly as good a description of the seedy side of show business as Weird Al’s The Check’s In The Mail. And again, it’s because he’s romanticizing an imaginary place you wouldn’t go. This crummy theatre he’s describing doesn’t exist, there aren’t failed vaudeville performers there, and if you quit your job to drunkenly sing songs, you wouldn’t end up there. You’d be on some bill where to get onstage you have to bring ten people, and the owner of the bar is counting their drinks to figure out if you’re profitable enough to have back. That’s the reality of singing in nightclubs.
Look, if all we have to do is string together some unsavoury metaphors, then the flaming paper bag of adoration Waits has waiting for him on his front doorstep each and every morning is within anybody’s reach. Is “slightly better than Jim Morrison” all anybody’s looking for? Is that all the world wants to handle? Buy me an accordion and a bottle of Wild Turkey, and in a month I will double your investment because this looks as easy as making frozen chicken fingers:
And the light man’s blind in one eye
And he can’t see out of the other
And the piano-tuner’s got a hearing aid
And he showed up with his mother
We get it, Tom: the theatre’s awful. At least he gets to be in a theatre. All I have is this petty column where I talk people out of listening to anyone in a theatre. Maybe that’s the draw, here: all those romantic notions you had about being a gun-slinging, mule-riding, perpetually hung over off-the-strip Vegas lounge singer who follows audience members home? Tom Waits is here to talk you out of them, by pretending that he was there so that you don’t have to go.