Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Man #4: Tom Waits

When I refer to "The Man," I refer to titans in my music world. Perhaps later they will warrant their own "The Man" entries (as you may have noticed, I am terribly ineffective when it comes to maintaining series outside of "Record of the Moment"), but there are three people who currently rank ahead of Mr. Waits:

1. Jeff Tweedy
2. Bob Dylan
3. Lou Reed

and one who ranks behind:

5. Joe Strummer

Given that this is my current list, it is subject to flux. However (and this is a potential next entry if I get around to it), Jeff Tweedy will always be my number one. See my second "Records of Great Influence" entry here for the tip of the iceberg regarding the debt I owe Mr. Jeff Tweedy. Or, if you prefer Stephen Colbert's name for the guy, Geoffrey Velvet. The rest are obvious. Dylan, Reed, and Strummer are immutable figures in rock music, gods among mortals like you and I. But Tom Waits is the oddball in this group.

And that's the way I'd describe Tom Waits to someone if they had never heard of him. He is a total oddball. But he's also far and away one of the best songwriters in the 20th century and beyond. But beyond that there's a necessary chasm between "early Waits" and "later Waits."

"Early Waits" is the barroom, lounge music Tom Waits. Pretty jazzy, a little simpler, heavily piano-based. "Later Waits" is probably the longer, more prolific period of Waits. Heavily based in old-school blues, delighting in peculiar instrumentation, peculiar percussion rhythms, it's basically the darker cousin of "early Waits." My description of later Tom Waits would go like this, since otherwise my description doesn't help:

"Imagine like walking into a real seedy bar in like the 20's or 30's and there's some bar band playing some strange burlesque, vaudevillian music. It sounds familiar, yet because of the way it's constructed, it sounds like the bastard child of Howlin' Wolf and the Devil."

The most obvious thing, though, is the voice. Early Tom Waits maintains a light barroom croon that sounds youthful and full. Later Tom Waits sounds world-weary, war-ravaged, dogged by the devil; ranging from a sort of sinister growl to a furious and explosive roar.

But that is not to say that "early Waits" is better than "later Waits" or vice versa. It's more of a "which Waits do I want to hear right now?" and it's there. Boom. Early Waits? I'll put on Closing Time, his superb debut. Later Waits? I'll put on his landmark Rain Dogs, his Grammy-winning Bone Machine, or even put on his mega-package Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards. Or if I'm looking for a sort of "here is all of Tom Waits" sort of deal, I'll put on his most recent live record, Glitter and Doom Live.

Why is he one of "the Men"? Partially because he is such an oddball. How has the guy maintained a career playing this sort of music? Not because it's bad, because I love it all to death (or why else would I be writing this?). But commercially, it at first seems totally, totally suicidal. Totally anti-commercial, letting his music exist without being sullied by the post-industrial landscape that so often stains music through commercialism. It's a perfect recipe for disaster, when you look at the landscape now. Still, like the vagrants, the homeless, and the drunks that Tom Waits often writes about, he persists in spite of the changing tides of music. The man does what he wants, and that's one of the other things I love about him. Not about to bend to the will of any man. He plays what he wants. And, well, if you mess with him, he'll probably sue you too (Waits has a long history of suing people for wronging him). Well, if I messed with Tom Waits I'd probably deserve to be sued, too.

That's why I love Tom Waits. That's why he's my Man #4. This favorite quote of mine sums up Tom Waits extremely well, via Tom Waits himself:

"My kids are starting to notice I'm a little different from the other dads. 'Why don't you have a straight job like everyone else?' they asked me the other day. I told them this story: In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, 'Look at me...I'm tall, and I'm straight, and I'm handsome. Look at're all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.' And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, 'Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.' So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day."

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