When I first encountered Tom Waits, I was intrigued not only by the voice and the raw soul behind it, but the amazing songwriter at work. I was especially fond of his sense for the humanly absurd, and for the weird and completely logical way he works his themes into timeless song structures and dirty rhythm & soul. Circus freaks and broken sailors, drunken whores and forlorn desperadoes cast in road songs, train songs and roustabout sing-alongs. Songs from the street and songs from the heart, alternating with gruff gravel and aching tenderness or pastoral warmth, and all set in their most native form.
Tom comes from a different order of songwriters, for whom the memory of Weimar and Weil and the traditional modes are still fresh and alive as tradition. Tom is an old-school revivalist of obscure song values: tarantellas, blues and rumbas, belters and brawlers and scat poetry and gnarly instrumentals. Soft lullabies and showtunes and noisy eruptions. And what Tom can do with a waltz or a ballad is just heartbreaking. He’s both theatric and staggeringly broad in the formal range of his craft.
To find the equivalent of Tom as artist you have to look to literature and the pre-cinematic vaudevillians, or early musicians wandering from bar to harbour bar, creating the melancholic sing-alongs for a generation that may later die in a world war they didn’t understand. He is radio and stage, traveller and chronicler, crooner and soul man. Uncanny and bedevilled, profoundly human, possessed of a literate voodoo that combs and weaves the neglected forms of 20th Century songs with that little drop of common pain.
His songs can be classically structured ― and eminently hummable. By their depth and melodic melancholy they seem to have existed forever. At least, that is what I mean by a ‘classic’ songwriter ― there’s a degree of instant familiarity and connection with the melody and words. Dylan has it, Lennon has it, Neil Young has it on occasion; and I think Tom is only second to Dylan in this respect. And also ‘classic’ in the absence of fluff, bad rhymes or cheap filler ― each song is sufficient and complete and never second-rate or written by rote and exiled to b-side. Everything has a large helping of craft, and every song has something to give and discover.
And then there’s the voice. It’s the dirtiest and most absurd voice in music, the gruffest in existence. Blunt chisels and hot black smoke were used to shape and cure it. The voice has dirt and brimstone on an exponential scale ― so earthy it’s unearthly. It’s almost hard to fathom, if it weren’t also capable of gentle inflection and a lightness of touch and precision that makes his soul so engaging. Varied and malleable, delicate and whispering, warm and crackling one minute, fully tearing and bullhorning or bellowing a storm the next. A force of nature, Tom’s voice can uproot trees and unman the disturbed. And even then ― with all its whiskey-soaked, Chesterfielded gruff, all these qualities in another throat or vehicle wouldn’t sound as particular in his songs, so profoundly hearty.
It was Bone Machine that first made me realise how a voice’s particular frequency matters most in my first liking a singer. This held me back from liking Dylan’s whine for a long time. The voice is the first door to unlocking a singer ― if that remained closed, I often wouldn’t hear the other qualities that make an otherwise fine artist. It’s the same with Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong, I had to work at liking and hearing their particular soul, to concentrate on their strengths. And then on the other side, my warming to Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Scott was pretty much instantaneous. It’s an arbitrary artefact of personality I guess ― what you like is initially very subjective, and tuned on some level of resonance. A frequency thing.
Few artists bring as much hair and dirt to their music. Tom is lo-fi and organically analogue, as though the only technology that matters is radio, the Victrola and the music made by hand. He makes modern studio trickery and digital clarity seem laughably unnecessary. ProTools and auto-tuning? That’s nice. This is music crafted by real instruments and voices and sweat. Marimbas, chamberlins, drums played with bones, offbeat pianos and any other instruments found in the barn, dusted and rusted over.
And even at his most far-out, there’s still a scrap of humour and twinkle in his noise.
But his sense and feel for the absurd comedy ― tuned to the poetic ― now that I’ve amassed a whole row of his albums and given his style a bit of proper thinking and fermentation ― his feel is not just an uncanny sense for wide humanity, but maybe better described as a poetic way with the broken logic of hearts. This is the core of his songcraft: these songs of bent and broken but beautiful souls, characters given their hearts in a ribcage of song, but always musically pure. Gifted with a certain poetic dignity and order of their own.
Take the beautiful waltz “Fish & Bird” from the Alice album.
A song-suite soundtrack for the play of the same name by Robert Wilson, it comes near the end of a string of classic Waitsian tenderness and variety-hour belters. The thing that got me about this track is the pathos of the line:
You can not live in the ocean,
and she said to him:
You never can live in the sky.
The song being about a bird that falls in love with a whale, as told by a sailor in a bar. Sailors, harbours and deserting trains loom large in Tom’s songs.
Now, the power of Tom’s voice and writing logic is such that you can feasibly believe the song is literally about a bird falling in love with a whale. But let me backtrack a bit, let’s get the lyric order and sensibility right.
They bought a round for the sailor
And they heard his tale
Of a world that was so far away
And a song that we’d never heard
A song of a little bird
That fell in love with a whale.
A song, begun in the third person, which becomes the first person story.
Please don’t cry
Let me dry your eyes
So tell me that you will wait for me
Hold me in your arms
I promise we never will part
I’ll never sail back to the tide
But I’ll always pretend you’re mine
Though I know that we both must part
You can live in my heart.
On the face of it, there’s something of the children’s fable [or Lewis Carrol candy] about this. A mildly absurd and possibly drunk tale told by a sailor to symbolise the pain of parting. It’s not all that removed from the far-flung world of sailors’ imaginations. But it becomes a song of love’s tender and absolute dedication ― and it’s crazily emotional if you hear it.
It unrolls like the oldest, slowest shanty to ever sing about long absence and cruel seas. It doesn’t draw attention to its own impossibility, it stays totally in the fable and grounded in the emotion. It limns the reality of its own terms ― a bird falls in love with a whale as though it’s eminently, emotionally real, and they remain devoted despite a reality that begs to differ. Their promises realistically vital though they (may) both know they’re pretending.
But it’s all Tom infusing the soul of the song within the sailor’s tale. It’s not the sailor’s story of the bird but first-person Tom singing in the voice and heart of the whale. From the casual introduction of the sailor’s yarn to the voices of the lovers, to the naked emotion of Tom rendering the personal depths, Tom lies in every concentric circle of the waltz, his voice in all perspectives. Now ― importantly ― the lyric and emotional flow of the song never seem illogical or confused in terms of speaking voice and literalness; the graceful cadence from third to second to first person is barely noticeable, subliminal even, but absolutely correct. The song has its own logic and sense and direction.
A song of two hearts, absurdly mismatched maybe, but devoted. A tender analogy of parting and impossible love rendered with soul. I swear, by then end of it, you’ll believe it’s written in the language of the heart: the music and grammatic ordering are all in service to that code. The lyric syntax might seem odd, but the intent and achievement succeed. The route might be oblique; the destination’s the same. Inward to the heart of the matter; outward in performance again.
This is the maximum a song can be: sufficient to itself, sufficient on every level. It’s craft made triumphant with a Waits twinkle, but not so perfect that it lacks that real human-at-the-other-end-of-the-performance-line vibe.
And I’m not even talking about the gentle sway and tide of the strings and the horns as they comfort each other, or the familiar-but-wack waltz unlike anything else in the canon, or the fact it has very little to do with Alice in Wonderland and yet retains an air of subtle fairy tale.
Neither is the song typical of the Waits oeuvre. It’s an exception of song craft in every way: it’s slightly unusual even for Tom, it says more than your average song in terms of heart, and it stands outside the usual formal borders. It’s a keepsake from the further reaches of uncanny art.
This essay is also available in the collection Song Logic.