Almost five years ago, on February 19, 2007 to be precise, I wrote a post on this blog in a moment of raw anger and disgust after watching a film clip by Rod Stewart destroying Tom Waits' classic Tom Traubert's Blues.
It is one of the old blog posts that still collects hits thanks to the sterling work Google does in answering people's requests for links involving the words "Tom Waits Rod Stewart".
(Far more popular is a post from 2009 on how Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan sold out by getting his famously terrible teeth fixed. That one gets hundreds of random hits a week from the seemingly large numbers of people whose interest in MacGowan's dental health leads them to google "Shane MacGowan teeth", and the shameful paucity of commentary on this crucial matter leads them here.)
Despite still collecting a few hits, the post was made a bit less relevant after YouTube quite rightly took down the offending film clip of Stewart whining through the tale of "down-and-out" misery, heartache and alcoholism that is 'Tom Traubert's Blues" while dressed in a upmarket dinner jacket and suit. But as you can still hear the audio and see him destroy it live, it retains some relevance.
Rod Stewart. Bard of the underdog.
One of those who stumbled on this angry rant decided yesterday to leave a comment. "Mac" (f that really be his or her name and I cannot help but feel that at the very least we are being denied the full story there) wrote:
Isn't is possible to like both? I'm a huge Rod Stewart fan, and I love his version (particularly the "unplugged" version which is a lot less produced), but I love Tom Waits as well. He is a brilliant songwriter and a wonderful character - but I can only take so much of that voice. He also tries so hard to be eccentric and non-commercial that you almost get the impression (and from your comments as well) that the only way for him to succeed would be to fail. It's that genuine suffering in his songs that seems to matter to you - forget artistic interpretation.
In the same vein - Springsteen's "Jersey Girl" is another one of my favorites. Wait's contains no more passion, but it does grate on my eardrums a bit.
Sorry that Rod seems high pitched in comparison, and that this seems to devalue his worth as an artist in your view. To take a phrase from your comment, you might want to check out "Never a Dull Moment", one of Rod's early albums. I don't like the "anything for a buck" releases he has made in recent years, but to dismiss him the way you do is pretty ridiculous.
Oh good god. It is hard to know where to start here, but all this needs some unpacking. I shall use this at times offensive comment to try and explain a few things about Waits and why Stewart's cover of "Tom Traubert's Blues" fails to such a degree.
But first... let me take up the offensive part and then move to the content.
"Mac" writes: "[Waits] also tries so hard to be eccentric and non-commercial that you almost get the impression (and from your comments as well) that the only way for him to succeed would be to fail. It's that genuine suffering in his songs that seems to matter to you - forget artistic interpretation."
I must admit I was not aware that Waits was suffering. Perhaps "Mac" has some new information on his life. Sure, Waits is not obscenely, stinking rich like Stewart is, but I am not sure there is much evidence he is actually "suffering".
Unless, that is, you believe anything short of a relentless search at any cost to your principles, integrity and BASIC FUCKING HUMAN DIGNITY for more money you don't have the time or brains to spend in your pursuit of *even more* supermodels and big homes counts as suffering.
And here is Waits, living a quiet life in rural California in his own place with his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan (who have been happily together for 30 years and about whom Waits *wrote* that heartfelt love song "Jersey Girl" that "Mac" refers to) and their kids, completely failing to REALISE WHAT HELL HE IS IN!!!!
He needs 57 failed marriages to supermodels and 98 mansions around the world or whatever the fuck Stewart has accumulated by now to be happy -- his own, comfortable place with his family, his own recording studio, able to collaborate with who ever he wants, produce his art at his own pace, tour when he feels like is just *such a tortured existence*. What a fucking martyr to his art!
Artistic interpretation... that is *exactly* what Waits does so well. A little bit of genuine artistic interpretation from Stewart would have been very much appreciated in his cover.
What Waits *does* and Stewart *fails in that performance to do*, is *exactly* give an artistic interpretation that *actually works*. As I said in the original post, *you believe Waits*. Stewart does not make us believe.
The idea that Waits is *trying hard* to be non commercial and eccentric turns reality on its head. All he is doing is not trying to do the opposite -- not force himself into something he isn't but pursue his art as he wants to. It is sad that anything that seems outside the dominant is just "eccentric".
A suffering Tom Waits wants to know *where the fuck* his third mansion and seventh supermodel wife is.
OK, now that is out of my system... Let's look at the content.
Is it possible to like both? Of course it is. If you like both you like both. Who the fuck can determine what you like, but you?
Personally, Rod Stewart's version makes me feel homicidal. The reason is not because it is Rod Stewart, not because I think no one, be they Rod Stewart or anyone else, has a "right" to cover Tom Waits. Not because Stewart has a higher pitched voice.
It is because, as far as I can see, Stewart butchers this song terribly and this song, to my mind, is a brilliant song that creates a vivid, poetic tale in which all the ingredients work together.
Waits is a performer as much as any other performer, and I think he brings the song to life in the combination of vivid imagery of the lyrics, the music and his delivery.
On Rod Stewart, I am dealing with this cover, not Stewart in general. Rod Stewart was a pretty decent rock'n'roll front man with The Faces before deciding to go off and become more commercially-orientated pop singer. That is his choice and his right and I don't condemn him for it. No one has ever offered me all the models I could marry and then divorce and all the mansions and fast cars I could eat, so far be it from me to judge his choice to take that road.
I judge whatever he does artistically on its artistic merits. And there is something very wrong with what he did to that song.
It actually *violates* the song. It is not just a version that isn't as good as Waits version. It is an "artistic interpretation" that goes *against* the song dramatically.
And as I really, really like the song, it means I really, really don't like what Stewart did to it.
I got no problem with Bruce Springsteen's version of Jersey Girl, which "Mac" raises. It is a good version.
I think Waits' version is better, but I also think "Jersey Girl" is, like "Tom Traubert's Blues", Waits at his best, so saying that is no insult in my book.
Springsteen manages to deliver the essence of the song well. Not surprising, he is a great performer and the song suits him.
However, the reason the song works so well for Waits says a lot about the essence of Waits as a story teller and why a cover version like Stewart's of "Tom Traubert" goes wrong.
You complain about the harshness of Waits voice getting to you after a bit -- and ok there is always personal taste here -- but in terms of the story Waits is telling in "Jersey Girl", that harsh roughness is essential.
It is a heartfelt love song heavy on sentiment. The roughness of the vocal is what makes it sound real. It drags it down to earth and makes it sound *ordinary*, an expression of someone real, gives it its grit. It undercuts the sweetness of the sentiments and, in doing so, heightens the sentiments.
That is why it works. Springsteen's version keeps the basic dynamic and so it also works.
But does Waits version really "contain no more passion"? This song, this heartfelt love song, was written for the woman he loved and would soon marry. I think that both Springsteen and Waits are great performers capable of injecting genuine emotion into songs with or without a personal connection, but Waits injects something extra into "Jersey Girl".
"And I call your name. I can't sleep at night." Waits sings the song he wrote for his future wife.
I can actually, unfortunately, provide an example where the band and singer goes all saccharine, where they *don't* undercut the sweetness but play up to it, and produce a version of "Jersey Girl" every bit as horrific as Stewart's version of "Tom Traubert" That would be the live version that can be found on YouTube of Bon Jovi playing the song.
It is actually kinda sickening to listen to. (Though I have to give Jon Bon Jovi points for passionately correcting the audience member who shouted "Bruuuuce" at the end of the song, and telling people they needed to know Tom Waits -- anyone who does that, including Stewart when he covers Waits, deserves some credit in my book, even if it doesn't mean we have to pretend a drastic failure is really OK.)
Waits has proven hard to cover well, but there are more than a few examples of it being done well. It succeeds when the singer tries to find a way, within their performance and style, to keep the essence of the dynamic between the poetry of the words and the music and performance that seeks to complement the imagery and story.
One good example is Lucinda Williams haunting version of "Hang Down Your Head" that is very different from Waits' version, but very effective. She even has, undeniably, a higher pitched voice than Waits -- just to prove the point I have no inherent objection to different pitches, more with how they are used or abused.
"Hush a wild violet, hush a band of gold. Hush you're in a story I heard somebody told." Lucinda Williams provides an example to Rod Stewart on how not to totally fuck up a cover of Tom Waits.
Let's even look at Stewart's *other* cover of Tom Waits -- his much better-known version of Downtown Train, which Stewart took to the top of the charts and no doubt earned Waits some badly needed royalty revenues. This, like "Tom Traubert", is Waits lyric writing at its best. The imagery is powerful and genuinely moving.
Stewart's version, as I said in the original post, turns it into an overproduced, overdone pop song. But it has to be said, it is nowhere near as bad a version of "Downtown Train" as his version of "Tom Traubert" is of that song.
In "Downtown Train", Stewart's version, though overdone, retains *just enough* of the song's weight, of its heartfelt drama, despite threatening to drown it completely in ridiculous guitar parts and string sections and OTT singing. The quality of the lyrics still manages to come through.
That is, Stewart didn't actually, in such a fundamental way, destroy the song's *essence*. Not that it touches Waits' original.
In my opinion, "destroy the song's essence" is exactly what he did with "Tom Traubert's Blues". Part of the problem here is that what provoked my outraged post was not just the audio -- though I think that is bad enough -- but the film clip he produced. YouTube have since taken it down, so a lot of what I was actually talking about isn't even there to see anymore (the live version I link to, while far from good, is nowhere near as horrific).
It is really when the audio and film clip are combined that the whole problem is clearest. Because it is not just that I think he voice fails to capture the song and express the lyrics, and I don't think it does. It is actually that in the film clip the whole essence of the song is fundamentally violated. He films himself, late 80s popstar perm, dodgy facial hair and gold earing and all, in a fucking dinner jacket all dressed up like he is about to accept a fucking Oscar.
Now what is this song *actually about*? Waits' brief explanation was it was about "throwing up on yourself in a foreign country". The longer version is it is about alcohol abuse, depression, heartache, loneliness, alienation and poverty -- set in an alienating foreign setting. And Stewart performs it in a FUCKING DINNER JACKET!!!!
The opening lines are stark, though with a typical dash of wit: "Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did, I got what I paid for now. See you tomorrow ... hey Frank, can I borrow a couple of bucks from you...?"
Do you know what Stewart looks like he paid for? A fucking second course of caviar-stuffed trout. He looks like the only thing he might ask Frank to borrow is the key's to his friend's Porsche, only his is at the garage.
The stark depiction of a heartbroken man at the bottom comes with lines told with a simple, but evocative imagery. Such as: "It was a battered old suitcase, in a hotel someplace and a wound that would never heal."
Such lines remind me of Raymond Chandler at his best -- such as when his tired PI Philip Marlowe, stuck alone in a hotel room away from home, sums up his position in "Farewell My Lovely": "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."
Stewart's performance fails to draw any of this out. It fails to give any expression to it. That is why it fails. It runs counter to the song.
Ironically, as terrible as Bon Jovi's "Jersey Girl" cover was, they do a better cover of "Tom Traubert's Blues" than Stewart. I am *not* saying this because I think it is great version, but to actually do the song worse than Bon Jovi takes some doing. That is actually the depths to which Rod Stewart's cover falls.
But... perhaps you hear it where I don't. In which case, I wish I was you, because when I hear Stewart's version -- and in general I try not to -- I feel offended.
All this stuff about "you only think Waits is good because he fails to be popular" is pop psychology at its worst. It is entirely wrong. If it mattered, which it doesn't, I can give you a long list of acts or particular songs I like and it will cover the full gamut from highly commercially successful to things not well known but for whatever reason I happen to have come across and liked.
Far from thinking there is something romantic or inherently cool or maybe even "martyr-ish" about a lack of popular success, I think the extent that Waits is marginal is a very bad sign.
I think someone who takes popular music seriously as an art form and seeks to do something new and different with it, and so often succeeds, deserves to be seen not as the "eccentric outsider", but as a starting point, a building block for others to develop the form even further.
And actually, Waits does play that role to a certain extent. He has a big enough following and enough critical recognition (especially by other musicians) to have an impact. The problem is popular music is a form dominated by lowest common denominator buck-chasing that undermines it. That, by its nature, leans towards the easiest, safest option.
Far from seeing this as something that gives Waits extra cred, I find it infuriating that popular music is so often twisted and deformed by this.
I love Waits because he is one of the greatest story tellers I have come across in popular music (to my mind, the greatest, though that is always a dangerous thing to say because there is always more out there to still find out about). Waits is not just a great poet, the entire product from lyrics to music seek to tell the story.
He is brings quite a cinematic quality to his music -- it is not just there to sound nice, but to set a scene, create a mood. The words and music work in tandem to serve each other.
I don't think this is in the slightest Waits being eccentric for its own sake, rather it is taking the form seriously and trying to figure out how to use it to serve the end of a great song. The problem is that songs are generally not given the same scope as literature or films -- no one expects a film to always look pretty or a book to deal with nice things. Waits tells stories via song that cover a range of genres.
For someone who does this, in my opinion, so very well, I would be ecstatic to see it recognised even more than it is. For it to be taken more seriously and be less marginalised, less seen as something off over on the fringes. But rather, treated like the great poets, authors and filmmakers have been treated -- as a great artistic achievement.
For this reason, Waits being accepted into the rock'n'roll hall of fame last year (which I hailed on this blog) was wonderful to see.
"Well with buck shot eyes and a purple heart, I rolled down the national stroll." Here is *another* Tom Waits song, not even directly relevant to this post, just because Carlo Sands is kind like that.