Sunday, December 29, 2013

Tom Waits' Top 20 Tearjerkers Of All Time

It seems this is the year where the Internet sought to kill the "list" by overuse and severe abuse. This Guardian piece 35 Reasons Why I hate Lists sums it up perfectly.

But the *key* problem with the endless Buzzfeed list obsession of anything and everything... is it is all about the WRONG FUCKING THINGS! "36 Cats Who Are More Bored Than You." "59 Walruses Who Think You Should Get A Life", "The 87 Most Irritating Things About The Internet's Obsession With Listing Things As Though It Is Inherently Amusing."


Luckily *Carlo Sands* is here to rectify the problem and provide all humanity with the only list civilisation actually needs: "Tom Waits' Top 20 Tearjerkers Of All Time".

'I want to believe in the mercy of the world again...' Where are all the lists about Tom Waits songs?

Tom Waits has been in the music business more than 40 years now, and, while his music has undergone transformations, if there is one thing Waits knows how to do, it’s churn out a heat-rending tearjerker.

This is often misunderstood. Waits is sometime seen as an eccentric "weird-for-weird's sake" oddball who is near impossible to listen to. Or a highly stylised maudlin drunken lounge singer with a ridiculously over-the-top voice.

But what Tom Waits is, more than anything else, is a brilliant storyteller. He is a man who can fill your heart with hope in one verse, rip it out with the next and then stomp it into the dust to finish. And he can just as easily do it in reverse. He tells stories about what is to be human, to try to actually *live* on this godforsaken hellhole called Planet Earth.

Interviewing author J. T. LeRoy for Vanity Fair in 2001, Waits said: "The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering."

Waits goes on: "It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate." Waits does the opposite. Far from cheapening the human experience, he elevates it. And has done so, consistently, over four decades.

'And I call your name, I can't sleep at night...' Waits' elevates the human experience.

The songs on this list are tearjerkers, but not all the tearjerking comes from sad tales of heartache and loss. True, a lot do, but it includes songs like "Jersey Girl" -- Waits' heartfelt song for the woman he would marry (and has collaborated in song writing with ever since). And "Invitation to the Blues" ends on a hopeful note, while "Hold On" is defiant. "Long Way Home" and "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" could even be described as "sweet".

"New Year's Eve" and "Christmas Card from a Hooker In Minneapolis" are tearjerkers for different reasons -- both are troubled tales of urban decay, the first set against the hope of a New Year coming, the second... well it should be heard.

There is a hell of a lot more to Waits than tearjerkers -- even if Tom Waits would not be Tom Waits without them. But they are worth highlighting in a society drowning in "love songs" mostly featuring empty sentimentality. We seem afraid of genuine emotion in music.

But love and loss is part of our experience. Few capture it -- and tie the experience to the rest of life -- like Waits does. He combines it with a sense of what it is to be beaten down -- but still standing.

This list is far from complete. It is also *not* a list of the *best* Tom Waits songs. It is simply meant to be good examples of a *certain type* of Waits song. Also, much of Waits material from the '80s on was written with Kathleen Brennan (Waits described the song-writing process as "she washes, I dry"). So I have indicated where the notoriously publicity-shy but key creative collaborator was a co-writer.

Here it is (order does not suggest any "ranking"). You can also hear it as a YouTube playlist)

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1) Shore Leave

"...And I wondered how the same moon outside
over this Chinatown fair
could look down on Illinois
and find you there
and you know I love you baby
and I'm so far away from home..."

Waits is a poet and his use of imagery can be devastating. This song from 1983's Swordfishtrombones is a classic example. It introduces the "junkyard percussion" type sound he developed during the '80s, but most of all, his tale of a homesick soldier in Hong Kong is a fine example of how Waits' uses *words*. I chose the album version over Waits' stunning Big Time performance, as its more understated feel is a bit better at drawing out the imagery of the words. But the Big Time performance is nothing short of spine-tingling. Read the lyrics.

2) Alice

"And so a secret kiss brings madness with the bliss." I dare anyone to deny that truth, and if you don't understand it, you've never lived. This is simply one of the most devastating and heartbreakng songs I have ever heard. From 2002's Alice. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

3) Blue Valentines

"And it takes a lot of whiskey to make these nightmares go away." A fine example of Waits' earlier work, this track from 1978's Blue Valentines is an evocative tale of being haunted by the past. Read the lyrics.

4) Invitation To The Blues

"Mercy mercy, Mr. Percy, there ain't nothing back in Jersey but a broken-down jalopy of a man I left behind..." I kinda find it hard to even talk about this song. From 1976's Small Change, a brilliant booze-soaked album that was my introduction to Tom Waits, the song is a true tearjerker. Killer line after killer line, it ends on a hopeful note. But you gotta take the whole thing in, so play it again and read the lyrics.

5) Jersey Girl

"And I call your name, I can't sleep at night..." This track, from 1980's Heartattack and Vine was writen for Waits' soon-to-be-wife Kathleen Brennan. They are still together and it must be pointed out that Brennan played a huge role in the development of Waits music from this point on, co-writing much of his material. This live version from 1979 shows the emotional power Waits can give this song. Read the lyrics.

6) Downtown Train

"Outside another yellow moon
Punched a hole in the night time, yes
I climb through the window and down the street
Shining like a new dime
The downtown trains are full
With all those Brooklyn girls
They try so hard to break out of their little worlds
You wave your hand and they scatter like crows
They have nothing that will ever capture your heart
They're just thorns without the rose
Be careful of them in the dark
Oh if I was the one
You chose to be your only one
Oh baby can't you hear me now
Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night it’s just the same
You leave me lonely, now..."

That first verse is pure, heartbreaking poetry. This song from 1985's Rain Dogs features my favourite opening verse of any song I know of. You can also see a great live performance where Waits is accompanied by just a guitar and a double bass. Read the rest of the lyrics.

7) Trampled Rose

"I know this rose like I know my name. The one I gave my love, it was the same..." This song from 2004's Real Gone is the sound of a man defeated by life and love. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

8) Green Grass

"Lay your head where my heart used to be, hold the Earth above me ..." A beautiful, moving song about death from 2002's Alice. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

9) Hold On (Live)

"Down by the Riverside motel,
It's 10 below and falling
By a 99 cent store she closed her eyes
And started swaying
But it's so hard to dance that way
When it's cold and there's no music
Well your old hometown is so far away
But, inside your head there's a record
That's playing, a song called Hold On..."

From start to finish, a heartbreaking tale of small-town bigotry, crushed dreams and a determination to just keep on going. This live version, accompanied only by a softly played piano, brings the words to the fore. You can hear the version from 1999's Mule Variations (and see a rare video clip) here. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

10) Christmas Card from a Hooker In Minneapolis

"Hey Charlie I'm pregnant..." One of Waits' classic opening lines, matched by the song’s closing lines, which I won't quote so as not to spoil the story. You can see a live performance of this track from 1978's Blue Valentines that stuns a sceptical crowd into silent awe. Read the lyrics.

11) Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)

"And it's a battered old suitcase to a hotel some place, and a wound that will never heal." A long, vivid tale of, in Waits' words, "throwing up on yourself in a foreign country", the classic opening lines set the scene: "Wasted and wounded, it aint what the moon did. I got what I paid for now." You can hear the strings-backed original from 1976s Small Change. Read the lyrics.

12) Innocent When You Dream (Big Time version)

"I gave my love a locket and then I broke her heart..." Sounds like a heartbroken man staggering down an empty street waving a near empty bottle of absinthe while he shouts his woes to the moon. 1987s Frank Wild Years contained two versions of this. Read the lyrics.

13) Hang Down Your Head

"Hush a wild violet, hush a band of gold. Hush you're in a story I heard somebody told..." Just another beautiful but heartbreaking song from the Master of Misery on his classic 1985 Rain Dogs album. Covering Tom Waits is a very hard thing to do, but Lucinda Williams does a great version of this. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics

14) Talking At The Same Time

"All the news is bad, is there any other kind?" On this track from 2011's Bad As Me, Waits mixes personal heartbreak in with the widespread pain and suffering caused throughout US society by the Great Recession -- where "we bailed out the billionaires, they got the fruit, we got the rind". Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

15) New Year's Eve

"It felt like four in the morning
What sounded like fire works
Turned out to be just what it was
The stars looked like diamonds
Then came the sirens
And everyone started to cuss"

Just a Tom Waits' New Years Eve... full of desperate people in desperate situations. A tale of being trapped in urban decay, this is a real tearjerker from 2011's Bad as Me. I know a fan of Tom Waits who, the first time he heard this song while driving his truck, began crying. It’s that kinda track. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

16) All The World Is Green (Live on Letterman)

"Pretend that you owe me nothing, and all the world is green. We can bring back the old days again..." From 2002's Blood Money, a tale of loss and nostalgic longing for a better past. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

17) Georgia Lee

"Why wasn't God watching?" The emotional power of this song, from 1999's Mule Variations, comes from the fact it is about a true story. Georgia Lee Moses was a 12-year-old girl found murdered in 1997 near where Waits and Brennan live in California.

The case got a lot less attention than the very similar horrific murder involving the 12-year-old Polly Klaas a couple of years earlier -- a fact some put down to Moses being Black and the daughter of a mentally handicapped single mother. Waits and Brennan were determined Georgia Lee Moses would not be forgotten. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

18) Make It Rain (Live)

"I want to believe in the mercy of the world again..." This slower live version of this bluesy track from 2004's Real Gone brings the tale of betrayal and pain to life. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

19) Long Way Home

"Well I stumbled in the darkness, I'm lost and alone..." This is a very moving, almost sweet, tale in which the narrator battles the pressures and temptations of life but finds salvation in love. It appeared on 2006's triple album of never-before-released rarities, Orphans.

It is also a great example of Waits' quality as a performer, and the role of his rough voice. Waits' actually gave this song to Norah Jones, who recorded it first. Her version is fine -- there is nothing wrong with it and musically it is pretty indistinguishable from Waits'. But then you listen to Waits sing it, and it breaks your heart. Waits' voice is essential -- it is grounds his songs, it drags them through the dirt. And this makes the emotion feel more real and cuts against cheap sentimentality. Co-written with Kathleen Brennan. Read the lyrics.

20) I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You

"...'Cause falling in love just makes me blue." A sweet song from Waits' first album, 1973's Closing Time. Waits was yet to develop his trademark growling vocals, giving a unique feel to this romantic tale of late-night bar life. Read the lyrics.

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Well, the only thing left to say is it was near impossible to chose only 20 great tearjerkers. There are so many more -- Waits' career was spanned four decades and there is not a bad moment in it. I simply tried to give an overview. You gotta a great Waits tearjerker not there? Feel free to add it in the comment section.

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