Monday, December 08, 2014

'I just can't make it by myself' --Tom Waits turns 65 and thank god he's still here.

'I just can't make it by myself...' 

It is a very hard call, and I certainly don't stand by it. But for what it is worth, I think Tom Waits' "Shore Leave" is my favourite Tom Waits song. Or, put another way, it is my favourite song.

A vivid tale of a lonely sailor on shore leave in Hong Kong is transformed into something almost frightening in its heartfelt despair. The sailor's declaration that "I just can't make it by myself, I just love you so..." is how I sometimes feel, in my more fanciful (ie: drunk) moments, about the veteran American songwriter who turns 65 today (well OK, that is yesterday here in Sydney where I write this, but it is still before midnight on December 7 in California where Waits resides). 

Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock'N'Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 by Neil Young in a move Waits described as "very encouraging".

In his more than 40 years in the music business, Tom Waits has had a huge impact  -- from his songs that YouTube mash-ups prove could easily have been sung by the Cookie Monster, to inspiring disturbingly accurate parodies like Tom Waits sings Christmas songs to being immortalised on the Internet via the Nyan Waits


We are probably lucky we even have the chance, however slim, that he might come back here for the first time since 1979. After all, this was a man who spent the 70s seemingly trying to drink himself to death in a bid to inspire the ultimate barfly song.

By the end of the 70s, Waits was in a bad way -- so bad he said he looked in the mirror one day and saw Billy Joel.

He was saved by the women he married, Kathleen Brennan. But this is not some patronising "woman saves man with her love and became his 'muse'" bullshit story where the woman only exists to further the leading man's narrative.

Brennan did not just help inspire a totally new direction for Waits, starting with 1983s Swordfishtrombone, she has been his creative partner, co-writing most songs ever since. On the nature of their songwriting partnership, Waits has variously offered such insights as "You wash, I'll dry" or "I'll hold the nail, you swing the hammer". 

One example Waits gave of one of Brennan's lines is one of the finest in any Tom Waits song -- "She's a diamond who wants to stay coal" from "Black Market Baby". At first, Waits thought she said "cold".

Essentially, from the 1980s on, the musical entity known to the world as "Tom Waits" has been a more-or-less entirely Waits/Brennan collaboration.

But we can also appreciate the fact that, had he never met Brennan, by his own admission, Waits probably would not be alive right now and tormenting Australian fans with his steadfast refusal to tour here, while making infuriating comments on the topic when pressed about it, like when he told Triple J in 2011 that, while he had no plans to tour, "Life is long, I'm sure it will happen."

Yeah, life is long, Tom, but it is not fucking infinite.

'We're all gonna be just dirt in the ground...' That's right Tom. What you just said. You might want to think of your own words in relation to your long-suffering and fucking desperate Australian fans.

I am obviously a big fan of Tom Waits. His poetic tales of ordinary people staggering through a hellish world frequently make me cry -- especially, but not only, if I've drunk reasonable quantities of beer and/or whiskey.

Others say Waits makes them cry too ... but for different reasons. Not everyone shares my... well obsession is really the only word. His (in)famously ultra-gravelly voice -- as well as his often eccentric sound and persona -- tend to divide opinion between obsessives and large chunks of the rest of humanity.

But whatever. Waits' music is theatrical and sometimes cinematic. It creates an atmosphere and mood in which to tell a story and evoke certain emotions.

And no two people like the exact same films or plays or books. At the end of the day, I just don't give fuck. And through four decades or recording and performing music, Waits has never given much indication he does either.

But rather than keep adding to the many, many words I have written already on this blog about Tom Waits, I'll highlight a couple of quotes from other songwriters and performers on the man -- who has inspired much praise and awe from all kinds of performers across many genres.

Former David Lee Roth guitarist Steve Via, best known as a hard rock metal guitarist, describes himself as "an overzealous fan" of Waits. In an interview about his love of Waits last year, he spoke of the first time he ever heard Waits (when he bought 1999's Mule Variations), saying:
I bought the CD, put it in my player, and I tell you, it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was stunned into silence. I just listened to the entire CD, and then I went out and bought everything that he ever did.
On why Waits affects him so, much Vai explained:
He's 100% committed. When you watch him perform, he's fully present; he's in the moment with every single word... What I look for in music is artistry, sincerity, and simplicity and Tom Waits has all of that ... That's what I get from Tom's music, and that's pretty special.
More recently, Ben Nichols, frontman of country band Lucero (I refuse on absolute principle to use that idiotic phrase "alt. country" -- it's just fucking country music) wrote a November 12 piece for American Songwriter on his deep admiration of Tom Waits. He says:
I remember driving from Memphis to Little Rock listening to “Blind Love” from the album Rain Dogs and saying to myself, “That right there is the type of song I’d like to write in this Lucero band.”

Now, that is all well and good but I’m still trying to write a song like “Blind Love.” In the 16 years I’ve been writing songs for Lucero, I am still struggling to achieve what appears to come so naturally to Tom Waits...
Nichols concluded:
I never go very long without listening to some Tom Waits records. And actually, I just realized the best part about writing this essay … it made me want to stop typing, pick up a guitar and try to write a song, cause that’s what listening to Tom Waits makes me want to do.
So here you go, in honour of his 65th birthday, a pretty random selection of Tom Waits songs, just ones that I feel like including tonight -- there are countless ones I could post and I've done various themed Waits' song posts before.

As ever, the songs are helpfully compiled in a nice YouTube playlist. Yar, don't thank me, buy me a beer sometime. Via the paypal donate button on the right side of the blog...



'Don't you know there aint no Devil, there's just God when He's drunk...' As well as just generally a great song and a cool performance, that "Devil/God" line is one of my favourite quotes of all time. And it's followed by 'This stuff'll probably kill ya... let's do another line...' Hollywood summed up.

'The smell of blood, the drone of flies, you know what to do when that baby cries... Hoist that rag...' War, via Tom Waits. One of the tracks from 2004's Real Gone inspired by Bush's futile, failed wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

'Two dollar pistol, but the gun won't shoot. I'm on the corner in the pouring rain...' Sure, other times, I'd go for the full emotional bombast of 'Downtown Train' -- one of the most poetic songs there is about urban alienation. But I've done that before on this blog, and 1985s Rain Dogs has many more tales of the madness of urban life in a major city like New York and this is just one.

'Well my parole officer will be proud of me...' It probably says a lot about me that I tend to lean towards the "heartboken, drunk and filled with melancholy and regret" side of the Tom Waits ledger.  Here is a Waits' track cutting loose a bit.

'And all the news is bad, is there any other kind?' That one line sums up how, on this track from his 2011 album Bad As Me, Waits combines pointed social and political jabs ('It's hard times for some, for others its sweet. Someone makes money when there's blood on the streets') with his more usual territory of heartache ('Well she told me she'd leave me, I ignored all the signs...')

'The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream... ' Well I guess I couldn't stay away from the 'bitter sweet songs tinged with melancholy and regret' for too long.

'I'm the last leaf. The autumn took the rest, but they won't take me...' Great track, sharing vocals with Keith Richards.... But still... I mean don't forget Tom... I know you sing 'I'll here through eternity, if you want to know how long. If they cut down this tree I'll turn up in a song', but you know... NOT LIVE. You live on forever, or at least until the climate change-induced eco-holocaust destroys us all, in *song*... But NOT LIVE!!! TOUR AUSTRALIA YOU PRICK!!!

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