"I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things." Tom Waits once said, but he really didn't need to. It's pretty much the definition of his 5-decade long songwriting and performing career.
Now this Covid pandemic thing has been a bit stressful, what with all the yelling on social media, and so when Sydney's lockdown was announced 79284 weeks ago on the very same day as Tom Waits social media page released a special 40-song playlist his "most beloved lyrical ballads", I knew the greatest songwriter of his generation had my back.
I do not believe in coincidences. I believe Tom Waits knew what was coming and got his people straight on to it to ensure I'd remain entertained.
It would be an exaggeration to say this latest playlist is what the world needs. What the world needs is obviously some new music from an artist who hasn't released an album in a decade.
But, with sheer scale of the ecological catstrophe enveloping the world faciliated by the same out-of-control system that both helped create conditions for a global pandemic and is incapable of responding to it except though deadly profiteering, we take what we get.
You can hear the playlist on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music. Here is part 1 (40 songs is a lot!) of my increasingly whiskey-affected take on each song.
1) TimeAnd the things you can't remember tell the things you can't forget.
That history puts a saint in every dreamThe playlist starts with a classic from Waits' 1985 Raindogs. Surrealist vignettes of broken people. There's a lot of broken people in a Tom Waits' song, it's really his thing.As always, it's the quality of the images make it. When Waits sings...Well things are pretty lousy for a calendar girlThe boys just dive right off the cars and splash into the street...I see a a woman is trying to navigate a street filled with boozy young men who feel they own it.Most of all, time exists in this song to break your heart, while holding out the promise that tomorrow might be different. After all, it is time that you love.So put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips
As the dish outside the window fills with rain.
2) The Heart of Saturday NightThen you comb your hair, shave your face
Tryin' to wipe out every trace of all the other days
This is the title track of Waits' second album from 1974. This was just before Waits developed his signature gutteral growl and it shows he could actually sing in a reasonably melodic tenor voice when he wanted to.
But it's not just the voice that sets this apart from almost everything he's released since: it is the optimism. This song looks at a Saturday night in an American city and sees promise. It's even fucking hopeful.
It's a great song for sure -- as always the vivid imagery places this song above other mid-tempo folk rock songs that were all the rage in one wing of the US music industry of 1974. But rest assured he lost that sweet hopefulness as quickly as he lost the strong notes of sweetness in that voice.Makes it kind of quiver down in the core
'Cause you're dreamin' of them Saturdays that came before...
3) Hold OnThey hung a sign up in our town
"If you live it up, you won't live it down"
So she left Monte Rio, son
Just like a bullet leaves a gun...
If you wanted the perfect lyrical ballad about youthful hope and possibility being dashed by a cold reality that leaves you lonely and far from home, then you'd come up with this song.
All that hope! All that possibility! All that inevitable heartache and loneliness!
If this song doesn't make you cry then you have no heart or just haven't had enough whiskey yet. Have one more then play it again. There you go. That's what it's like to cry, you'd nearly forgotten! This is why Tom Waits exists.Down by the Riverside motel
It's ten below and falling
By a ninety-nine 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...
4) The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleepThis song came out on 1976's Small Change, a mere two years after "Heart of Saturday Night". This is not the heart of Saturday night, it's where Saturday nights go to die. The hope and possibility has ended in a surrealist dive bar at 3am where "the telephone's out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make" and "the menus are all freezing, and the light man's blind in one eye and he can't see out of the other" and "the box-office is drooling, and the bar stools are on fire". You get the idea.
And the combo went back to new york, the jukebox has to take a leakThe piano has been drinking, not me, not me, not me, not me, not me
5) Pay MeThey pay me not to come home
Keeping me stoned
I won't run away
They say it's easy to get
Stuck in this town
Just like Joan
Why is this song so devastatingly sad? I honestly don't know, but the broken voice declaring "the only way down from the gallows is to swing" offers a clue.
This one is off his most recently released album... from 2011. For fuck's sake Tom Waits.And though all roads will not lead you home my girl
All roads lead to the end of the world
It's the same with men as with horses and dogs
nothing wants to die
This song is like an especially drunken Irish folk ballad, only instead of being about the English scum killing your family and sending you half way around the world from the girl you love with the auburn hair and those green hills you dream of every night after you drink yourself to sleep after a day's backbreaking labour on some capitalist-owned railway, it is about a bunch of working class kids caught up in a tragic spiral of violent crime.
So it's a drunken Irish ballad.why cook dinner
why make my bed
why come home at all
out the door and through the woods
there's a world where nothing grow
7) Ruby's ArmsI will leave behind all of my clothes
I wore when I was with you.
All I needs are my railroad boots
And my leather jacket....
Good god Tom Waits wrings every last bit of sentimentality out of this one about a soldier leaving behind the women he loves. All put to a strings section whose attitude to restraint is remarkably similar to mine to whiskey tonight.
No one has the right to pack so much pathos into one song. Nobody! Jesus Christ I'm crying! You're crying! We're all drinking whiskey! WAR IS TERRIBLE!
As I say goodbye to Ruby's arms
You'll find another soldier.
And I swear to God by Christmas time
There'll be someone else to hold you...
8) Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind In Copenhagen)Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did
Got what I paid for now....
This song is a masterclass in evocative lyric writing. It may be about, as Waits once said, "throwing up on yourself in a foreign country" but not a word is wasted in this tale of being far from home, drunk, heartbroken and very alone.And it's a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal...
9) Georgia LeeCold was the night, hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
This one from 1999's Grammy award winning Mule Variations album is an especially heartbreaking song even by Tom Waits lofty standards. That's because this is a real story about a real tragedy.
The 12-year-old Georgie Lee Moses disappeared from a place in northern California not far from where Waits lives with his family. She was eventually found murdered. What got Waits was the sense that the fate of Georgie Lee, as an African American kid, was not a priority for the authorities or the media. Wondering what the response would have been if she'd been white, he wrote the song because he felt no one else seemed to care.
The irony is, Waits wasn't even going to include the song on the record, until his own kid commented how much sadder it would be if someone actually wrote a song for Georgia Lee Moses and then didn't even bother to release it.Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for
10) New Year's EveIt 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
In a decent world, this song from Waits most recent album (2011!) would do for Christmas what The Pogues "Fairytale of New York" did for Christmas Eve (tho hopefully without the overbearing over-playing, weird insertion into modern culture wars and an endless host of terrible covers). It's about a New Year's Eve party populated by broken people who once had hope and possibility. New territory for the master, but he pulls it off. Almost like he's been writing this stuff for decades.
The contrast between optimism of "Auld Lang Sang" and these characters' dire reality is not especially subtle, but as ever it's how Waits writes them and sings them that make them make you want to drink more whiskey.I ran out on Sheila
Everything's in storage
Calvin's right I should go back to driving truck
Should auld acquaintance be forgot...
Over here the ladies all want sweet perfume
But there's never a rose
And over there the roses are frightened to bloom
So they never can grow
Oh fuck off Tom Waits. What sort of song is this to subject a man who has drunk too much whiskey to? Really? Fuck off.And then I will fill the ocean back up with my tears
I still have a couple more years
And then I can come back to the harbor
Down to the harbor
12) Foreign AffairWithout fear of contradiction bon voyage is always hollered
in conjunction with a handkerchief from shore
by a girl that drives a rambler and furthermore
is overly concerned that she won't see him anymore
This song is off Waits' 1977 album Foreign Affairs, which for whatever reason has never been a favourite of mine (tho "Burma Shave" is classic Waits narrative storytelling and "I Never Talk To Strangers" is a charming duet with Bette Middler). Like a lot of the album, this song is very cinematic and kinda overblown; but most strikingly it is nostaligic but not actually sad. Which feels weird given every song around it.
Anyway, time to refill my glass, and this time I'll get whisky not whiskey.planes and trains and boats and buses
characteristically evoke a common attitude of blue
unless you have a suitcase and a ticket and a passport
and the cargo that they're carrying is you
13) Fannin StreetOnce I held you in my arms, I was sure
But I took that silent stare through the guilded door
The desire to have much more, all the glitter and the roar
I know this is where the sidewalk ends
Now this is more like it! A broken, stumbling and very sad song about an old man expressing his regret about a notorious street in Housten, Texas, where the old man's chasing of debauchery lost him the woman he loved. This is why we listen to Tom Waits while drinking whisky.You'll be lost and never found
You can never turn around
Don't go down to Fannin Street
Ever since I put your picture in a frameNot all Waits' songs have to be sad to be brilliant. Waits' broken-in-the-gutter voice is crucial to making his tales of heartfelt love like this one from Mule Variations, but this song is so strong that not even Rod Stewart can destroy it.
The lyrical hook, his love's picture in a frame as a metaphor for commitment, is so understated it works perfectly to offset the song's deeply felt pathos. If this isn't about his wife and long-tme collaboarator Kathleen Breenan (for whom Waits wrote "Jersey Girl") then it damn well should be and Tom Waits has some explaining to do.I'm gonna love you
Till the wheels come off...
15) NovemeberNo shadowFucking hell Tom I already warned you already about this shit! Some of us are drinking whisky, have some basic fucking human decency. Putting words like this to this Kurt Weill-esque drunken cabaret would test the tear ducts of even the whisky-less listener. Of which I am not!
It only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That's the color of bone
November has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November's cold chain
16) Widow's Grove
Near the breath of a swallow, petals dropped as you fellLook fuck off. I've had too much whisky for any more of your shit. You even made this one sound bittersweet but actually it is a tragic murder ballad. Just fuck off.
And you grabbed then shyly held me, against the stone cold well
Through the wind, through the rain of a cold dark night
That's where I'll be
Bougainvillea's bloom and wind
Be careful mind the strangle vines
GOD DAMN IT TOM!
Now I see a red rose
I smell a red rose
A red rose
Blooming on another man's vine
18) Chocolate Jesus
Well, I don't go to church on Sunday
Don't get on my knees to pray
Don't memorize the books of the bible
I got my own special way
Alright finally, a bit of absurdism to lighten the mood. The narrator in this song wants to praise Jesus and eat choclate and, well, he's got the solution.
Well, it's the only thing that can pick me up
It's better than a cup of gold
See, only a chocolate Jesus
Can satisfy my soul
The sky's as deep as it can be
Bend down the branches
Oh good. Back to bleakness. I wouldn't want the last of this whisky to be put to waste. Like the best of Waits, it's more than just bleak of course. There's a rich vein of humanism in this short track about getting old. Not that it isn't bleak. Just humanely bleak.
Close your eyes and go to sleep
Bend down the branches
They found a map of Missouri
Lipstick on the glass
They must of left in the middle of the night
And I want to know the same thing
Everyone wants to know
How's it going to end?
I think we all want to know the answer to this one. And much like in Waits' atmospherically fearful song, the sense in the real world is "not good". Thank god for whisky then (for now).
This is a great narrative song filled with foreboding, danger and fatal misteps. Like a few tracks from 2004's Real Gone, it's pretty much a mini film noir.
But as this just part one of my posts on this playlist, I am sure the real qusstion you are all wondering is "how will Tom Waits 'A Little Rain' playlist end?" Well, stay tuned, I just need to restock on booze.
And down in the first row,
Of an old picture show
The old man is asleep, as the credits start to roll...
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