Defying the Odds
The Many Modes of Tom Waits
Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen all suffer from genius exhaustion. They are hip nostalgia. Neil Young's superb Greendale went into so many different idioms (album, film, novel, comic book) that our short-attention culture couldn't manage its complexity. It was lost in translation. The Stones, Police and other rock brands are on Viagra tours, artificially getting it up. Weather Report is bringing back fusion that never should have existed and still doesn't if you want to authentically get down with jazz or rock.
Tom Waits jumps out in front of all of them by scuttling up from the subterranean nether culture that has permitted him to grow artistically without suffering the kind of fame that can force one to keep going when it is long past time to stop. Waits defied the odds and is now the lone, hip poet as songwriter on record and in performance. His albums are startling shadows and his concerts are works of inventive, murky endurance.
Patrick Humphries' The Many Lives of Tom Waits (Omnibus Press), a massive expansion of Small Change: ALife Of Tom Waits (1989) by the same author, proves it. The author writes that Waits was certainly an acquired taste, but "because of his wayward detours and willful determination, there remained an abiding interest in a quirky craftsman like Tom Waits." This comment, made before Waits' album Mule Variations (1999), becomes even more truthful after Real Gone (2004).
Real Gone is a bluesy steam shovel, digging up rock lyrics with a literary significance usually found only on the page. With it, Waits has produced rock songs as the stuff of legitimate study. Song lyrics usually don't stand alone as poetry but Waits has unearthed some that just might. Real Gone might just be the most contemporary, innovative rock 'n' roll album from an established master. Waits says his songwriting involves "dangerous choices…where to take it, whether to keep it, whether to abandon it."
Eager to appear relevant, many university teachers and critics blindly address songs but fail to find the immanent difference between song lyrics and poetry. Once these opposing idioms are mapped and an analysis of songs begins on proper ground, we discover that not all songs contain literary aspects. Obviously, Dylan got it all going long ago. Tom Waits goes the next distance.
In the end all of the other great rock songwriters got ploughed under by their own past. We don't need any more authorized Dylan "bootlegs" and there is nothing amusing about bragging about being unable to play the guitar (as did Patti Smith in a recent New York Times magazine fluff piece).
Exquisitely short on family histories as opposed to most biographies (although it is amusing that his father was christened Jesse Frank Waits after the infamous outlaw brothers, Jesse and Frank James), Humphries' book is rife with Waits' own version of his birthright: " I was born in the back of a yellow cab in a hospital loading zone and with the meter still running. I emerged needing a shave and shouted 'Times Square, and step on it!'"
The Many Lives is filled with dangerous choices. Waits' versions of his own artistic process are as well chosen, as are his recorded and performed works. His influence is subtly everywhere. When he called Rickie Lee Jones telling her that "Chuck E.'s in love" and then hung up, the throw-away line resulted in her sole hit. John Hammond's only huge album, Wicked Grin, was comprised of brilliant versions of Waits' songs that Waits himself produced. As the proprietor of Benny's Pool Hall in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece film Rumblefish, Waits contributes significantly to a film that, like Waits' own albums, knocks out the popular movies of the day.
From his first album, Closing Time (1973), to his most recent, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (2006), Waits has been "hardly noticeable but constant" according to Humphries. The startling, chugging and wheezing music of Bone Machine (1992) was the beginning of a new version of Waits that remains at the edge of the radar screen. Allowed to drift beyond the spotlight, Waits has kept a bare bulb on himself and by doing so grew as an artist who is now the last one standing from the first wave (1965-1975) of rockers with literary intentions. Who is Tom Waits? The book reveals nothing. He's real gone.