There are two kinds of people in my world:
Those who think Tom Waits is some sort of musical demigod and those who erronesouly think he’s black.
This is not to imply they (or I) might be racist, just uninformed, or unacquired.
Maybe they are afraid of his voice?
Waits is one of those polarizing figures.
To critics and most die-hard music fans, he’s consistently considered one of the best musicians alive.
To most of their friends, he’s an abomination and should be turned off.
I have never understood this but in a world where pop culture equals high culture for masses of people, this is easy to understand.
Recently I had the rare privilege of seeing Mr. Waits in Columbus Ohio.
It’s not enough to simply say it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
The tour was titled GLITTER AND DOOM and throughout the show it was intimated as to why.
It was appropriately held at the ornate Ohio Theatre.
With a capacity of almost 3,000 people, it sold out in four minutes–as did the rest of his shows in the US and Europe.
Waits is an underground phenomenon. He himself has never had a hit single yet he has a loyal following that travel great distances to see him. While waiting in line to get drinks and a concert tee, people were throwing out city names like Boston, Montreal and DC.
Steve Buscemi was reportedly in the eight row wearing a baseball cap, laying low.
Waits is a musician’s musician. Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles and (gulp) Rod Stewart, among others, have recorded his songs and brought them radio hits. Since he started recording in 1973, he’s had almost 1000 songs of his covered.
He’s an artist who has repeatedly chosen his own path, never allowing his music to be used for commercial purposes, even when he was offered substantial amounts of money to do so.
He not only survived the 80s unscathed but reinvented himself within the decade that brought most groups and musicians from the 70s their worst albums.
To begin to understand how Waits arrived to be to where he is today, you’d have to go back to 1980 when he met his wife and now collaborator Kathleen Brennan at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios while writing the soundtrack for the film “One From The Heart”.
They fell instantly in love.
He stopped smoking and drinking.
They wrote beautiful music together.
They got married.
She got pregnant.
(Not necessarily in that cleanly of an order.)
With the time he saved not trying outdrink the beat generation, he started listening to his wife’s record collection, which included the zany and heavily influential Captain Beefheart.
He scoured antique music stores for new instruments with which to make new sounds.
When he wasn’t satisfied, he went out to the garage and shed to find them or make them himself.
In 1983 he released the seminal Swordfishtrombones, which would would be a major shift in his music for the rest of his career.
In his Columbus concert, the farthest he went back was to this album (and none of his five previous albums).
If he had never met Kathleen, he might still be growling about how “The Piano Has Been Drinking“, not him.
He’d have a small Bukowskian following that would overplay him in bars that open at 6 am.
He might not actually be alive right now, or he’d be a bankrupt has-been.
She changed his life and music for the better.
Kathleen Brennan is credited with co-writing most of the songs since Swordfishtrombones.
She remains completely out of the public eye somewhere north of San Francisco, mothering the family and helping to orchestrate the chaos and nurture the genius that is Tom.
Waits’s current song base can be categorized under three different (basic) types of songs.
In the first three songs of the evening, he managed to cover all three.
1. Phantasmagorical experiments, including but not limited to: spoken word poetry, children’s songs/stories-turned-macabre-fables, vocal ventures that utilize his voice in grotesque and boundary-pushing ways that aficionados call genius and to which mothers recoil, aghast in horror as their innocent children wilt and shudder.
(After countless attempts at embedding a video right HERE, I’ve been fruitless and thus can only post a link to a video that actually took place at the show.)
He opened the concert with the above medley, the initial part being a song called “Lucinda”. The studio version of this song has no instrumental background but simply a looped recording of his voice slipshod beatboxing while he croons lyrics like these:
“Now her hair was as black as a bucket of tar
Skin was as white as a cuttlefish bone
I left Texas to follow Lucinda
Now I’ll never see heaven or home”
This melded fluidly with “Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well”, his second type of song which is…
2. A greasy blues number played with the oddest of instruments, many of which sound like they are made from sharpened bones, lacquered garbage can lids and rusty garden tools . The lyrics tend to conjure up fractured caricatures of one-eyed kin, dwarves, dirty deeds in Chinese alleyways, vaudevillian street preachers, or any kind of carnavalia you can imagine. The stories almost always straddle the line between reality and surreality.
Song two of the night was “Way Down in a Hole“, which for those you have never heard of him was the song which opened HBO’s first series of “The Wire” (and has been a cover version in each subsequent season). It adheres strictly under the number two category while also falling under a subcategory–what could be called the “surreligious” kind–invariably invoking Jesus in one way or another. In this case, he preaches about not being tempted by Satan and needing Jesus to help keep Satan way down in a hole.
I’ve never asked him personally nor have I stumbled across him expressing the meaning behind these, but I’m fairly certain these are satires, either empty of sincerity and religiously askew.
That or they are sincerely written from the standpoint of his imagination of a religious extremist.
Finally, song three of the evening was a…
3. Heart-pureeing ballads.
“Falling Down”, a semi-rare song that can only be found on Waits’s only official live album “Big Time”. The odd part about this track is that it was the only studio track on the entire live album. That is to say, the only studio track on his only official live album was performed live.
The song opens with an excellent image: I’ve come five hundred miles just to see a halo.
Scarlett Johanssen covered this song on her album (of Tom Waits cover songs) Anywhere I Lay My Head, probably because the lyric that follows the above one is “Come from St. Petersburg/Scarlett and Me.”
(BTW, this album of hers is horrendous. It’s a good thing she acts.)
The best example of his heart-pureeers was the final song of the first encore. “A House Where Nobody Lives.”
It tells of of a house that a family moved away from.
Weeds grew unkempt, dust layered.
It was a house where nobody lives.
But the last part of the song really rips down the fence.
“So if you find someone
Someone to have, someone to hold
Don’t trade it for silver
Don’t trade it for gold
I havgot all of life’s treasures
And they are fine and they are good
They remind me that houses
Are just made of wood
What makes a house grand
Ain’t the roof or the doors
If there’s love in a house
It’s a palace for sure
It ain’t nothin but a house
A house where nobody lives
Without love it ain’t nothin
But a house, a house where
A house where nobody lives
His ballads turn the trite and clichd into something renewed and pure.
Elsewhere in his lyrics, he spins literary tales of the forgotten, the lurid and the otherworldly.
He’s one of the few musicians alive today that could pass as a geniune poet.
As he continued performing, it became apparent that Mr. Waits is also as much a performance artist as he is a singer.
He stood center stage conducting his mad orchestra in so many bent and unorthodox ways.
He stomped rhythmically on the stage and whiteness–a white powder–rose around him.
The heavy gold and chimney crimson stage lights changed with the snap of his fingers.
He preached about Jesus while fluttering his hands.
He sang standing like a scarecrow, Christ-crossed, bent-legged and howling.
He assumed the pirate, repeately commanding, “Everybody Row!” to Misery’s the River of the World.
The crowd clapped with a crisp synchronicity I’ve never heard before, as if we were all in a trance led by a ringleader hypnotist.
So why the title GLITTER and DOOM? I don’t, and can’t, know, but here’s a possible theory:
The DOOM part of the show was the inclusion of songs like the aforementioned and others with titles like Eyeball kid, Make it rain, Jesus gonna be here soon, 16 shells from a thirty-ought six, Cemetery polka, God’s away on business, Hoist that rag, Dirt in the ground, Way down in the hole, Sins of my father, Trampled rose.
These songs herald the end.
They beckon it forth like Bush telling the terrorists to “Bring it on”.
Which, for these times, seem more than fitting.
The GLITTER was–and I’m guessing here–the ephemera of the material, of life.
When I think of glitter I think of something very shiny shining brightly.
It sparkles and lures you toward it.
It is almost always less substantial than what it seems.
It is all forms of advertising.
All forms of house music.
The climax of the concert was when Mr. Waits turned his back on the audience, the lights went dim and he put on a special porkpie hat speckled with little shards of faux diamonds.
The hat doubled as a disco ball.
The spotlight focused on his hat as he turned around slowly.
Immediately the the entire theater transformed into an evanescent glittery ballroom.
You could sense everyone collectively smiling at the marvel of this simple trick.
The concert was more artistic, more genius, more magical than any rock show I’ve ever seen.
He concluded his second encore with Time, a sparse hushed ballad that held Waits solo in the spotlight and the crowd still for a couple more minutes before we stood up and applauded raucously while looking around at each other and nodding our heads, raising our eyebrows and grinning.
We then poured out into the glowing street…
…not realizing how much of this concert we would never forget.
Kip Tobin and Ryan Day spent 1.5 years writing a script entitled “Waiting for Tom”, a full length feature film indie-comedy buddy road-movie mock-biopic regarding the man and the myth of Tom Waits. The research involved in writing it lends Kip the sensation that he knows a lot about the man and myth. That and he’s a huge fan.