The Two Tom Waitses
By Ransom Riggs
A lot of people don't realize that music legend Tom Waits was anything other than what he is today: the trippy, out-of-time king of the musical junkyard, where he unearths the discarded pieces of metal and wood that are his rhythm section and the obsolete, Frankensteined horns and stringed instruments that fill out his sound. I fell in love with his harmonic weirdness in the early 90s, as did a lot of other alt-rock-loving young people, but it took me a few years to discover that he had another side -- that really, he had had another musical career entirely -- and that to get to the strange place he is today, Waits underwent one of the most profound musical transitions ever.
The "first" Waits persona was that of a beatnik jazz musician and lovable drunk who, you got the impression, had just stumbled away from the counter of an all-night coffee shop somewhere in seediest Hollywood, where he had been sobering up after a long night of stumbling through alleys with a bottle in his hand. (Indeed, for years this was a pretty accurate description of his life: he lived at the now-defunct Tropicana motel on Santa Monica Blvd in LA, hung out in the coffee shop below, and they say he kept his piano in the kitchen.) Here's a clip of Waits in rare form on the 1970s parody talk show Fernwood Tonight! (co-hosted by Fred Willard), singing his classic boozy ballad, "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)."
Of course, it wasn't all jokes and cleverness for Waits in the 70s -- besides the nightclub boozer routine he was famous for (featured prominently in the clip above), he wrote some beautiful ballads (like this one) that stand the test of time. But he never really left his piano, and after a decade of success tilling more or less the same musical ground, he decided to change it up. He split with his long-time producer, Bones Howe, he married the woman he credits with helping change his musical direction, Kathleen Brennan, and he quit his label, moving from Asylum to Island.
He found new instruments to play, using the bagpipes, the marimba, and strange percussion devices, saying in an interview that "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone." The result was 1983's Swordfishtrombones, an experimental album that sounded nothing like his previous work -- or really, like anything else out there -- and was universally hailed by critics, if regarded with some befuddlement by longtime Waits fans. Here's the opening track, as performed in Waits' 1988 concert film, Big Time.
With this one album, Waits had completely reinvented himself, and found the musical path he would follow for the rest of his career (or up until now, at least; who knows, he could reinvent himself again next year). He continued to refine his "junkyard orchestra" sound, but would include at least one beautiful piano ballad on every album, perhaps just to remind us he could still do it, and do it better than anybody. (Check out "Johnsburg, Illinois," "Time," "Picture in a Frame," "Take It With Me.")
Rain Dogs followed Swordfishtrombones in 1986, and is still my favorite of his records. Here's the classic "Jockey Full of Bourbon," presented with clips from his film Down by Law, which he starred in for director Jim Jarmusch.
In the intervening years, some say Waits finally grew into the gravelly "old man" persona he invented with Swordfishtrombones, and he continues to grow and experiment within the nameless genre of music he more or less created, or cobbled together, himself. Lately his music has been sounding much more rural -- perhaps reflecting the fact that he's lived in middle-of-nowhere Northern California for a number of years now -- rather than songs by a guy who's been sobering up at a seedy coffee shop all night, these feel like songs by a guy who's been plowing a fallow field all day, or distilling some strange experimental brew in his barn. Mule Variations is probably his coming-of-(middle)-age album, and he sounds decidedly rural and comfortable in his niche here, and the songs are excellent. His junkyard sound has matured, perhaps mellowed a bit. Here's Tom performing "Chocolate Jesus" on Letterman a few years back:
But just when you think you've got Waits pinned down, he does something truly weird. He's experimented with spoken word here and there over the course of his career, but "What's He Building In There?" really takes the cake for creepiness ... check out the music video: