KR and I have returned from our hiatus and are back on the airwaves, here's the show we recorded on Sunday, please enjoy
Wednesday, 10 March 2010
I started listening to Tom Waits a year ago, with his 1976 album “Small Change”, a story of booze and heartbreak. Since then Waits’ rich and varied career has fascinated me. His back catalogue ranges from drunken lounge music , wistful rock songs to skeletal trash romps.
"And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget that history puts a saint in every dream."
In the 70's Waits started his musical career writing seedy ballads about a gallery of rogues and losers. In the same way that Dylan reinterpreted traditional folk songs - such as “Scarborough Fair” and “Go ‘Way From My Window” - and made them feel contemporary, Waits has always been fond of paying homage to his influences. Though it’s not simply a knack for traditionalism that is Waits’ strength, but how he blended influences like Sinatra, Burroughs and Chandler to create his idiosyncratic beat-noir style. The recognition of the context of his work, his position in the lineage, is used simply and effectively to add colour and weight to his songs. When “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart” begins with the opening bars of as “Time Goes By”, only to be obscured by Waits’ growl, it evokes a scene of gin bars and forlorn patrons with a sharp resolution.
"Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been... You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing.”
An experimental bent has always been present in Waits’ music, but it would be taken to new heights with 1983’s “Swordfishtrombones” and the largely unknown 1985 sequel “Mackerelbassoons”. The piano-based balladry of his previous albums is replaced with what almost every critic refers to as “junkyard poetry”. The aforementioned strings and pianos give way to marimbas and percussion, as Waits reinvented himself as a back-alley doomsayer.
Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s Waits continued his odyssey into pop’s forgotten genres, exploring styles such as waltzes and European folk music. He would also continue his collaborations with theatre-types and poets, producing ambitious plays/concept albums on the likes of Lewis Carroll and German folktales, with an ever-growing focus on death and mortality. Waits’ passion for old, obscure styles of music, and combining them to produce something new and unique, is something that is disturbingly rare in an industry that celebrates safety and mediocrity.
"I like a beautiful song that tells you terrible things. We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth."
Despite the appeal of Waits’ musical experimentalism/traditionalism, it’s his strength as a lyricist that appeals to me most. Waits’ songs chronicle the desperate characters of the underbelly of society, the down-and-outs. The sympathy Waits shows for his characters, and by extension the sympathy we show for them, is one of the chief reasons he sits alongside Dylan and Springsteen as one of the our finest songwriters. However, it’s Waits’ ability to burrow down into the cores of his characters and show us their - and our - vulnerabilities that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Waits’ almost ironic romanticism is the foundation of his lyrics: he finds the picturesque in the hopeless plights of the characters he writes about. However, this romanticism is achieved without compromising the sordid veracity of the situations he describes. This dichotomy is central to his charm: the juxtaposition between the picturesque settings he creates and the grim reality of the characters that populate them. Waits is an artist that recognises the inseparable thematic tie between beauty and tragedy.
Written originally for Totally Bone, www.totallybone.blogspot.com