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Discussions: Tom Waits

By Andrew Bailey & Michael Tkach; June 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM 

Tom Waits

Discussions is a brand new series in which writers are paired up to engage in a dialogue about some of their favorite artists. Our first installment explores the legendary catalog of Tom Waits — and more.

ANDREW BAILEY: Okay, so as I understand it you’re something of a Tom Waits expert (or maybe fanatic is a better word?). So if I told you I thought his best album was Closing Time, what would you say? Waits fans tend to disagree with me on this.

MICHAEL TKACH: Yeah, I’ve always been under the impression that Rain Dogs is the odds-on favorite album for most fans, and I agree with this notion. Not only does it serve as the ideal gateway album for those unfamiliar with his music, as the A.V. Club pointed out, but it provides the best balance of “brawlers, bawlers and bastards” (to quote the title of his denser, three-disc 2006 compilation album). The early years leaned heavily on the old order; there were booze-drenched ballads a la Frank Sinatra or even Randy Newman, jazzy asides that mimicked the Beat poets, and everything’s largely piano-centric.

Granted, I have much love for many of those early albums, particularly the superb 1973 to 1976 hot streak. But with the help of his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and stronger influence from the likes of Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf, he really adopted his signature sound in the ‘80s. Rain Dogs, in my opinion, epitomizes that effort with the best all-around collection of songs. Not to say that he peaked in ‘85, either: Waits stands as one of the rare artists that benefitted from becoming a family man, and that continues to evolve and improve with age. Which brings me to a crucial point: have you ever seen him live, and how do you perceive the latter-day Waits? I have seen hundreds of live acts that I care about, but he stands firm at number one on my must-see list. No disrespect to modern-day Dylan, which I haven’t witnessed either, but I’d take one Waits live act over one Dylan set every single year until he croaks.

ANDREW: Don’t get me wrong: Rain Dogs is fantastic. And objectively speaking, it’s probably a better representation of Waits’ entire catalog than Closing Time. But to me, Closing Time is just such a romantic album that feels especially potent because of the voice it’s coming out of – that nasty, smoky voice that sounds like it’s been kicked around for a few decades.

I’ve never seen him live, but he’s one of my must-see artists too. I have actually seen Dylan live – within the past year, actually – and while I adore Bob Dylan, I have to agree with you. A modern Dylan set is actually a pretty shameful experience, in my opinion. He changes his arrangements too much (granted, if I toured as much as he had and played the same songs over and over like that, I’d probably look for new ways to play them too) and his band is, frankly, interchangeable. I don’t really know how Waits compares to him directly, but yeah, spend your dough on Tom over Bob if you get the opportunity.

MICHAEL: That persistent impulse to rearrange and revitalize recorded works in a live setting can be a crucial and enthralling practice, though. An easy example would be how Grizzly Bear constantly shift their arrangements; Horn of Plenty tracks can then appear stronger than they ever were on tape, and newer material are treated to new twists, too.

But when we’re talking about artists that have been critically acclaimed for decades, such as Dylan and Waits, there are different expectations live. If we study the three primary live documents in his discography, each represent a particular era in his career. Nighthawks at the Diner is Waits in that early lounge-act mode: smoke-filled jazz bars and lonely Edward Hopper diners, the dialogue is both poetic and humorous, and while the lyrics are decidedly more despondent than those on Closing Time, another strong set of songs lie within. Big Time, on the other hand, may have came from allegedly one of his greatest tours, but the audio offers very little insight or advancement on his ‘80s album trio on Island Records. Glitter and Doom, most recently, captured his voice collapsing from underneath him like a trap door that leads into a pit of alligators. Ultimately, it’s great reassurance that even as his voice caves, his growl gains an alternate authoritative charm. The only setback is that the dialogue is collected solely at the record’s backend, so there isn’t a great sense of continuity.

Which brings me to another point: Waits’ voice is like the moat surrounding a castle of gold for many. It translates magnificently to film, by the way. But I’ve met many that view this as an impenetrable force field around his oeuvre. How do you view this gradual degradation, and has it in any way become a negative side-effect of aging for you? Or, what do you think the affect is on his later albums compared to the early (and arguably more commercially accessible) Asylum records? Overall, I’d like to know a lot more about your view of his continually evolving – and rarely flawed, in my opinion – catalog.

ANDREW: Personally, I like the quirks that come with a live show. I mean, I love it when a band nails a set perfectly too, but there’s a certain charm to a guitar’s accidental feedback, or to a piece of equipment breaking, or to a band completely reshuffling one of their songs. But in the case of Dylan – in my experience, at least – it just didn’t work. These are legendary songs. I want to hear them the way they were intended. And hey, if you’re too bored of playing them that way, then stop touring so much!

I’m ashamed to say I haven’t explored Glitter and Doom as much as I probably should have. Although honestly, that’s not an indictment of that album so much as a compliment for his previous stuff. Pretty much every time I find myself wanting to hear Waits, it’s Closing Time I grab. If not, I’m looking at Mule Variations, Swordfishtrombones, or Rain Dogs (“Earth Died Screaming,” “Goin’ Out West,” and “Jesus Gonna Be Here” are essentials). That probably goes without saying those. I mean, those are his calling cards, right? I guess in thinking about it more I could throw Bone Machine and Heartattack and Vine into there too.

As for the voice, frankly, I hated it at first. I hated Dylan’s, too. I could reel off an impressive lists of names whose voices I either detested at first listen or simply wasn’t impressed with until I had time to… I don’t know, “get it.” But ultimately that’s what makes Waits’ stuff so magical to me. You know, as great as I think the arrangements are on Closing Time, the reason I love it so much is because you can hear the emotion in his voice. It’s ugly, it’s coarse, but it’s sincere. I think it’s helped his as he’s gotten older too. In fact, it fits him better. He’s grown perfectly into that role of the wise old grandfather who is a little bit insane and isn’t afraid to be candid. His evolution, vocally at least, feels like it came naturally to me.

MICHAEL: While it may have been an afterthought, I’m surprised to see Heartattack and Vine considered in the same heartbeat as Bone Machine, which was wildly acclaimed and even won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. This is a category marginally more relevant than Album of the Year despite the Grammys’ peculiar loyalty to Coldplay and the White Stripes. (Side note: he later jumped to the folk category for Mule Variations.) But arbitrary awards and even Billboard charts aside, Heartattack and Vine only yields a few indispensible songs, namely: the title track, “Downtown” and “Jersey Girl.” It proved to be more of a transitional album rather than a deeply memorable one.

Regardless, in my experience, working through Waits’ discography chronologically is the best way to experience his music. The only certainty spanning his oeuvre are lyrics centered on seedy subjects like vagrants, drunkards and alley rats. It’s far easier to cook up a short list of which albums are less essential: Big Time, The Black Rider, Foreign Affairs, Franks Wild Years, Heartattack and Vine, Night on Earth (film soundtrack, mostly instrumental, mostly forgettable), and One from the Heart (Coppola film soundtrack, duet album with Crystal Gale, somewhat of a curio piece). Of those seven selections, Big Time and Night on Earth are the least essential, but all are worth visiting at least once. Many would rank Franks Wild Years as a relative equal to its ‘80s brothers, but it can be underwhelming in direct contrast. One from the Heart is quite lovely, though I highly doubt it would be anybody’s go-to. But man, “You Can’t Unring a Bell” sure does unfurl a hearty dose of street slime. Similarly, The Black Rider is a ride worth taking for the singing saw, slow death of “November.”

On the matter of Waits’ voice, I completely agree. It should be a sin for any fans to ignore his output in the aughts. Most notably, I view Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards as the best, most thorough encapsulation of his efforts. Therein lie some of my all-time favorites such as “Rains on Me” (brawler), “Long Way Home” (bawler) and many of the spoken word segments like “Children’s Story” (bastard). The fact that I play each disc of the compilation in equal measure is both testament to my obsessive tendencies and the shared strength among the divided styles.

So, ultimately, what I’m saying is that Waits lacks “key” albums because he is truly a key artist. Even ranking his albums would be doing a disservice to his work, as it would suggest those not in the top five or ten aren’t just as fucking special and timeless. Plus, there’s also the prospect of a new album on the California horizon, which I intend on greeting with chipped teeth and a handshake of high expectations.

ANDREW: Actually, that was going to be my next question to you: is there a completely ignorable Waits album? Even the ones you mentioned are good by most metrics. I mean, Big Time isn’t Swordfishtrombones or what have you, but it’s still a solid record. It just feels a step down because it’s up against such a monolithic backdrop. I can’t think of a single “bad” record in his catalog. Seriously, how many artists can sustain that kind of success? Dylan had a dry spell, Neil Young had a dry spell. David Bowie, Paul McCartney too. That’s just off the top of my head without straining myself. It’s pretty phenomenal when you line them all up.

Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards is fantastic. I love it. It’s not something I listen to often because of how long it is, but it easily belongs in the upper echelon of his work. But like you said, you don’t really even need to digest all three discs at once. You can treat it like three totally different albums and while you’ll get a different effect, it’s still great.

And yeah, I’d agree: there’s not one or two definitive standouts (favorites? yes) because the whole catalog is so strong. And hey, Closing Time is his first album, so I think starting a new listener right at the beginning sounds perfect.

MICHAEL: The catch here is that Closing Time is a terrific start for those that can endure an entire discography that spans more than three decades. Yes, if I were to eschew my previous statement and select the top ten must-haves, Closing Time would be a fierce competitor. Newcomers that wish to parachute in are best served to visit Rain Dogs first. In my own experience, Swordfishtrombones was my introduction. Within roughly six months of playing only a fistful of his albums, I was ready to completely immerse myself by working chronologically.

That was years ago, and some of the albums were wrongfully neglected for years to come (One for the Heart and Nighthawks at the Diner are the chief examples, but even Franks Wild Years received little attention until only a year ago). Hey, minor casualties when you’re talking about the best buffet in town. Such a wealth in selection often leaves little room for dessert.

But have you heard Night on Earth? It’s a film soundtrack in every sense of the word: without the visual component, there’s little to latch onto. Minor gripes aside, I can’t think of a single artist of Waits’ stature that can compete in the realm of consistency. Granted, I haven’t heard every single album from seminal artists such as Miles Davis or, say, Beethoven. In my defense, playing Tom Waits albums and a few obscurities nonstop would only span a twenty-four hour period. Conversely, you could play the entirety of Beethoven’s compositions nonstop for nearly a week. (Should we check with Jack Spearing on that one?)

ANDREW: I’ve heard Night on Earth in passing, but I remember liking it. Or maybe all this talk has just got me thinking favorably. Okay, fine. I wouldn’t say I remember the album specifically off-hand, which I suppose is better than remembering it negatively. I typically pay very little mind to soundtracks anyway.

And hey, to even be mentioned in the same class as Miles Davis or Beethoven (what a weird parallel to draw up, by the way) says a lot. Actually, we’ve thrown around a lot of powerful names here, most of which I’d say are better known universally than Waits. Waits is obviously well-respected and all that, but it’s crazy to me how he still retains what feels like this sort of under the radar legend after all that he’s done.

MICHAEL: Well, Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame within the past year. The museum sports half a case dedicated to our favorite mad-hatter musician. Between that and the Grammys, I wouldn’t say he is overlooked by the musical community. The problem might be the disparity between critical opinion and public indifference. I don’t imagine there’s a large crossover of Tom Waits fans versus Rod Stewart and Don Henley fans due to their popular covers, either. Or maybe I’m only hoping there isn’t.

Bruce Springsteen covering “Jersey Girl” is a far better fit: both thematically concern themselves with the working class, and Waits takes this even further to include the homeless. In fact, one of the limited edition Seeds on Hard Ground chapbooks is in my possession, which raised money for a California service benefitting the homeless.

Waits might have said it best himself during the Rock Hall induction ceremony: “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with… like it’s a bad thing.”

ANDREW: I don’t know that the Grammys or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are great indicators of popularity necessarily, but I get what you’re saying. I just find myself taken aback fairly often with how few “regular” people know of who he is. To the casual music listener, it seems like he’s still a shadowy figure.

Oh, and Scarlett Johannson did a whole album of Waits covers. So, you know, there’s that.

MICHAEL: Incidentally, I was considering adding Johannson to the conversation. It would be interesting to know if anybody discovered Waits by way of the Dark Angel. While I can’t credit her for creating anything more than an average album, I will say her version of “Green Grass” did call greater attention to the original’s muddled lyrics. And it has since become a personal favorite in his cannon. If her contribution to music was limited to raising Waits-awareness, I’d give her a pass. But I’m not interested in that Pete Yorn collaboration. She should stick to singing karaoke with Bill Murray.

ANDREW: Ugh. That movie was torturous.

MICHAEL: Nonsense! Have we covered the bases on Mr. Waits, or will this discussion transform into an in-depth look at Bill Murray’s filmography? Because I can’t recall if I’ve even seen Stripes yet.

ANDREW: For your sanity and mine, we probably shouldn’t go there.

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Other Discussions:

The Velvet Underground

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