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Friday, December 6, 2013

Thunderbird With a Sterno Chaser: Tom Waits, the Barking Crooner





I love Bob Dylan. It always amazes me when I hear popular music lovers complain about Dylan and his music -- most complain not about his songs, but about his voice. My musical preferences do not require vocal perfection. Usually, I am drawn to the music first; then, I listen for the lyrics and the vocal interpretation of the song.

To me, music without some "roughness of surface" is dull in authenticity. Dylan may be the reliable master of controlled nodular delivery. His distinctive vocals have been described by many critics.  The New York Times John Pareles said it was " ... avuncular, the wry cackle of a codger who still has an eye for the ladies. [...] a raspy, phlegmy bark that’s not exactly melodic and by no means welcoming."

Still, Bob Dylan's tonality in all its many "raspy" forms over the last 60 years remains "honey" to my tastes. Dylan's voice is the voice of a generation and more. In his review of Dylan's powerful album Blood on the Tracks, Gregg Lipkin explains:

"Bob Dylan is much more than that...He is the voice of his generation, at every point of his generation’s timeline. He gave voice to rebellious youth, and young love. As he and his listener’s aged, he gave them Blood on the Tracks, a masterpiece of the love, lost idealism and resignation, an album that served as a guarantee that Bob Dylan would always, in spite of himself, give voice to the emotions his generation couldn’t quite put into words."

(Gregg Lipkin. "Bob Dylan, The Voice." popmatters.com. April, 2010)

To me, a "pretty," in its delicate or perfect connotations, doesn't define a great recording voice. Pleasant and elegant tones do not necessarily spell a-r-t-i-s-t-r-y. In fact, the opposite may be true.

What about someone with an even more gravelly, primitive delivery whom most have never considered? This artist is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a multiple Grammy winner, a movie star, and an Academy Award nominee. And, remarkably, he has never produced a hit, but he earned a cult following all over the world despite having little radio or music video support. VH1 declared him “one of the most influential artists of all time."

One music critic, Daniel Durchholz, said this artist's voice as sounds "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car."

This would be Tom Waits. Waits musical styles include blues, jazz, and unique experimental tendencies. Some say Waits writes songs mainly about desperate, low-life characters. But he has also shown a penchant for more conventional ballads. I prefer to say he has an uncanny ability to reveal the raw emotions and simple themes of life.

Tom Waits has influenced scores of subsequent songwriters. His songs are best-known through cover versions by more commercial artists: "Jersey Girl" by Bruce Springsteen, "Ol' 55" by the Eagles, "Downtown Train" by Rod Stewart to name a few.

Here is the descriptive opening of the introduction of Tom Waits from his induction in 2011 to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

"Tom Waits is a gruff-voiced, big-hearted singer/pianist who is to songwriting what Charles Bukowski is to poetry, Jack Kerouac is to prose and Edward Hopper is to painting. A true original, Waits’ specializes in story-songs about all kinds of beautiful losers: nighthawks, boozers, grifters, drifters, dreamers, con men and other flotsam from the underbelly of American life. A canny street poet, he sings in a gravelly voice shaped early in his career by a predilection for unfiltered cigarettes and strong drinks. He’s given up drinking but the growl remains – sturdy, impassioned, hard-bitten, one-of-a-kind."
Tom Waits is a gruff-voiced, big-hearted singer/pianist who is to songwriting what Charles Bukowski is to poetry, Jack Kerouac is to prose and Edward Hopper is to painting. A true original, Waits’ specializes in story-songs about all kinds of beautiful losers: nighthawks, boozers, grifters, drifters, dreamers, con men and other flotsam from the underbelly of American life. A canny street poet, he sings in a gravelly voice shaped early in his career by a predilection for unfiltered cigarettes and strong drinks. He’s given up drinking but the growl remains – sturdy, impassioned, hard-bitten, one-of-a-kind.
- See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/tom-waits/bio/#sthash.3IPFauQ6.dpuf
Tom Waits is a gruff-voiced, big-hearted singer/pianist who is to songwriting what Charles Bukowski is to poetry, Jack Kerouac is to prose and Edward Hopper is to painting. A true original, Waits’ specializes in story-songs about all kinds of beautiful losers: nighthawks, boozers, grifters, drifters, dreamers, con men and other flotsam from the underbelly of American life. A canny street poet, he sings in a gravelly voice shaped early in his career by a predilection for unfiltered cigarettes and strong drinks. He’s given up drinking but the growl remains – sturdy, impassioned, hard-bitten, one-of-a-kind.
- See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/tom-waits/bio/#sthash.3IPFauQ6.dpuf
Waits dropped out of high school to work at a pizza joint. His adolescent love of hitchhiking around the Southwest gave him a ground-level appreciation for cars, Americana and the native landscape. Fortified by Beat Generation literature, he would bring these interests to life in his songwriting. - See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/tom-waits/bio/#sthash.3IPFauQ6.dpuf

"On the musical side, Waits mosaic of influences includes such source material as Chicago and Delta blues, German cabaret, parlor ballads, waltzes and polkas, beat poetry and pulp fiction, vaudeville, roadhouse rock, Rat Pack shtick and the avant-garde. He once described his approach to song construction as follows, claiming he was not kidding: "It's like gluing macaroni to a piece of cardboard and painting it gold, really."

On the musical side, Wait’s mosaic of influences includes such source material as Chicago and Delta blues, German cabaret, parlor ballads, waltzes and polkas, beat poetry and pulp fiction, vaudeville, roadhouse rock, Rat Pack shtick and the avant-garde. He once described his approach to song construction as follows, claiming he was not kidding: "It's like gluing macaroni to a piece of cardboard and painting it gold, really." In a sense this is true since Waits, as one of America’s greatest living songwriters, takes the stuff of ordinary life and burnishes it into something with an odd kind of beauty.
- See more at: http://rockhall.com/inductees/tom-waits/bio/#sthash.wJEm9hZX.dpuf
("Tom Waits." Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. http://rockhall.com/inductees/tom-waits/bio/)

If this description sounds mixed up, you just haven't experienced Tom Waits. His music and his personality defy simple description. So, if you are looking for smooth vocals and delightful, whimsical music, save yourself the trouble and "forget about it."

However, if you are looking for an uncommon musical artist who will make you reconsider your vanilla tastes, please listen and view Mr. Waits. Do so over a long period of time because Tom will likely grow on you like any good acquired taste -- or you may think you are listening to a wino who just chugged Thunderbird with a sterno chaser. Either way, Tom would probably appreciate your review.



 Who Is Tom Waits?

Tom Waits has been the subject of mounds of myth. Let me attempt to get at some truths.

In true Tom Waits fashion, he claims he was “conceived one night in April 1949 at the Crossroads Motel in La Verne [Los Angeles], amid the broken bottle of Four Roses, the smouldering Lucky Strike, half a tuna sandwich, and the old Spice across the railroad tracks…” But, don't get the wrong impression about his parents.

Tom Waits, the son of two schoolteachers, was born in Pomona, California, on December 7, 1949. His mother Alma was described as "a tidy, churchgoing woman," and his father Jesse Frank taught Spanish in local schools, but was said to also be "a heavy boozer, wanderer and lover of sentimental old Mexican songs."

(Barney Hoskyns. Lowside Of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits. 2009)

When Tom was 10 years old, Jesse Frank left home or, according to Tom, “removed himself – he was the bad tooth in the smile, and he kind of pulled himself out."

After his parents divorced in 1960, he lived with his mother in Whittier, later moving to National City in San Diego County. Waits claims he found his love of music while listening to the car radio during trips to Mexico with his father. Early in live he was a huge Bob Dylan fan.who tacked up sheets of Dylan's lyrics all over his house. He taught himself to play piano on a neighbor's instrument and then learned the guitar on a Gibson.

The persona that Tom is famous for soon appeared. He enjoyed entertaining his classmates and his teachers as soon as he entered secondary school. An art class teacher would let him play his harmonica for the class and sometimes he would be asked to get up on the tables and do his version of a "soft shoe."

Waits dropped out of high school to work at a pizza joint. His adolescent love of hitchhiking around the Southwest gave him a ground-level appreciation for cars, Americana and the native landscape. Fortified by Beat Generation literature, he would bring these interests to life in his songwriting.

David C. Barnett, reporter for National Public Radio said, "He wanted to tell the stories that never got told, and to do it in the improvisational cadence of his literary hero, Jack Kerouac."

("Tom Waits." Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. http://rockhall.com/inductees/tom-waits/bio/)




Waits lived in seedy motels for much of the 60s (No doubt gathering material for many songs.) He later admitted that he was not a fan of the 1960s music scene, stating, "I wasn't thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it was Bing Crosby."

In an interview for Public Radio, Waits confesses:

"I didn't really identify with the music of my own generation, but I was very curious about the music of others. And I think I responded to the song forms themselves, you know; cakewalks and waltzes and barcaroles and parlor songs and all that stuff, I think — which is just really nothing more than Jell-O molds for music, you know. But I seemed to like the old stuff: Cole Porter and, you know ... Gershwin and all that stuff. I like melody."


("Tom Waits: A Raspy Voice Heads To The Hall Of Fame." 
National Public Radio. March 04, 2011)

He once worked as a doorman at the Heritage nightclub in San Diego -- where artists of every genre performed—when he did his first paid gig for $6.

 (Mac Montandon, "Timeline and Discography." Innocent When You Dream. 2007)

In 1969, Waits made his initial impact at L.A.'s Troubadour club, where up-and-coming musicians would line up all day for the opportunity to perform on stage on Monday nights. Working solo, he merged humorous and rambling raps with his own tunes, singing with jazz improviser's savvy.

At the age of 21, Waits signed with Herb Cohen, and from August to December 1971, Waits made a series of demo recordings for Cohen's Bizarre/Straight label. (Later released as The Early Years, Volume One and Volume Two.

In 1971, Waits moved to the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. (at the time, also home to musicians Glenn Frey, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, and Frank Zappa). Waits had little in common with the denim-clad denizens of the rolling hills west of Los Angeles. Waits -- fresh out of the Coast Guard -- was trying to sell himself as a James Taylor-style folk rocker. That less-than-harmonious voice of his wasn't working very well in that genre.

But, Waits found a sympathetic ear in record producer Dayton "Bones" Howe, who'd had a hand in a 1960 album of Kerouac readings. He worked with Bones Howe over the course of seven albums as Waits painted a series of city scenes -- everything from melodramas to the ruminations of an inebriated lounge pianist. But Howe says that, over time, the singer started to identify a little too closely with his characters.

"Tom was always drinking," Howe says, "and he drank pretty heavily. It was what he was and what he was doing, and he didn't want to be interfered with." Howe gives credit to his future wife, Kathleen Brennan, for helping get him sober. But, according to Howe, that persona of the "disheveled outsider" persisted -- it was Waits' sonic identity that changed.

"The person that I saw changed every year," Howe says. "His philosophy was, if I keep being a moving target, I can't get hit. He never wanted to be the same again in any way."

(David C. Barnett. "Tom Waits: How The Skid Row Balladeer Found His Voice." 
National Public Radio. March 01, 2011)

Waits signed to Asylum Records in 1972, and after numerous abortive recording sessions, his first record, Closing Time, was released in 1973. More exposure came when Tim Buckley covered his song "Martha" in '73 and when the Eagles recorded his "Ol' 55" on their On the Border album of '74.

In addition, Waits began touring and opening for such artists as Charlie Rich, Martha and the Vandellas, Billy Preston, and Frank Zappa. He received increasing critical acclaim and began to gather his loyal cult following with his subsequent albums

In 1975, Waits moved to the Tropicana -- a monument to faded glory in West Hollywood -- as his favorite haunt. He even had a piano installed in the kitchen. His art and life seemed intertwined, as he evidently shared more than empathy with the characters he sang about. By this time, Waits was drinking heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll. Waits, looking back at the period, has said, "I was sick through that whole period ... It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot — too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable."

And, Waits preferred a messy "lifestyle" at the time described by biographer Barney Hoskyns as "ankle-deep in albums and ashtrays, books and beer cans." One friend claimed to have opened the fridge and found only “a claw hammer, a small jar of artichoke hearts, an old parking ticket and a can of roof cement." When Waits went on the road with Ry Cooder around this time, Cooder was astonished to note that, while the rest of the band stayed in decent hotels, Waits insisted on staying only in "flophouse hotels."

(Barney Hoskyns. Lowside Of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits. 2009)
and
(David McGee. "Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp," in Montandon)

With the release of the album Small Change in 1976, Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."

 (David McGee. "Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp," in Montandon)

By the time he reached 30, the method approach had taken its toll and Waits was on the way to being an alcoholic himself. "Drinking and smoking and staying out all night long ... it wasn't good for me," Waits said. "I knew that I wanted to change but I didn't really know how to do it."

About this time, Waits had a year-long love affair with recording artist Rickie Lee Jones.

Waits continued to record -- Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), Heartattack and Vine (1980) -- and tour. He gained acclaim as he was featured in articles in Time, Newsweek, and Vogue. He also began a long working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who asked Waits to provide music for his film One from the Heart.

Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter whom he had met while working on the set of the film, soon caught Tom's eye and they began a relationship. Waits has stated that "She can lie down on nails, stick a knitting needle through her lip and still drink coffeee, so I knew she was the girl for me." Brennan was soon to become Tom Waits' stimulus for change.

Tom and Kathleen

Tom and Kathleen were married in August 1980 and honeymooned in Tralee, Co. Kerry. When Patrick Humphries asked Tom Waits about the marriage ceremony, he said: "I found 'Marriage Chapel' in the Yellow Pages, right next to 'Massage.' The registrar's name was Watermelon and he kept calling me Mr. Watts!"

As well as becoming Tom's wife and the mother of his three children, Kathleen became a major force and collaborator in his music as well. She took control of his business affairs, became his co-songwriter and co-producer and persuaded him to stop drinking. She became the key to the singer's stylistic shift, encouraging the unorthodox at every turn. Tom memorialize his love for her in songs like "Johnsburg, Illinois" (her birth place).

One from the Heart received its official theatrical release in 1982, with Waits appearing in a cameo as a trumpet player as well as receiving an Oscar nomination for Original Song Score (eventually losing out to Victor Victoria by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse.  

Tom Waits appearing in cameos in Coppola's movies The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1984). Waits also contributed two songs to the documentary Streetwise (1984) "Rat's Theme" and "Take Care of All My Children."

After leaving Asylum for Island Records, Waits  released Swordfishtrombones  in 1983, a record that marked a sharp turn in his musical direction. While Waits had before played either piano or guitar, he now gravitated towards less common instruments, saying, "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."

Waits's new emphasis on experimenting with various styles and instrumentation continued on 1985's Rain Dogs, a sprawling, 19-song collection which received glowing reviews (the album was ranked #21 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s.

Waits continued to appear in movie acting roles: among the roles were a disabled veteran in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, the lunatic Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, "The Engineer" in The Book of Eli, an Rudy the Kraut in Ironweed. He has also appeared in Queens Logic and At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

In addition to acting in films, Waits has done considerable work in theater.. For example, in 1986 he appeared in Down by Law and made his theatrical debut with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in Frank's Wild Years, a musical play he had written with his wife Kathleen Brennan. In fact, he is now (2013) working on a new stage musical with director and long-time collaborator Robert Wilson and playwright Martin McDonagh.

In early 2011, Tom Waits completed a set of 23 poems entitled Seeds on Hard Ground, which were inspired by Michael O'Brien's portraits of the homeless in his upcoming book, Hard Ground, which will include the poems alongside the portraits. In anticipation of the book release, Waits and ANTI- printed limited edition chapbooks of the poems to raise money for Redwood Empire Food Bank, a homeless referral and family support service in Sonoma County, California. As of January 26, 2011, four editions, each limited to a thousand copies costing $24.99 each, sold out, raising $90,000 for the food bank.

(Click here for Tom Waits Website: http://www.tomwaits.com/news/archive/201101/ )




And, of course, Tom Waits keeps writing songs, playing music, and recording. Here is a partial list of his work since 1993:

Albums

* The Black Rider, 1993

* Mule Variations, 1999

* Blood Money, 2002

* Alice, 2002

* Real Gone, 2004

* Bad As Me, 2011

Soundtracks

* Night on Earth, 1992

Live Albums

* Big Time, 1998

* Glitter and Doom Live, 2009

In a self-interview conducted to publicize his Alice and Blood Money releases in 2002, Waits offered this as his idea of heaven an earth: “Me and my wife on Route 66 with a pot of coffee, a cheap guitar, pawnshop tape recorder in a Motel 6, and a car that runs good parked right by the door.”

Here are some popular covers of Tom Waits' songs:

Eagles and Sarah MacLachlan (“Ol’ 55”), Ramones (“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”), Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”), Tim Buckley (“Martha”), Johnny Cash (“Down There by the Train”), Bob Seger (“16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”), T-Bone Burnett and Tori Amos (“Time”), Steve Earle (“Way Down In the Hole”), Norah Jones (“Long Way Home”), Elvis Costello (“Innocent When You Dream”), the Pogues (“Tom Traubert’s Blues”), and Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”).

A few tidbits of Waitsology

Tom uses a large collection of electric megaphones to create unusual tonal effects on his recordings. One of his favorites is a 1944 vintage issued by the US Navy Bureau of Ships, manufactured by Guided Radio Corp. of New York.

He often shops at hardware stores for items to be used as percussion instruments

He has said that Bob Dylan is his favorite songwriter and his main influence for initially getting into music, but he once claimed his favorite album of all time is In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra. He contributes his shift to more experimental, eccentric music starting with the album "Swordfishtrombones" to the influence of Don Van Vliet.

Tom is a good friend of Keith Richards, who makes frequent appearances as a guitarist on his records. Tom recorded on the Stones' version of the "Harlem Shuffle."

Tom's wife Kathleen puts Tom's songwriting genre in two categories as “the grand weeper” and “the grim reaper" -- an appropriate dichotomy of contradiction.

Barney Hoskyns' unauthorized biography, Lowside Of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits, was published in 2009.

For all his bravado and showmanship on stage, Waits has always preferred the peace behind closed doors. He essentially has built an Iron Curtain around his personal life. Helen Brown in a book review of  Lowside Of the Road in The Telegraph (2009) said, "Sure, he’ll meet the media. He’ll go on the Late Show with David Letterman to crack jokes, spin yarns and play up to his oddball persona when he’s got an album to sell. But when biographers such as Barney Hoskyns start sniffing around for “the real Tom”, they’ll find door after door closed firmly in their faces."
Two of my favorite quotes by Tom Waits:

"Commercials are an unnatural use of my work ... it's like having a cow's udder 
sewn to the side of my face. Painful and humiliating."

"I would rather be a failure on my own terms than a success on someone else's."




My View

You may call Tom Waits one of the last beatniks of the contemporary music. The New York Times once described Waits as "the poet of outcasts." It true that he sings like a psychotic carnival barker or a drunken lounge crooner, but like Will Hermes of NPR said, "Waits' voice is an exaggeration full of truth. He's a singer of blues sentiment like Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Howlin' Wolf or Radiohead 's Thom Yorke."

(Will Hermes, "Tom Waits: A Desperate Voice For Desperate Times."  
National Public Radio. October 26, 2011)

Give Tom Waits a listen. I believe you will appreciate his artistry. The voice echoes his life and his myth -- what you hear is what you get. Waits claims, "I bark my voice out through a closed throat, pretty much. It's more, perhaps, like a dog in some ways. It does have its limitations, but I'm learning different ways to keep it alive."

Take on the songs for the lyrics and the inventive sounds. Give variety a fair chance and enjoy Waits' interesting cast of characters.

"I think most singers, when they start out, are doing really bad impersonations of other singers that they admire. ... 
You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice
 is out there, waiting for you to grow up."

--Tom Waits
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