One from the heart The raspy ruins of Tom Waits's voice take us into the darker places of the American psyche
Simon Schama Saturday December 9, 2006 The Guardian
I'm getting on. No time for messing around with the likes of Prokofiev or Trollope any more. The artists I have most time for now are those who have pushed the boundaries most bravely and inventively; who have made their chosen genre into something unanticipated, and who have done it so completely that, in your delighted amazement, you just scratch your head and say: "Well, yeah, sure," as if it had been the most natural thing in the world. So I like what Thomas Carlyle did to historical writing, what Jackson Pollock did to painting, what Wallace Stevens did to poetry. It's not absurd to put Tom Waits, America's most eloquent poet-songwriter, in that company. Enough of Dylan already. Not that there's anything wrong with Dylan, but he's provoked volumes of heavyweight analytical bloviation second only to Freud, whereas people on both sides of the Atlantic have barely begun to give the singular Tom Waits his proper due.
Why should they? Because he has turned American music into the speech-song of ordinary men and women caught in that murky bad-smelling alleyway between the juvenile rhetoric of the "American dream" and the unforgiving adult reality of contemporary life. You want the most heartbreakingly truthful, poignantly dismaying utterance on the predicament of the regular American Joe, caught in a war he can't fathom, but from which he can't honourably escape? Try Waits's "The Day After Tomorrow" from Real Gone, where he drawls and growls his way through the unbearable lyrics with the raspy ruins of a voice that is itself like a building shattered by shellfire and coated with befouled sand. That voice, the organ of a much bigger man than the slight, gaunt, delicately clownish figure (one of his CDs features him in pierrot-face - this is someone who knows exactly what he's doing), is one of the great sound instruments of American art. Other very clever songwriters - Dylan, the Canadian Leonard Cohen - have also dramatised their laryngial damage in keeping with the sharpness of their lyrics. In the opposite direction, Neil Young's falsetto wail has become more painful as he has got more desperately urgent. But none of them has, over the years, thought about how they can make their voice into a sound portrait of a country as intelligently as Waits - and then gone and done it. He is imperial America's Kurt Weill (and, for a while, he studied Weill a bit too strenuously), imitating the jangly percussive fury of Weill's most abrasive songs.
But the comparison undersells Waits's originality, for there's something almost Shakespearean about the breadth of Tom Waits's take on modern American life, his astounding capacity to get into the heads and lungs of, inter alia: barflies, hookers, junkies, fairground barkers and burlesque crooners; veteran soldiers with shrapnel-freckled limbs, reduced to selling their tin stars on the sidewalk; Pentecostal thunderers roaring doom; washed-up baseball stars wasted by booze; psychos on a short fuse; woeful optimists losing it in the marinade of their martinis; and, in one improbable case, a dead man singing sweetly from six feet under, asking his lover to come sit on his grassy grave. Only Tom Waits could make an entire song out of a running string of infomercials ("Step Right Up") and somehow turn the list into an exhaustive, funny documentary on American credulousness and American cunning: "The large print giveth / And the small print taketh away".
And this is just a short list of his many incarnations. When you dive into Waits's world you're not, it's true, taking off for la-la lullaby land; you're landed in a greasy-spoon diner as the ashy dawn comes up over the trash-strewn car lot. In an intro to "Eggs and Sausage" in a live performance in 1975, he warns of veal cutlets so "dangerous they leave the counter to beat the shit out of the coffee that's too weak to defend itself".
But though he's vinegar in the wounds of American pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, there's also plenty of tender passion bowling through the songs. "Ol' 55", one of his earliest songs from his debut 1973 album Closing Time, is an ode to joy from emerging at 6am from a night of love ("My time went so quickly / I went lickety-splitly out to my ol' 55 / and I pulled away slowly, feeling so holy/ God knows I was feeling alive"). It is the single most beautiful love song since Gershwin and Cole Porter shut their piano lids.
Usually though, Waits's love lyrics sting with salty disenchantment, and are all the more touching for it. "Never Talk to Strangers" is a barstool duet with Bette Midler where the sad-sack's predictable routine ("I'm not a bad guy when you get to know me") gets pre-empted by her wise-ass knowledge of all his lines, even as they both fall for them all over again.
I came late to the troubadour of strip-mall ruin. A BBC director, adapting my book Landscape and Memory for television, set Waits's performance of Phil Phillips's "Sea of Love" over archive images of floods in Venice. In place of the honey-drip croon was a feral roar turning the tone of the song inside out. (He does an even more astounding makeover on "Somewhere" from West Side Story, so that you feel the utter hopelessness of adolescent grief in your bones.) I'd never heard anything like it. Who the hell was that, I asked the director. I've been hooked on Waits ever since. How could you not be hooked on a writer who comes up with a line like "her hair spilled like root beer", and have you know just what he means?
Waitsomania is not a comfy addiction. His journey from the 1970s, when he was just another guitar-picking songwriter from the midwest marrying up country and blues to his cornhusk voice, has seen him travel to ever deeper and darker places in the American psyche. While Dylan was lay lady laying, Waits was trying on tawdry, as he sang, ever so politely, "I'm Your Late Night Evening Prostitute". From there he descended all too predictably into the usual sump of booze and dope, eventually climbing out of it with the help of his partner-writer and co-producer Kathleen Brennan, who has been responsible for some of Waits's more brilliantly raw productions.
No one can touch him for evoking every kind of music, from carousel pump organ to lounge saxophone to Berlin cabaret, Italian bel canto, and lately African and Latin sounds. Sometimes he can push his furious refusal of songster-ingratiation to the edge of self-parody, so that the primal screams, grunts, howls backed by lid clanging and stock-banging percussion just collapse into a deep ditch of vocal rage. Listening to them is like chewing on barbed wire. And yet somewhere, in the middle of all the vocal carnage is the heavily soiled innocence of someone who still reckons the good life can, after all, be just around the corner. The kid soldier, writing home to Illinois, weary with precocious, bloodily earned knowledge, sings:
I'm not fighting For freedom I'm fighting for my life And another day In the world here I just do what I'm told You're just the gravel on the road And the ones that are lucky Come home On the day after tomorrow ...
· Tom Waits's box set Orphans is out now on Anti.