Showing posts with label tom waits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tom waits. Show all posts

Thursday, December 9, 2021



Tom Waits is one of the finest lyricists, colloquial without being bucolic,  reflective without self-pity, poetic without forcing a rhyme or an image. He succeeds where  other “storytellers”--Harry Chapin, Billy Joel--flounder. Where others abuse  tired qualifiers and moldy tropes that make their tales little more than cold soapy water, Waits had the instincts of a good short story writer, a John  Cheever, a Flannery O'Conner, a Nelson Algren. 

A character, a journey, a timeline, telling and terse details, just the right number of qualifiers, wisdom to not fill in all the spaces nor to betray his mood and artistry with a convenient “moral.” At his best, he conveys emotions of all sorts--rage, joy, sorrow, regret, celebration, lust--and allows the listener to experience them fully, with minimal manipulation. What has occurred during his many mini-sagas, for both the protagonist and listener, remains a mystery; the meaning and the lesson to be learned is deferred except, perhaps, to resonate in the interstices of one's own memories that the story isn't over yet. 

Joyous or at randomized saturation of despair, melancholy, or anger, one goes to work, to the next town, to the cemetery to respect, going on with what we're doing because that's what we do. Still, the sense, somehow, with all the pain, disappointments, and mundane travails that one is richer, wiser, or wizened, for all the acute sensations a memorable time awards us, That makes him an artist. A fine fellow.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Costello or Waits?

Image result for tom waitsElvis Costello had a brilliant run in the Seventies through the Eighties but started to take himself way too seriously. He strayed from his strong suits--subtle, hook-driven melodies, virtuoso wordplay, and real passion--and became as an artist a humorless prig. What was interesting, compelling melodies became an amorphous eclecticism that often times ersatz Broadway blockbuster than music that was genuinely felt. The lyrics, in turn, became convoluted, drunk on their cleverness and thesis-worthy punnage, laden with the serial heartache that traversed from song to song, obscurantism disguising his lack of a good idea to bring to the audience. In contrast, Tom Waits  has just gotten deeper, richer, stranger, more brilliant over the years--his music is a seamless mesh of styles--Brecht-Weil, delta blues , whore house jazz, world music, country, and the like--that consecutive listenings for me yield new surprises, things I didn't notice before, bits of interplay between elements that differ in origin but which come to compliment and commend each other. His lyrics, as well, is the work of a man who has grown in his aging, someone for whom experience has turned into that frail thing called "wisdom", and yet also realizes he hasn't the power to prevent others from making their own mistakes and becoming embroiled in their own tragedies and celebrations. There is a resigned irony in Waits' worldview. There is only a resume and curriculum vitae in what remains of Costello's. The songwriter increasingly reminded of many genuinely talented students in college who lost sight of his own ideas by trying to please every one of his professors and classmates: LOOK AT ME, I AM A MASTER OF ALL FORMS! At best this is mere professionalism; at worst it borders on nervous hackery. Waits had the benefit, I suppose, of having a small audience; he was allowed to go in directions he saw fit and seemed unconcerned with what others thought he should do. His instincts have proved sounder. Costello still writes solid songs when his best instincts are engaged, and he has done at least one album of superb songs and performances, 2002's "When I Was Cruel". This came out after he had released a series of indifferent albums, ie "The Juliet Letters", "Kojack Variety", " Mighty Like a Rose". But that was 11 years ago. Waits had the gift of being a genuine witness to the experience of others; it was his deft skill at not making the people in his stories heroic, iconic or otherwise an embodiment of a hackneyed liberal conceit that made his lyrics so arresting. This is what's meant by negative capability, I guess, the ability, through imagination, to transcend your own context and experience the sensations of others. His accomplishment was a rare one for a songwriter who chose to write about poor people and eccentrics; he could empathize while maintaining an aesthetic distance. It's that "distance", so to speak, that brings into the milieu.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tom Waits

Barry Alfonso and I interviewed Tom Waits in the lobby of the Little American Westgate back in the 70s; he was wearing a ratty bathrobe, slippers that curled up, Aladdin-like, where the toes would usually be, his hair was a mangy hedge, and he smoked an entire pack of Winston's while we chatted in the hotel's opulent lobby. He tore the filter off each cigarette and smoked them, one after the other. He was a nice man. I suspect he still is. Some years before then, 1970 I believe, my high school girlfriend Laura and I went along with our friend Molly who wanted to sing that night at the open mic night The Heritage folk club offered during its tenure in Mission Beach.

 It was a two dollar admission for the no age limit club, and I as scraped together the greasy dollar bills that constituted the saved up tip money from my dishwashing job at the La Jolla Shores Colony Kitchen, I looked up at the employee taking the money and issuing the hand stamps for re-admission; he wore a suit with skinny lapels that was too small for him--his pant legs stopped at the ankles and he wore black socks . He had short hair, wore a small hat with a brim that curled up like a cheap rain gutter. He had one of those soul-kiss beards right smack in the center above his chin. Molly signed the performers sign up list and in time we were sitting there drinking coffee that was barely a passable version of chalk shavings in a glass of old milk, sitting through one banjo and harmonica toting, goatee wearing straw-man and Madonna after another, all of whom seemed to nasally intone paeans to cultures they knew only from Classics Illustrated and the backs of bubble gum cards in various degrees of flesh-eating drone . "Mother of God, " said the Doorman.  Molly eventually got up and sang her song, a nice, pleasant cover of Melanie's song "Psychotherapy". All I wanted to do was to go over to Laura's house and ask her what she wanted to do, ball or send me on my way. 
Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, table and indoor
Left to right, Tom Waits, myself,  Barry Alfonso.

Years later, but not before our arrival at the Little American Westgate, I walked into Golden Hall in downtown San Diego expecting to see The Mothers of Invention perform their usual brilliant said of complex, tick tock comedy, the kind busy, bullshit art-rock and turgid comedy I found appealing at the time. What I heard instead was Frank Zappa introducing Tom Waits; what the goddamned fucking whorehouse nut grabbing was this nonsense was this? I hated him at once, intensely, with an irrational intensity suitable for a shooting range or the pronouncement of a death sentence. This is not what I paid to see, I thought, although I was well aware that the tickets were free because I was there in the capacity of a reviewer who was assigned to write a critique of the show.

 The review I wrote was kind to no one who performed, although I cannot remember if it was published or not. Likely that the editor had wearied of my airs and my aromas. In the meantime, I reviewed records for a partial living and managed to listen very, very close to several Waits releases and came to the reasonably argued conclusion that Waits was one of the three or four best pop-rock lyricists of all time. Waits was my second choice at the time, my first pick being Elvis Costello, whose impenetrable surrealism I equated with genius. I still regard EC has a high talent, but there is the advantage in having three decades between you and your first encounter; too many of the songs just made no sense whatsoever, and they lacked even the surface quality one wants if coherence is not to be had; to this day I really have no idea what John Ashbery is talking about, but there are several things he brings to the blend, such as wit, erudition, a tangible philosophical struggle with the notion of life as he lives it and the language he is forced to contain his experience of it. 

This process is fascinating even when clarity takes a holiday while you read him. The third lyricist was always changing--sometimes it was John Lennon, sometimes Bob Seger, other times Robert Palmer James (from King Crimson). The last time I compiled a list of three best lyricists, I settled for Keith Reid of Procul Harum for third place. I suspect he's gone too. Of them all, Waits is the only one I still care about.  I no longer have copies of those reviews , which pisses me off  if only because the pieces, exercises in my efforts to teach myself to write with style (and style being the means to insight and wit), contained ideas worth salvaging and expanding upon now that my age has caught  up, just a bit, with my youthful ambitions. In any event, this change of heart brought me and, at that time, my new friend Barry Alfonso to the lobby of the Little American Westgate to interview an artist who was doing what no one else could get away with. Barry Alfonso was a nice man at that time, I know he is still is. And his wife  Janet is very nice as well.