In the frankly highly crowded field of singer/songwriters it’s hard to stand out. Even if you do come up with something original you can be sure that a mass of imitators will be hot on your trail. Unless of course you do something so odd and outlandish, so singular in its conception that you leave any potential copycats scratching their heads.
Step forward the one and only Tom Waits, a man whose voice was once described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding “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.”
Imagine that accompanied by an accordion, a waterphone or a bassoon or preferably all three to get a clearer picture of a Tom Waits song.
Sound unpleasant? Oh how wrong you are.
Waits can tackle musical genres as diverse as sea shanties and ballads and turn them into something strangely beautiful.
Take the conceit of his song ‘Poor Edward’ on the album ‘Alice’. It concerns a man who has an extra face of a young woman on the back of his head
They said to remove it would kill him
So poor Edward was doomed
The face could laugh and cry
It was his devil twin
And at night she spoke to him
Of things heard only in hell
Disturbing but when heard sung by Waits, tragic, touching and most importantly believable. This is a unique world, a parallel universe peopled by a gallery of freaks and unfortunates and if one happens to have two faces that seems right somehow when Waits is singing about it. I don’t think Neil Young could pull that off.
In ‘Singapore’ the opening song to the album Rain Dogs we learn that
The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He’s throwing dice along the wharf
That pretty much sets the mood for the rest of the album but once situated in this universe we accept it’s oddities to such a degree that by the time the album closes with the beautiful balled ‘Time’, we are sad to see it pass.
We can be moved by what happens to the ‘calendar girls’ and ‘shadow boys’ of the song
And they all pretend they’re Orphans
And their memory is like a train
You can see it getting smaller
As it pulls away
Of course it’s not all heartbreak and loss. On his last album ‘Bad as me’ Waits calls us out on our inherent badness which matches his own
I’m the mattress in the back
I’m the old gunnysack
I’m the one with the gun
Most likely to run
I’m the car in the weeds
If you cut me I’ll bleed
You’re the same kind of bad as me
The song is done with such panache and humor I’m gladly open to admitting that he’s probably correct.
Like Dylan, Waits has created a character through which to deliver the messages from his world, one that on the face of it shouldn’t work at all but does.
Perhaps the best lesson to learn from his long artistic journey is that whatever your medium, pushing yourself into those areas that leave you most uncomfortable and vulnerable will in the end yield that which is truly original. It would be easy for Waits to continue as he first started in the early seventies as a more standard issue bar room balladeer. The fact that he didn’t leaves us with a body of work that outside that of Dylan, is unparalleled in modern music.