Street Cabaret of the Downtrodden and Forgotten
Tom Waits is the American poet of lost causes. The people in his songs are forever coming up just short, mocked by fate and taunted by all sorts of unseen cosmic troubles. His unsavory sailors, stubble-bearded drifters, and grumbling Bowery bums are usually involved in roguish activity—Rain Dogs, his despairing Leaves of Grass, opens with the barked declaration "We sail tonight for Singapore." Waits follows along as the ragtag crew blunders into momentous doomed events. The cast of characters changes from song to song, but all of them seem to get caught up in similarly sordid and desperate schemes, and Waits tells their stories with the fond bemusement of a distant relative. He watches as they get one last shot, when they put all the chips on the table. And being the sympathetic sort, he stands dutifully by when things don't work out, serenading them as they turn tail and head for home.
Waits has been staging this sort of street cabaret for decades, since the rambling poetics of his debut, Closing Time (1973), and the more campy maneuvers of Swordfishtrombones (1983). Rain Dogs is the most elaborate, and the most musically varied, of his works. It's also the basic template for much of what he's done since.
A sprawling suite that hides considerable musical ambitions behind spectacularly disheveled sounds, Rain Dogs serves up greasy lowlife America, scrambled. It features the gravel-voiced singer and songwriter fronting a restless postmodern parade band of clip-clopping mallet instruments and wayward guitars; at times this group inspires him to croon like a plastered Louis Armstrong wannabe. Among the nineteen uniformly stunning tracks are a brisk rum boogie ("Jockey Full of Bourbon"), a concise pop anthem ("Hang Down Your Head"), a fantastical update of jive swing ("Walking Spanish"), a dusty country song that sounds like a zillion-year-old standard ("Blind Love"), an absurd tarantella ("Tango till They're Sore"), and a wobbly swagger ("Big Black Mariah") that turns typical blues imagery sideways.
By the time this incredible journey ends, everything is sideways. The down and out becomes opulent, kissed with a romance of the nocturnal that makes the tidy, orderly daytime world seem hollow. It's almost a magic trick, this transformation, because it has less to do with the assimilation of musical styles than Waits's ability to pull enduring truths from the clutter. Drink long enough at his table, and you too might begin to see these sad-sack characters as heroes.
Released: 1985, Island
Key Tracks: "Clap Hands," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," "Big Black Mariah," "Downtown Train," "Blind Love"
Catalog Choice: Closing Time; Foreign Affairs; Nighthawks at the Diner
Next Stop: Randy Newman: Good Old Boys
After That: John Cale: Vintage Violence
Book Page: 842
#1 from Rob Ardura, Richmond, Va - 07/02/2012 8:38
Tom Waits is awesome. I can’t really think of another word for him.