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Razors and Dread: The Best Songs of Tom Waits

Musician Tom Waits was born in 1949. His voice is best described as a mix of gravel, spiders, and a steam-powered furnace. He is an acquired taste, but the way he celebrates misery will never be replicated by any other singer in all of creation. To call him a Jazz Musician would be a disservice to his sound; he is Vaudevillian, he is the sounds of a dying frog, he is as soft in his tone as a lover you’ve known for years and as rough in his ravings as a coal miner suffering from Black Lung. Nowadays, Mr. Waits does not do live Tours, (give the man a break, he’s in his 70s) leaving us only with his back catalog and memories. So, in the interest of indulgence, let us go, you and I, on a small journey through the best songs of Tom Waits.

Photo courtesy of Brendan Mruk

"Jockey Full of Bourbon" - Rain Dogs (1985)

I have and will likely always maintain that Waits was at his best in the 80s, and this song shows that perfectly. The track encapsulates everything that makes the Rain Dogs album great. It's got that Rain Dogs sound, a story about a man making foolish decisions late at night (what more does one need?), Michael Blair on drums, and the tambour and drive needed to fuel Waits’ nonsense lyrics: “Hey little bird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are alone.”

"Tango Till They’re Sore" - Rain Dogs (1985)

“The piano has been drinking! Not me!” This is the very first thing I think of when "Tango Till They're Sore" starts playing. Seriously, check it out–the piano sounds drunk. I’m not confident about whether this was an intentional choice or just a happy byproduct of the way he plays it, but the slightly off-key piano makes for a perfect intro to the song, which appears to be about a drunk man trying to explain to his fellow patrons how he envisions his funeral. This explanation, however, is a fool’s errand, as the lyrics are erratic and borderline unintelligible.

Just like when you're speaking to a drunk, you can tell that what he’s describing reflects his genuine feelings, but he’s too inebriated to adequately express what he wants. He continues to shout at anyone who will listen until everything slowly fades away...only to start the whole dance again the next night. This is the conundrum of the drunk; they sit in their stools, watching old and new faces, trying desperately to be understood by anyone, but when all the other barflies are gone and the young faces turn old and bitter, they are left alone to sit and wonder at their great misfortune. One day they embrace their loneliness and live as the fool seen by everyone else, hoping only that they, “fall out of the window with confetti in their hair, as Waits puts it, and are eventually sent off to bed, forevermore.

"God's Away On Business" - Blood Money (2002)

The entire Blood Money album acts as an analysis of Christian morality. "God's Away On Business", however, may be the strongest overt criticism of the topic. In Christianity, God acts as an all-powerful, and all-moral figure. The song takes that thought and explicitly states that, “God's away”. The suggestion, of course, being that evil exists in places and does specific things, but that God is not there overseeing it. Mr. Waits does not state whether he believes that God is real or false. He does, however, opine that tremendous suffering occurs in the world and questions God's presence during those moments. The opening line of the song, “I’d sell your heart to a junk man, baby for a buck“, is a hypothetical situation, the likes of which appear in many Tom Waits songs.

Hypothetical situations encourage empathy in listeners, pushing them to see and relate to the situation. It sounds to me like a man delivers that line to a woman or partner, later explaining his apathy to her situation by saying, “if you’re looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch, you’re out of luck”. He reiterates, “I’m not going to do it (help you), and neither is anyone else because God is away”. It reads like a psychodrama, invented from the mind of a man questioning God's reality. In understanding his music, Tom Waits the man is just as important as Tom Waits the musician. The song is about people who are unwilling or unable to make personal recompense for the sins they commit. They refuse to admit that they engineer the pain in the world, so they blame their dark deeds on the hypothetical absence of God.

"Heartattack And Vine" - Heartattack And Vine (1980)

"Heartattack And Vine" is, without question, the seminal dive bar song. Every single bar from Vegas to Boston has this tune on its playlist. From the moment the guitar kicks in, listeners are immediately transported to wet parking lots, old stools, and rust that’s corroding walls and pipes...breaking down the bar itself, poisoning its heart, and breaking down where it lives. Yet, these buildings stay standing and remain a refuge for the drunk. The guitar sounds like it’s being picked by a razor, and Tom’s voice compliments that perfectly: the slobbering musings of a drunk musician. The song gets its name from the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Road in, you guessed it, Hollywood, Los Angeles.

This intersection was once quite prosperous, being the central point of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the 50s. Beginning in the 60s, however, the intersection was overtaken by squatters and panhandlers, which caused Studios and Broadcasters to move to more upscale areas in Los Angeles. "Heartattack And Vine" details the state of the intersection during this period. Seriously, look up pictures of that area in the 60s. Squatters occupied not only the streets, but they also took refuge in the stores and abandoned restaurants. Waits' song is a celebration of the squatter, a romanization of the panhandler. Even in abandoned stores, forgotten street corners, and broken roads, there can be something beautiful. Typhoid and swans, they come from the same place.

"Martha" - Closing Time (remastered 1973)

"Martha" recounts the memories of young love. It opens with a man calling an ex-girlfriend, “Martha”, and asking her if she remembers their youthful connection. Through the song, listeners learn that both Martha and the man (Tom) have grown up and married other people, with Martha having her own children. In my opinion, it’s a beautiful sentiment. Waits never diminishes the love that both adults share with their current partners, but he relishes the type of love only existing in one's 20s. “All I had was you, and all you had was me”... That’s what love is when you’re young. It’s just each other. Nothing else matters because the real world hasn’t hit yet. That type of love sticks with you and Mr. Waits has beautifully encapsulated that feeling in the minimalistic "Martha". The track consists of a couple of piano notes, a few strings in the background, and Tom’s haunting voice. This isn’t the guttural growl that he normally showcases in his music, it's a pained voice talking to a woman he remembers 40 years later.

"Hell Broke Luce" - Bad as Me (2011)

That’s not a typo, the name “Luce” is a play on words for this entry. Bear with me and you’ll see what I mean. "Hell Broke Luce" is an anti-war song. It’s also grating and boisterous, settling into your bones and making you grit your teeth to stop fear from taking over. Fundamentally, the tune retells the military career of a soldier named “Luce” and critiques the fetishization of the American military. This is not your mother's or your grandfather's military hymn. It's a grainy look at the impacts of war on people. Hell didn’t break loose, but after battle, hell certainly broke Luce. It left him stuck at home, blind, and (you guessed it) broken. Tom Waits has always been able to take a small word like "broken" and turn it into an umbrella term for a plethora of emotions. "Hell Broke Luce" feeds you with rage: rage against war, rage against the society that fetishizes war, and rage against the machine that drives it.

"Sea Of Love" - Cover of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" (1989)

When Phil Phillips performed this song, it was a standard 60s love song. His version sounds like the Jersey Boys and is built for a night at the picture show and soda fountain driving in your friend Billy's new Ford Mustang. What I'm saying is that it sounds old. Tom Waits' version doesn’t celebrate love. Rather, it feels more like, to him, love is a terrifying and exhausting ordeal, promising only that you'll drown. “Come with me, to the sea”; when asked by Mr. Waits, this does not promise a fun walk by the beach, it ensures a horrid and dreadful affair to which, for whatever reason, you can’t quite turn down. That being said, don’t play it on any dates. It doesn’t pan out... take my word for it.

As I mentioned previously, Tom Waits was born in 1949. The man is 74 years old and has not released a new album in 11 years. However, according to a report from the Irish Examiner, there have been rumblings, (namely from Paul Charles, the music agent for Tom) stating that Mr. Waits has been “writing again”. What that means, I have no idea, and I'll take it with a grain of salt, but to get another album from a legend would be incredible. Tom Waits’ music has always been a commentary on the times in which he’s lived. We now exist in a post-Trump and post-Covid society, so his thoughts on everything going on could be amazing.


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