Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Tom Waits found his way home with Rain Dogs

Tom Waits got a lot of mileage out of his persona as down-on-his-luck boozy lounge lizard. It carried him for about a decade and through several pretty good albums a long time ago.

I found that stuff interesting for the most part. I was a fan of a couple of those early albums and was happily entertained at a 1982 show in a small concert hall in Houston when Waits was part of a three-piece cocktail-jazz band.

Fast-forward to fall 1985: I've returned to Southwest Missouri and purchased my first CD player for a couple of Benjamins -- and I'm spending more and more of my fortune on discs to use with that luxury machine. Rain Dogs (1985) was one of the CDs I picked up during that spending spree.

When I put this disc into the drawer, I really did expect more of the same ol' Tom Waits I once knew. But it became obvious quickly that something had changed. Turns out my old buddy had married his spiritual guide, Kathleen Brennan, who persuaded him to ditch the old character and follow his muse wherever it might take him.

The new Tom Waits still had that distinctive gravel-pit voice. But the jazzy blues had been mostly replaced with ... well, I don't know what to call it other than a Captain Beefheart aesthetic. It was a mishmash of Brechtian cabaret, rhumba, tango, all kinds of different styles including a little bit of the old blues and jazz with a dash of rock here and some roll there. There was a lot of weird percussion sounds -- I later learned it included drainpipes banged with socket wrenches, hubcaps hit with hammers, stuff like that. 

Rain Dogs has a 53-minute running time packed with 19 tracks -- many of them just a couple of minutes in length. Stylistically, they bounce all over the place, but all of them sport simple melodies and song structure. And most of them sound like they're performed by a bunch of neighborhood guys who rented some instruments and gathered in the basement for a quick run-through. A sax solo sounds slightly off-key here, a guitar slightly misses its cue there, a piano bit loses the tempo for a couple bars, the trumpet player drops a couple of notes.

It is odd. And it's catchy. And it's glorious. 

Rain Dogs is considered by a lot of people who do such considering to be Waits' masterpiece. He's released at least two or three albums since that I like at least as well, though this is certainly the one that became his signature. Rain Dogs was the second album of Waits' career pivot, following 1983's Swordfishtrombones. He's never turned back, having spent nearly four decades seeing just how far out there he can go with his offbeat experiments without sacrificing the simplistic beauty of the songs.

I've loved taking that journey with him. This is still great stuff. I'll dive deeper into Waits' catalog eventually.

Hit song: Waits has never released a single in the United States, and he's spent a considerable amount of time with lawyers thwarting attempts to co-opt his music or likeness to sell product. But a lot of people have released cover versions of Waits songs over the years. The most successful of his songs probably has been "Downtown Train," from Rain Dogs. Rod Stewart reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 with it in 1990, a few months after Patty Smyth took it to No. 95. Everything But the Girl covered it on the 1992 album Acoustic. 

Speaking of covers: It might look like him, but that is not Waits on the front cover of Rain Dogs. The image is from a published series of photos taken in a cafe in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1960s. (Make no mistake, that is the double-jointed Waits on the back cover.) 

Moonlighting in Hollywood: By the time Rain Dogs hit, Waits was establishing a dependable side career in Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola cast him in several small roles in the early 1980s. Waits met Brennan, then a script supervisor at Zoetrope Studios, while working on the soundtrack for One From the Heart in 1981. He's worked pretty steadily since, with 35 to 40 films to his credit since 1978. Among his filmography is a 1988 release, Big Time, that is as much weird Waits performance art as concert film. I saw it in a theater on first release. I don't remember the specifics, but Geezer Bob the blogmate tells me he and I saw it in an arthouse theater in Kansas City. Big Time disappeared from public view for a long time, only turning up in low-quality bits and pieces on YouTube for a number of years. But I did notice the other day that it is now on Amazon's Prime Video. Here's a clip of Waits doing the title track from Rain Dogs:

1 comment:

  1. Scott, enjoyed seeing the Tom Waits movie even though you dragged me kicking and screaming into the theater.


Spammers will not be tolerated. You casino scammers will be reported immediately and your comments deleted.