Friday, March 12, 2021

Waits' wild years: Tom finds musical adventure under every rock

There was a time quite awhile ago when I listened to Tom Waits' post-1970s albums constantly. For a few years in the mid-2000s, I commuted for work about 40 miles each way four times a week. And most of the time, one of those CDs was spinning at a volume a little higher than might have been healthy. The fairly current ones in heavy rotation at the time were Alice, Blood Money and Real Gone -- with Mule Variations and Bone Machine finding their way in every now and again.

But that was a long time ago. It had been several years since I listened to any of those albums straight through. So before I wrote this piece with the intention of ranking these albums, I decided to run through all of them consecutively -- both to refresh my memory and to analyze them with perspective. And I am truly shocked at how well every damn one of these things (except one) holds up. I found that ranking these albums was damn near impossible. We're talking about 10 albums, and it's no exaggeration to say that nine of these things are 4.5-star albums or better. There's not a hair's-width of difference between my favorite and the ones that land fifth, sixth and seventh. Wow, that was tough. And I'm still not happy to have to rate a couple or three of these things so low, but I don't have a clue what to drop down to slot them any higher.

It's really close. I struggled with this list. I keep wanting to change it, but I'm going to stop now and go with what I have.

I wrote a few days ago about my idea of what Tom Waits is all about, and I gave you my perspective on the seven albums he recorded for Asylum Records before he took some time off to rethink his career. Right around the turn of the 1980s, Waits got his first taste of the movie business with help from Sylvester Stallone and Francis Ford Coppola -- and in the process met and married Kathleen Brennan, who turned his life and his approach to his music completely upside-down.

The movies gave Waits a nice part-time career, one that's kept him working fairly regularly for 40 years. As for his growing disillusionment with his day job and his Bohemian lifestyle, Brennan proved immediately to be the right person at the right time to get Waits' head straight. She introduced Waits to the music of Captain Beefheart, and he became immediately smitten. About the same time, he began studying the work of Harry Partch, who would create musical instruments out of household items and scrap materials to play his atonal compositions. Brennan encouraged Waits to follow his gut, give it a shot and make the music he wanted to make and see what happens. 

Waits dumped his longtime producer, Bones Howe, and became his own producer. He dumped his manager, who he didn't trust, and turned his business affairs over to his wife. And he hired some musicians to go into a recording studio with him in August 1982 and record a set of songs built mostly around percussive rhythms and odd sounds. The resulting album, Swordfishtrombones, released by Island Records in September '83, credits 17 musicians playing marimbas and harmoniums and bagpipes and trombones and many, many, many varieties of drums and bells and stuff. One of Waits' credited instruments is "chair."

This was not your father's Tom Waits. Where in the '70s Waits worked with tight, understated combos in jazz lounges and blues clubs, this new Waits inhabited crime-taped farmhouses and carnival sideshows and old German cabarets. He built a repertory company of professional musicians looking to do something out of their ordinary -- people like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Les Claypool of Primus, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in and out of Waits' studio sessions constantly. Larry Taylor, a longtime session player with Canned Heat, The Monkees and Jerry Lee Lewis, is Waits' go-to bass player; and Marc Ribot, who has played for just about everybody, most often is Waits' lead guitarist.

The credits on any Waits album of the past few decades is a roster of professional studio musicians chipping in on tablas, vibraphone, claps, shakers. You name it, somebody is playing it. The best is when he puts together his Salvation Army band of guitars, trumpets, accordions, etc., to play as out of tune and miss as many downbeats as possible and still convey the tenderness of the songs.

Waits' records to this day are not for the squeamish. That hasn't changed since the beatnik days of the '70s. If you're looking for a bit of adventure and imagination in your music, if you love songs that truly are alternative worlds for the mind's eye, this is the stuff for you. Listening to Waits' music is like watching a movie with your ears. 

Waits made five studio albums for Island before moving to Anti- Records, which also has released five. Brennan gets co-producer credit on all five Anti- albums and is credited as co-writer for most of the songs on those records. Their son, Casey Waits, has been his father's primary drummer for several years. 

Here is how I rank those 10 albums, from least favorite to favorite, at least until I change my mind on a lot of these tomorrow:

No. 10. The Black Rider (1993):
This is the only Waits album of these 10 that I don't care much for. It's a set of songs Waits wrote for the stage play The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, by experimental-theater producer Robert Wilson and novelist William S. Burroughs. Waits did not perform these songs in the theater but took them into the studio a few years later to make this album. Some of this material is worth a listen, but none of it is particularly inspired. The album does play more like a soundtrack compilation than a proper Waits album. Waits reached into this same playbook with much better results for a couple of later albums. The most interesting track here: Burroughs singing "Tain't No Sin (To Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in Your Bones)," a song originally recorded in 1930 by Lee Morse & Her Bluegrass Boys, a group that featured two of my Dad's favorites, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. This was Waits' final album for Island.

No. 9. Real Gone (2004):
This is quite possibly Waits at his most abrasive, solely for the weird production choice he made. The songs at their core generally are straightforward blues rock, heartbreaker ballads, typical top-notch Waits material. But Waits' production makes the thing sound like a vinyl disc played with a worn-out stylus pushed through a cracked speaker. It's really odd. I love most of the songs on this one -- "Trampled Rose," "Don't Go Into That Barn," "Dead and Lovely." The beauty really does shine through the ugliness. I used to think this among my favorite Waits albums, but on my retrospect listen this week, the distortion became a little much.

No. 8. Bone Machine (1992):
Another one that slipped considerably in retrospect. I did used to consider this my favorite Waits, but the unrelenting aggression wore me down this time around before I could reach the finish line. Waits pushes the percussion instruments way up in the mix, with the guitars and the occasional piano and saxophones present in supporting roles only. This is the first time Brennan shows up prominently in the credits -- as associate producer and as co-writer on half of the 16 tracks. Keith Richards makes his first guest appearance on a Waits album, co-writing and singing on the closing track, "That Feel," which sounds something like a drunk singalong at closing time. "Goin' Out West," featuring the line "My parole officer would be proud of me," is one of my Top 5 favorite Tom Waits songs. "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" became a signature song for The Ramones. Bone Machine won a Grammy as Best Alternative Music Album.

No. 7. Blood Money (2002):
This is music from Waits' third collaboration with Wilson, an adaptation of a 1913 German play, Woyzeck. Waits released this album on the same day he released Alice, music from their second collaboration. Unlike The Black Rider, both Blood Money and Alice work nicely as canonical Waits albums. Blood Money features some of Waits' most aggressively atonal tracks. The opener, "Misery is the River of the World," always puts me in mind of one of those freak-house rides at Disneyland. "Starving in the Belly of a Whale" is chaos and menace in a fez. "God's Away on Business" laments, "Who are the ones that we kept in charge? Killers, thieves and lawyers." It's really hard for me to put this album at No. 7, but a couple of throwaway tracks ding it just a little bit.

No. 6. Bad As Me (2011):
This is Waits' most recent album, as he's been spending the past decade making movies with the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch and others. Unlike most of Waits' albums, there is no overarching theme or bold statement here. It's just a solid collection of Tom Waits songs, brought back a little closer to the middle. It was the highest-charting album of Waits' career, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard 200. This lives mostly on the experimental edge of hard-charging blues rock. I would recommend this as a pretty good starting point for the Waits-curious.

No. 5. Rain Dogs (1985):
This was the second album of Waits' new career and the one that got me back onboard the Waits train. This one turns up frequently on best-albums-of-all-times lists. This one is all over the place stylistically -- blues, rock, jazz, experimental, tango, polka, spoken word. It all works together pretty well, especially considering that Waits was still feeling his way around in this new world he was creating. There are a few bumps in the road, especially on the back half. "9th & Hennepin" is a carryover of the noir spoken word from the old days. "Downtown Train" became a hit for a couple of people but seems conventional and out of place here. Don't get me wrong: It's a great album, just one that lost points with me over the years because of overfamiliarity.

No. 4. Alice (2002):
The songs for Alice, the second Waits-Wilson collaboration, were written in 1992 but not released officially until a decade later. These songs had been circulating as bootlegs all that time after copies of the studio tapes were stolen from Waits' car. I don't know what the original plans were for this material, but Waits did finally release Alice officially on the same day he released Blood Money -- possibly a move to stem the black market. This one opens with the beautiful title track, a nice throwback to Waits' jazzy records of the '70s. But we quickly move into a world of circus freaks and other sideshow attractions. "Poor Edward" is based on a 19-century urban legend about a guy with a face on the back of his head. "Table Top Joe" is a piano player sans torso and legs. I have this one the lowest-rated of what I consider four perfect Waits albums. I have it this low only because the next three are more perfect, at least until I listen to them all the next time.

No. 3. Mule Variations (1999):
This was Waits' first release for Anti-, coming six years after his previous album, The Black Rider. This album drops you right in the middle of Depression-era rural Kansas. Some of the song titles tell you everything you need to know: "Get Behind the Mule," "House Where Nobody Lives," "Picture in a Frame," "Come On Up to the House." It's a double album in its vinyl edition. Its 70-minute runtime doesn't feel like it at all. Mule Variations flies by with some of the most tender and heart-wrenching songs in Waits' catalog. This one won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Mule Variations also could be a pretty good place to start a Waits journey.

No. 2. Swordfishtrombones (1983):
Waits' debut as man on an experimental mission. In retrospect, this is one of the more mainstream of Waits' catalog. But in its time, it was pretty far out there and was probably quite a shock to his more ardent fans. Waits and Brennan shopped this around for a year looking for a recording contract before Island got on board. This one, like its followup, Rain Dogs, is all over critics' all-time-best lists. I came onto Swordfishtrombones late in the game, after I rediscovered Waits with Rain Dogs, so I only knew of its impact on the fringes. This record is all about the joys of family and community, each song relating some story about the things that happen in a small town. Three of the tracks are instrumentals, but they're all perfectly placed. "Johnsburg, Illinois" is a gorgeous telling of Waits' first visit to Brennan's hometown. The Waits character Frank who appears on record in the album Franks Wild Years and on film in the 1988 concert movie Big Time originated here in the hilarious tale-song "Frank's Wild Years."

No. 1. Franks Wild Years: Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts (1987):
So I did get back onto Waits after a few years with Rain Dogs. But this is the one that got me all-in on whatever Waits wanted to do and wherever he wanted to take me. This is THE Tom Waits masterpiece in my book. Franks Wild Years was the first time Waits recorded a collection of songs he wrote for a stage play, this one written by Waits and Brennan for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago -- an expansion of the song on Swordfishtrombones. In the original song, Frank is tired of his humdrum suburban existence, burns down his house and drives away to find fame and fortune in show business. In this album, Frank is on his journey, full of confidence that he will be The Next Big Thing, only to find out it's not going to be as easy as he'd hoped. In the concert film, we see in several short skits that Frank's career is in the grunt work at the theater where Waits is performing his concert. Franks Wild Years the album is where Waits' experimentation with different musical styles goes into full bloom. The centerpiece is midway through Side 2, with "Straight to the Top (Vegas)"/"I'll Take New York," with Waits doing his best Bizarro Sinatra. It is fabulous parody. I've always loved this album, always will. Do yourself a favor and do not take leave of this planet without giving it a chance.

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