Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Celebrating 20: A double dose of Tom Waits

Twenty years ago, on May 4, 2002, Tom Waits released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. They were the 14th and 15th studio albums of Waits' career, dating back 29 years at that point, to March 1973.

It is quite unusual, of course, for a recording artist to release two LPs on the same day. But Waits wasn't the first. Guns and Roses did it, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello had done this previously, for various reasons.

Both of these albums by Waits consist of songs he and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, had written for Robert Wilson plays. Wilson is an American playwright out of Waco, Texas, who cut his teeth in the avant-garde theater community in New York City in the 1970s and eventually found big success in Europe.

Waits and Wilson worked together along with William S. Burroughs to create a play called The Black Rider in Hamburg, Germany, in 1990.

Waits subsequently recorded the songs he wrote for that play and released them as a Tom Waits album three years later, in 1993.

The Black Rider was a successful stage project for the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, so that company commissioned Wilson and Waits for another project, a play titled Alice that premiered in 1992.

That one also went well, so the two worked together again, this time on a production titled Woyzeck, which they opened in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000.

Coming off yet another success with Woyzeck, Waits decided to record the songs he wrote for Alice and Woyzeck and release them as canonical Tom Waits albums, as he did several years earlier with The Black Rider. These are not soundtracks. Waits has issued a couple of soundtrack albums in his career -- there was one for the Coppola film One For The Heart that he did with Crystal Gayle in the late 1970s, and he had one for a Jim Jarmusch film, Night On Earth, in 1992.

But these two LPs, Alice and Blood Money, as was The Black Rider, were produced and recorded separate from the stage plays. All these songs were performed for the plays by the actors on stage. These albums are those same songs, but repurposed by Waits specifically as Tom Waits albums.

Waits is definitely an acquired taste. He's a fairly polarizing talent. When you hear a Tom Waits album, you either love it or hate it. There's not much in the middle. People tend not to be neutral on him. 

Myself, I'm a devoted fan, have been since the late 1970s. I do not like everything Waits has done, but I would rank him as one of my favorite musical artists ever, right up there in a league with Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel. And I'm here to tell you that these two albums are not throwaways or second-rate Tom Waits. The Black Rider, the forerunner of these two, was not a good Tom Waits album. But these two are.

Would I consider Alice and Blood Money among the very best Tom Waits albums? No, I would not. These two are not in a class with Rain Dogs or Bone Machine or Heartattack and Vine or a couple of other Waits albums that had a definitive point of view.

Alice and Blood Money are not groundbreaking in any sense. They don't make any kind of grand artistic statement like the best Tom Waits albums do. Rather, these albums are showcases for some great Tom Waits material. This basically is Waits using all the skills he developed over the years as a musical arranger and record producer to repurpose some fantastic songs he wrote for another medium.

I love both of these albums. Both of them were critical and commercial hits when they were released 20 years ago. To my mind, though, I'm probably a little more drawn to Alice because it's packed with beautiful Tom Waits-style ballads and love songs with a couple or three really entertaining song stories thrown in. The songs in Blood Money are much more chaotic and dangerous. I do love that side of Tom Waits, too, but there are a couple of other Tom Waits albums where you can go for this kind of material. 

Alice is probably the sweetest, most heartwarming album Waits recorded since he left Bones Howe and Asylum Records for Kathleen Brennan in 1980.

The songs on Alice were written about 30 years ago, for Wilson and Waits' second play, titled Alice. It was a story about author Lewis Carroll's obsession with a young girl named Alice Liddell. Lewis Carroll was the pen name for Charles Dodgson, a thirtysomething clergyman at Christ Church College in Oxford in the mid-1860s. Alice was the preteen daughter of one of the college's deans. Dodgson also was a photography buff, and young Alice became his favorite model. Dodgson would tell Alice fantastical stories to entertain her while he was photographing her, and he eventually turned those stories into a couple of novels featuring young Alice as the central character. Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, when Dodgson was 33 years old and Alice was 13. Through The Looking Glass appeared six years later.

Sometime after Waits returned home to Southern California following Alice's premiere in Hamburg in December 1992, someone stole his demo tapes of these songs out of his car. And eventually, a few bootleg albums started making the rounds. I don't know if Waits had planned to record these songs for a proper album, if he did have plans but they were put on hold or what. But these songs were in bootleg circulation for several years before Waits went into his studio to record them in late 2001 and early 2002.

There are some beautiful tunes here: "Alice." "Flower's Grave." "No One Knows I'm Gone." "Lost In The Harbour." "I'm Still Here." "Fish And Bird." "Barcarolle." That's a phenomenal batch of Tom Waits heartstring tuggers.

All of this, of course, is filtered through the Tom Waits aesthetic that the richest beauty is revealed through ugliness. More often than not, Waits' post-1970s ballads sound like they are being played by a half-lit Salvation Army band on a downtown street corner. Waits puts some real strain in his voice, the piano and horns and calliopes and accordians and whatever other instruments appear in the mix can be slightly off-key. Everyone's timing is a little off sometimes. It's all intentional, part of the standard Tom Waits playbook. Beauty in ugliness.

Among the non-ballads is a three-track run of pure Tom Waits goodness. "Kommienezuspadt" is Waits chanting gibberish on top of a wild percussion and woodwinds jam. "Poor Edward" is a psychotic nightmare that tells the story of Edward Mordake, a Victorian urban legend with a second face on the back of his head. "Table Top Joe" celebrates the life of a "man without a body" who overcomes his handicap to become a "rich and famous" piano player at Coney Island.

Yeah, it's definitely a Tom Waits album, there's no mistaking that. 

Blood Money, the other album Waits released that day 20 years ago, are songs he wrote for Wilson's 2000 play, Woyzeck, about a 19th-century soldier who is the subject of human experimentation, begins suffering hallucinations and stabs his wife to death. Yep, right up Tom Waits' alley.

Where Alice was Waits' version of sweet and optimistic, Blood Money is pretty much all psychosis and nightmares. There is some sweetness here. "Coney Island Baby" and "Lullaby" could have fit nicely with those gems from Alice. But here, those heartwarming songs only set you up for the hellish paranoia of stuff like "Misery Is The River Of The World," "God's Away On Business," and "Starving In The Belly Of A Whale."

A lot of the stuff on these two albums, and especially on Blood Money, is what it would be like walking through a haunted house on Halloween or going on one of those slightly twisted cart rides at Disneyland after taking the brown acid Wavy Gravy warned us about at Woodstock. It is frightening.

But it is great stuff if you are into this kind of thing. I'm definitely into that kind of thing. If you are, you should definitely check out one or both of these albums. 

Alice would be your first choice for some heartwarming balladeering. Blood Money would be your go-to for a taste of claustrophobic hellscapes. Just be warned: Neither of these are for the squeamish. 

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