It’s the little things in life that make a man go mad, so counseled Charles Bukowski. According to Tom Waits, this quote was one of the motivating factors behind his mid-career metamorphosis. Another factor was marrying Kathleen Brennan. (Hmmm… Why would getting married make someone appreciate Bukowski’s quote? I wonder…)
After a three year hiatus, Waits followed up “Heartattack & Vine” with “Swordfishtrombones.” From the album’s very first note, the metamorphosis was clear. Gone were the boozy piano ballads, the drunken bathrobes, and the frequent trips to the burlesque shows, where, according to Pasties & a G-String, things got “as hard as Chinese Algebra.” (In the liner notes, “algebra” is spelled “algebraziers.”) Gone also were the four legs of the piano; Waits’ career now walked on two legs.
But these weren’t just any two legs. These were the two legs that belonged to people like the female bartender in 9th & Hennepin, who has a tattooed tear, “one for every year he’s away.” (If a female bartender ever said something like this to me, I would be totally skevved out, but the narrator of the song appears to think it’s charming: “Aww, there’s nothing wrong with her that $100 won’t fix,” he croons.)
The two legs also belong to people like the main character in Swordfishtrombones, who “came home from the war with a party in his head and an idea for a fireworks display.” And just in case this wasn’t creepy enough, the song continues: “And he knew that he’d be ready with a stainless steel machete and half a pint of Ballentine’s each day.” Yup, that’s creepier! (In general, any song that Waits writes about war, soldiers, or machetes tends to be topnotch.)
And then there’s Frank, whose wild years were the subject of a song, an album, and an Off-Broadway play. According to the song, Frank sold used office furniture, drove a little sedan, and was married to a “spent piece of jet trash that kept her mouth shut, most of the time.” Halfway through the song, the narrator says (unconvincingly): “they were so happy.” In the next stanza, Frank stops by the local liquor store for a couple of Mickey’s Big Mouths, douses his house in gasoline, and sets it ablaze. (I think of Frank every time I see a guy whose girlfriend is carrying a Chihuahua in her purse; there’s an unforgettable line in the song about a Chihuahua, named Carlos.)
Around this point in his career, Waits started getting lots of attention. But it wasn’t always the kind of attention he was looking for. Here’s how he described it in an interview:
“A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to be a chaperon for my kids’ school field-trip to a local recording studio. I figured somebody would recognize me, and I would get to act like a Big Shot in front of my kids. Well, nobody did. The next day, I had to stop by the local dump to drop off some things (a broken hamster wheel, a couple of old violins, some tin cans, you know… the usual stuff). As soon as the bums saw me, they all lined up, holding pieces of garbage, wanting my autograph!”
I love that mental image of a bunch of bums sitting together at the Petaluma dump:
Bum #1: Hey, isn’t that Tom Waits over there?
Bum #2: It sure is! Hand my that old, broken toiletseat, I’m gonna go get his autograph!
Here’s my Big Three of mid-career Tom Waits songs:
Lebron: Dirt in the Ground. This is probably my all-time favorite Tom Waits song. Every time I listen to it, I’m reminded of Hamlet in the graveyard, discussing the “noble dust of Alexander.” The original version is off “Bone Machine”. But here’s the thing: it’s only so-so. I always listen to the live version that appears on “Glitter & Doom”.
D Wade: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up off “Bone Machine”. If anyone ever encounters a Tom Waits disbeliever (and I know, for a fact, that such people do exist) play for them this song. It’s perfect: short, catchy, and with great lyrics. And what makes it even more appealing, for me, is the fact that the first time I heard it, I was living in a “big, old tomb on Grand Street” in Brooklyn.
Otherguy: Telephone Call from Istanbul off “Frank’s Wild Years”. Not only does Tom Waits write great songs and conduct great interviews, he also doles out great advice. I like to think of him as a ‘life coach,’ without the stupid inspirational posters and the halitosis. Here’s a prime example of Waitsian advice: “Never drive a car when you’re dead.” Nope, can’t argue with! (And nice organ solo, Tom. Where did ya buy that thing? A fire-sale?)