I sometimes suspect that the reason why Tom Waits has never reached the level of musical superstardom that he deserves is because he violates all three of Pop music’s Cardinal Rules:
Rule #1: Be young and attractive
Rule #2: Be young and attractive
Rule #3: Don’t be old and unattractive
(Yes, these rules are a slight variation of Saturday Night Live‘s ‘Rules for Avoiding Sexual Harassment Lawsuits.’)
And not only does Tom Waits violate these rules, he flaunts his violation with lyrics such as, “I look 47, but I’m 24.”
This line comes from the album “Mule Variations,” which is filled with classic Tom Waits lyrical miscellany, such as his impressive grasp of US geography (who knew there was “someplace called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee”), his favorite cocktail recipe (Warning: if you’re ever in a chic Cocktail Lounge and see a “Tom Waits” on the menu, don’t order it! It’s most likely a glass of Brandy with a nail floating in it!), and his favorite candy (No, it ain’t no Abba-Zaba. Nope, not an Almond Joy, either… It’s got to be a chocolate Jesus, available exclusively at Zelda Lee’s Candy Store).
“Mule Variations” also includes a lyric about finding an old dog “who seems to like me.” And why not? If you’re an old dog, is there a better person on earth to start hanging around than Tom Waits? And while it’s not specifically mentioned that this old dog has three legs, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that he does. And thus, the three legs of a friendly, old Junkyard dog completes the parable about Tom Waits’ career progression.
To recap: In the morning, Tom Waits’ career walked on the four legs of a drunken piano; at noon, it walked on the two legs (and ripped stockings) of some haggard female bartender; and in the evening, it walked on the three legs of an old, friendly Junkyard dog.
Here’s my Big Three of late Tom Waits songs:
Lebron: Big in Japan from “Mule Variations.” Every time I hear this song, I envision a Sumo-sized stadium packed with adoring Japanese tweens, wearing pink Hello Kitty backpacks, going bonkers; while onstage, Tom does “the rooster” and “the crow.”
D Wade: Make it Rain from “Real Gone.” On this album, Tom almost exclusively used “mouth percussion” recorded in his own bathroom. Yeah, I bet his two teenage children loved it when their friends came over to the house and they could hear their dad “doing work” in the bathroom. I envision a bunch of wide-eyed, Northern California teens asking each other, “what’s he building in there?”
Otherguy: Fish in the Jailhouse from “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.” This triple disk is the motherlode of Tom Waits compilations; I like to think of it as Kathleen forcing Tom to clean out the garage. Included on the album are a bevy of great original songs (such as Fish in the Jailhouse and Road to Peace), covers (there’s a particularly enjoyable version of Lord, I’ve Been Changed), spoken word tracks (Nirvana is Tom reading a Charles Bukowski poem), and songs that have appeared over the years on random compilations and soundtracks (Pontiac appeared on the charmingly titled anthology: “Smack my Crack”). The album also includes some great advice about how to break out of jail using nothing more than a skeleton key fashioned from the bones of a “steelhead salmon or a mud bank carp.” So this explains why all of my ex-convict friends get so excited whenever “hammerhead shark” is on the menu. (Oh Boy!)