Tom Waits

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Tom Waits

Why it’s daunting: Popular musicians, arguably more than any other kinds of artists, use their images to enhance their work and attract fans. While actors mostly spend time trying to publicly conform to the kinds of roles they depend on, and writers hide behind their books as much as possible, bands and musicians work to create a concept of themselves in the public eye as if every album was some form of confession, manifesto, or both. Tom Waits is as much about getting people interested in the idea of “Tom Waits” as he is in pushing the songs he writes. Music is a way of translating complicated emotions into accessible terms, and performers’ public personas are a way of providing context for their ideas—say, Mick Jagger’s swagger and strut backing the horny howl of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” or Bruce Springsteen’s working-class image giving “Born In The U.S.A.” its bite.

Waits, who made his proper recording debut with 1973’s Closing Time, inspires music writers’ wild, Charles Bukowski-fueled imaginings because his work has always been about the losers, the freaks, the slow 3 a.m. drunks who fumble change out of their pockets for the broken jukebox; the lurching, homeless fools who mark out their days with piano wire and broken bottles; the lovers for whom love is the only lie still worth living for. He is by turns macabre, melancholy, cynical, and optimistic, a heap of broken images left rusting in the morning sun. Which is all well and good if you’re into that sort of thing, but for the outsider, the verbiage can get off-putting, as can the hobo-with-a-heart-of-something image. To put it another way, there’s a reason the Ancient Mariner had to grab people and force them to listen. Not everyone wants to spend time with the lost.

Possible gateway: Rain Dogs (1985)

Why: The first half of Tom Waits’ career, from about 1973 to 1983, was basically one long, rambling biography of a heartbroken lounge-act. Albums like Heartattack And Vine and Small Change show him moving through largely piano-driven, meandering ballads and growling missives about bars after dusk. It’s moody, bluesy stuff, driven by Waits’ distinctive raspy voice, and his ability to mix naked sentiment and self-mocking despair. The albums range in quality, though none are outright bad. In fact, they’re essential for anyone trying to construct the arc of Waits’ work, as he manages the fascinating trick of creating an evolution that works as a narrative almost inadvertently. Call this the slow slide to oblivion, then, these initial records—the establishment of a character who’s too much on the fringes for anyone to rescue him from falling.

The reason Closing Time and the others might not be the best place to start is that this isn’t the Tom Waits most people are familiar with these days. The young Waits was a more mellow, less capering artist, and anyone expecting the gibbering lunatic of popular imagination that he’s spent the last few decades embracing could be disappointed by all the understated melancholy.

Contrast that, then, with “Singapore,” the opening track off Rain Dogs: 

If you don’t hear the madmen marching outside your door in that, you aren’t listening close enough.

Waits met screenwriter Kathleen Brennan while composing music for Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart; the two were married soon after, beginning a creative partnership that marks a major turn in his work, from the bluesier, smoky riffs of his first albums to the more broadly theatrical malevolence he traffics in now. His first album after they met, Swordfishtrombones, begins the transformation that Rain Dogs would ultimately perfect. If Closing Time and the other ’70s records were a slide, everything from Swordfishtrombones onward is the sound of a man hitting rock-bottom, looking around, and deciding he’s happier in the pit. In the years to come, Waits used a wider variety of instruments and pushed his trademark anti-croon to further depths, but Rain Dogs represents the perfect sampling, both of the things newcomers expect to hear, and the sincerity and compassion that make Waits’ work so resilient. 

Take “Blind Love”: 

This is as nakedly sentimental as anything off Waits’ earlier recordings (“The only kind of love is stone blind love”), and the fact that it fits as well as it does next to jangling Halloween chants like “Singapore” and growling, rhythmic rants like the album’s title track is proof both of Waits’ songwriting gifts and the evolution of his image. The cool, decaying hipster of his early career has rotted away, and now the ghoul underneath the shades is fully revealed, heartfelt as ever, but maybe not quite so safe to be around after the sun goes down.

There’s also this:

Rod Stewart covered “Downtown Train” in 1989, turning the song into a huge hit; it isn’t the worst cover in the world, but it sands down the desperate, awkward loneliness of Waits’ original, far superior version. Tom Waits’ music in general (and Rain Dogs in particular) belies the lie behind most popular music, embracing the jittering, ugly need at the heart of every love song, and turning it into something like triumph.

Next steps: If Dogs works for you, Waits’ 1999 album Mule Variations (which won him his second album Grammy, for Best Contemporary Folk Album) would make an excellent chaser; it’s slightly more mainstream than Dogs, with more overtly accessibly comedic songs like “Eyeball Kid” and “Big In Japan,” but the teeth are still there in numbers like “What’s He Building?”, a spoken-word piece that manages to be simultaneously ridiculous and spooky. “Hold On” is as openly inspiring as Waits gets, and his ratchety intonations make the potentially maudlin “Picture In A Frame” sound wistful and aching. The whole album is terrific, basically, including the poundingly apocalyptic closer “Come On Up To The House,” and it would make a perfectly fine Gateway in its own right. 

Another potential entrance point to Waits’ work is his three-disc collection of cast-offs and castaways, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards. The set’s daunting size (a total of 54 tracks) makes it difficult to recommend to the non-initiated, but for devotees and neophytes alike, the set is undeniably essential. Each disc is organized according to theme—the first focuses on rock and blues like “Lie To Me” and the Ramones’ “The Return Of Jackie And Judy,” while the second consists entirely of ballads like “Long Way Home” and the rousing “Never Let Go,” and the third is a compilation of oddities and spoken-word pieces, like Waits’ cover of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht number “What Keeps Mankind Alive.” The set should be overstuffed, numbing, and potentially hazardous to your mental health, but due to the care Waits put into selecting music, composing new songs for the compilation, and organizing them thematically, it’s as rich and purposeful as anything he’s done in his career. People talk about desert-island albums, the music they would bring to listen to for the rest of their lives, but few people think of albums that are islands in and of themselves, fully realized landscapes of heartache, violence, and delight.

Waits’ earlier recordings are also worth checking out, both for their own sake and to see how he’s both changed and stayed consistent over the years. His live albums are better than most, including the recently released Glitter And Doom Live. For those more interested in Waits’ overt theatrical leanings, Alice and Blood Money are the soundtracks for Robert Wilson plays based on Alice In Wonderland and Woyzeck, respectively; the first is a soggy, rotting valentine, the second a raw, misanthropic curse. 

Where not to start: Waits’ stage experiments aren’t always successful. The Black Rider, part of a collaboration with Wilson and William S. Burroughs, has effective moments, but there’s also a good deal of cacophony that doesn’t go anywhere. Not every car wreck is worth a symphony.