Nelson Algren said that
"literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge
is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with
humanity." He had a problem with the state of American
literature in the middle of the century just passed. He
thought that too much art was being born in the academy.
That too many writers, whose job it is to tell stories,
were simply proving chops and exercising theories. He
wanted to point out that to tell a story that mattered,
that would last, one had to have two key ingredients:
an understanding of the human condition and a desire to
expose the beauty that lies beneath the surface of all
things. To empathize, and to force the reader to do the
same. While it would be an over-statement to say that
all great art fits Algrens mold it is nevertheless
true that a great deal of it does. Particularly in America,
where we are blessed with a tradition that includes Whitman,
Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Raymond Carver.
And in our music. Leonard
Cohen, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, and Bruce Springsteen
are all uniquely American testaments to the power of music
to express an understanding of suffering. Among the many
who have done this, few have done it as consistently or
as well as Tom Waits.
Waits made a name for himself
throughout the seventies and early eighties as a balladeer
without equal. Closing Time, his 1973 debut, is
poorly produced (far better versions of several of the
songs can be found on the Early Years collections)
but impressive. Songs such as "I Hope That I Dont
Fall In Love With You" and "Ol 55" find him relating
loneliness and heartbreak in a way that seems almost desirable.
Subsequent releases (especially his 1974 follow-up The
Heart of Saturday Night) showed vastly improved production,
and expanded on and perfected his themes to the point
that, to this day, nobody has done the booze-fueled torch
song with as much grace as Waits.
1983 saw the release of
Swordfishtrombones and, with it, a different Waits.
Gone was the alcohol and the dive bar, replaced by the
geek and the midway. His piano/lounge sound morphed into
a clanging, industrial train wreck. While this is probably
Waits least accessible album (which is not a knock
on its quality) it is an interesting stop on the way to
Rain Dogs (1985), Franks Wild Years
(1987), Bone Machine (1992), and The
Black Rider (1993). His storytelling took on a new
form, defined more by the soil than the bar top. His creative
partnership with wife Kathleen Brennan crystallized, and
his music took on the quirks that have come to define
Waits music has always
sounded American, but in two different ways. The early
years sounded traditional, which is to say strongly rooted
in blues, country, and jazz. Like most artists blessed
with long tenures Waits evolved, and that evolution led
him to a more ethnic sound, with elements of Eastern Europe
and Latin America. But its the sound of the new
world and not the oldadding the immigrant experience
to his understanding of American life.
The body of work that is
Closing Time to Bone Machine is by itself
as substantial and wide ranging as that of any American
songwriter. But he continued to evolve. 1999 saw the release
of his most successful album to date, the million-selling
and Grammy winning Mule Variations. It was the
first album that presented his two styles in balance and
synthesis, as opposed to side by side. The album was deservedly
hailed by critics but hard to put in perspective. Not
so now that we have his two most recent releases, Alice
and Blood Money.
The albums (released simultaneously
May 7th) both found their beginnings as accompaniment
to theatrical productions by director Robert Wilson. It
wouldnt be right, however, to define them by that
fact. They were recorded together last year (though written
in 1992 and 2000, respectively) and, while different in
many ways, come across as one piece of new work.
Alice, which is
loosely based on Lewis Carrolls obsession with the
girl who inspired his major works, is the more subdued
of the two. While the strange instrumentation for which
Waits has become known is present (including toy glockenspiel
and "pod", an organic percussion instrument) the songs
are quiet, even reticent. Every Waits album since Swordfishtrombones
has had at least one song working on this model, but its
refreshing to go through an entire album and hear only
a hint of the clanging freak parade with which he has
become increasingly obsessed.
Listening all the way through
it plays like a serial, each song adding a chapter to
a story that ends where it began. The impossibility of
ever holding Alice runs tight through every line, but
the love that inspires it is only a length behind. Thematically
it recalls his early years, especially Blue Valentine,
but is far more cohesive. In both form and function it
serves as a reminder of ones own Alice, and the
fact that we all have one.
has stopped/And the pond is clear/Someone turn the
lights back on/Ill love you til all time is
gone/You havent looked at me that way in years/But
Im still here."
"Im Still Here"
Blood Money picks
up more logically where Mule Variations left off.
The songs are less sequential than those of Alice
and (mostly) more jagged. Here Waits returns occasionally
to the jangling march and heavy percussive clank of recent
years, but finally with the rich, organic production that
previous albums have occasionally lacked. There are ballads,
most notably "Coney Island Baby", but even they are outgoing
and sharp. Where Alice lurks in a dark corner Blood
Money resides in the downbeat ribaldry of a lounge
at two a.m.
Waits has always been a
master spinner of the ragged tale, and Blood Money
is no exception. Hes living proof that, for the
right kind of man, even a wife and three kids cannot soften
a deep-seated understanding of the margins.
a few things I could never believe/A woman when she
weeps/A merchant when he swears/A thief who says hell
pay/A lawyer when he cares/A snake when he is sleeping/A
drunkard when he prays/I dont believe you go
to heaven when youre good/Everything goes to
Goes to Hell"
As ever with Waits, however,
the despair remains tempered with joy. If there were only
one thing that distinguishes him as a lyricist it would
be his ability to be involved so deeply with suffering
and still have hope. You always have reason to believe
that, long after we have stopped observing them, his people
find a way to live.
"I want that
beggars eyes/A winning horse/A tidy Mexican
divorce/St. Marys prayers/Houdinis hands/And
a Barman who always/Understands."
from "The Part
You Throw Away"
He is the avatar of a peculiarly
American brand of storytelling. His empathy, his love,
for the people about whom he sings carries him through
his sometimes frustrating tendency to make too many mentions
of monkeys and carnival freaks. His ability to make a
listener relate is a rare quality, one that is present
in only a handful of writers and present consistently
in even fewer.
His songs have been covered
by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Marianne Faithfull, and
Johnny Cash, among others. He has won two Grammy awards,
the ASCAP Founders Award, and been named by VH1 as one
of the most influential artists of all time. He has done
extensive stage and film work, including acting for Jim
Jarmusch and contributing a song to a Wim Wenders soundtrack
(the outstanding "Little Drop of Poison," from The
End of Violence). Alice and Blood Money
are nothing more or less than further proof that the accolades
are well deserved.