An Understanding of Suffering
Tom Waits' Alice and Blood Money
By Neal Shaffer

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 Algren’s 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 Don’t 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), Frank’s 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 his "sound".

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 it’s the sound of the new world and not the old—adding 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 wouldn’t 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 Carroll’s 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 it’s 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 one’s own Alice, and the fact that we all have one.

"Your watch has stopped/And the pond is clear/Someone turn the lights back on/I’ll love you til all time is gone/You haven’t looked at me that way in years/But I’m still here."

                —from "I’m 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. He’s living proof that, for the right kind of man, even a wife and three kids cannot soften a deep-seated understanding of the margins.

"There are a few things I could never believe/A woman when she weeps/A merchant when he swears/A thief who says he’ll pay/A lawyer when he cares/A snake when he is sleeping/A drunkard when he prays/I don’t believe you go to heaven when you’re good/Everything goes to hell anyway..."

—from "Everything 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 beggar’s eyes/A winning horse/A tidy Mexican divorce/St. Mary’s prayers/Houdini’s 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.