Tom Waits

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards Comp

(Anti-; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 9 January 2008

Discussing Orphans gives me the chance to discuss Bone Machine, which means taking Waits as whole, which means circling back on his discography, which gives me the chance to talk about myself. Not much to say, really.

During Rain Dogs (1985), or rather, at the beginning of it -- this was two years after I was born, the year of my brother’s own birth, the bellybutton of that godforsaken decade. I was probably at the foot of the bed of his birth at some point, holding his head carefully and not understanding why. No doubt a comfit to years of brotherly neglect, excusable and normal really, my memory of his birth is likely mistaken. Somewhere I was, likely, drinking chocolate milk or picking my nose or nodding off while my dad downed vending machine coffee. So, looking back, my time as a toddler registers today as green. No, as a shy pastel of the kind, and any events or emotions from then are so instinctual or so removed from the time and perspective that whatever I think happened is probably only serialized from sly snapshots and familial guilt, colored by Cat Stevens and Everything But The Girl and Chuck Mangione. So, now, when I “appreciate” Waits’ second LP for Island, I can’t help but fear for the vitality of my innocence. Pathetic, sure, and cliché when addressing anything Tom Waits has done, but still something about the idea sticks like tar -- Waits sings, “The whole town is made of iron ore.”

“Sings.” The guy doesn’t do that. He sits on its face and farts right in the mouth of its rising diphthong. Tom Waits doesn’t sing, he caterwauls, he creams, he oozes, shudders, and he dices glossolalia into straight brutality. If he glorified a bitch of a nightlife, especially with the woozy, macho Nighthawks At the Diner (1975), then his voice became the sonic consequence. As he indulges a nebulous, contemporary will by casting out all sinful indulgence, his voice has and will only get harsher. Like a flanker good at what he does, the scrum is where he thrives and the scrum is where he’ll get pulled apart. Since Waits is a man of the barstool, that is where he’ll crumble. Most of his work is made of iron ore, is unrefined, rusty red, hard but sagged with age. Some call him weird. I say he’s haunted by the passage of time, unsettled by the speed in which his lithe, diminutive frame falls apart; he’s a bit of the antithesis of David Byrne.

And this is something Waits has never had to assert or tone down, admonish, and assert harder; from Swordfishtrombones (1983) on, he’s been doomed to only suck longer and more desperately from the sewered intestines of American songwriting traditions, in any, or perhaps all, of their forms. And like any tradition, Waits’ career -- when observed as a soldered jalopy of memes that were ferried down from one persona to the next -- tells the story of his body, and like any tradition, the story of his body is an obvious one. How his corporeal sheath has taken a beating! In the dregs of life or whatever, his vocal cords have adapted an absurd prehensility, more out of survival than resignation. His teeth and his soul patch have grayed, his hair is permanently untamed, and whatever joints still maintain their original chassis grind like the dickens. He’s grown older, pushed sixty even when he was thirty-nine, unwittingly using his body’s depletion as a backwards gauge for the growth of his sound, so much so that by Bone Machine (1992) Waits’ face was insect eyeholes and gopher mouth, an artifact of an ugly world that had shed all anatomical edifice for empirical stomps, clangs, and melody. He was doing that with Swordfishtrombones and with soapier, but no less galling, Rain Dogs, but Bone Machine swooped outward in a way Waits had never successfully mastered before. Miscreants and prodigals and all unsettling inbetweens were still his fodder, but he was no longer hiding behind his concoctions or channeling his fears, sadness, and madness through them. Instead of German dwarves and liquored-up equestrians as their own ends (startling, gothic soundscape ends), his characters became setpieces in grand machinations. Bone Machine is the least insular of his recordings (no longer do you feel as if you’ve missed out on the stale tobacco odor of his piano or the illustrious travails of his pariahs) and, as such, is about death and decay and the momentum of both. The album finally stripped ole Waits of his flesh.

The difference between, or the leap from, the eighties to the nineties, from buzzsaw jazzy Franks Wild Years (1987) and two mediocre interstitial albums to the Machine, is almost paltry. But I believe there’s a success at the core of Bone Machine, an apogee of unaffected melody that, since, has maybe only surfaced in Real Gone (2004) “Hoist That Rag.” “Unaffected” is a relative term with Waits, but the key’s in unabated, pristine vocal lines, an anomaly and an ostensible impossibility considering Waits’ normally ostentatious and, by degrees, bogus delivery. Still: how he butchers, “And the earth died screaming / While I lay dreaming of you,” the marimba mallet played on his teeth; how his falsetto serenade, “We’re all gonna be / Just dirt in the ground,” kicks grit over a gorgeous saxophone; how a titular line, “There was a murder in the red barn, / A murder in the red barn,” growls and flops around in the hay, contorting, expressing typical Tom Waits choral duty; how these simple lines, while still dripping with that fucking otherworldly sieve of a voice, carry the song and survive the heavy raw of atonal thwomps. There’s purity in the melee. Not that the guy’s voice has ever been anything but the focus of a song, but Bone Machine demonstrated a balance, between theatricality, musicality, and sympathy, that allowed John and Jane Doe to finally find a place amongst the whores, junkies, geeks, and hairy assholes, even if only in the equality of death and in the effort of Waits to abandon many fictional crutches. This in mind, Orphans is his most lucid try yet.

The collection is one of the best releases of 2006 because Tom Waits is one of America’s greatest living songwriters, a funny conceit when taking into account all the “Eastern European” influences that seem to oompah his shouts and tremor his percussion. 56 songs, including 30 newly recorded cuts, covers, spoken word, and an assortment of bits from compilations or soundtracks, Orphans pimps a problem for any fan, a beautiful primer for the less acquainted.

With wife and writing partner Kathleen Brennan, Waits has compiled thirty odd years of material and divided the hulk into three, splitting his crafted persona into a trinity of lovable sociopaths. As should be obvious from the titles alone, Brawlers are the blues, the boogies, the bowel-stealers, the “juke joint stomp,” and Bastards are the alienated slam poets, the carnival hallucinations, the homeless instrumentals and murky blops of noise. Squat in the middle is Bawlers, the disc of ballads and waltzes and plaintive strings, the most categorical of the three, if only because every Tom Waits album includes similarly bombastic and groaned niceties. No-holds-barred obligation, that is, if Waits ever held a bar. For that, Bawlers lags like a cock-eyed grandchild, so much so that after ten-plus tracks, all elements of surprise, tension, and emotional catharsis are flattened and, inevitably, boring. Of course, Waits’ voice grinds and strains when at its sappiest, which is a wonder to witness anyway, sounding like frogfruit with the rind snapped off, but little else changes when the melodramatic Bawler is crooning, throwing the focus to the oversized arrangements which, while positively lovely, settle for repetition. In turn, the most memorable tracks from the middle are those that lurch and waken, like Shrek 2’s breathing anti-march “Little Drop of Poison” or the chortling Leadbelly roustabout, “Goodnight Irene.” “Little Man” is grotesquely bare, a throwback to The Heart of Saturday Night (1974). Then there’s “Young At Heart,” Carolyn Leigh’s and Johnny Richards’ Sinatra standard, about as blankly odd as one could expect, coupled with a gnarly slide guitar and the fact that Leigh and Richards were dead before I was born. Well, Leigh died the year I was born, actually.

Why the division of psyches? Why the limitations of his persona when it was never so clearly defined, when it never has been, when that seemed an obvious contradiction, that, sure, every Waits record follows a recognizable formula? Clap flop (Brawlers), then ballad (Bawlers), then riddled story (Bastards) and around again, this is how it goes. The spoken tracks of Bastards, the damned depressing “Children’s Story,” the obvious but witty “Army Ants,” Bukowski’s humbling “Nirvana,” the chuckled “Missing My Son,” these are spaced with guilt and held by muted trumpets or creepy upright bass or clarinet and then a conspicuous silence. While imminently interesting and evidence of Waits’ brilliance as a natural storyteller, the tracklist maintains an artificial pace. Guttural percussion is exciting, and “King Kong,” a Daniel Johnston cover, permutates into rare, complete cacophony, but Bastards ends suddenly, and in Waits’ characteristic cackle, the twenty songs seem cheap in fervently expressing the beauty in an already, openly beautiful, broken voice.

I don’t want to be told which facets to hunker over, which points in a long career to cherish. And Brawlers knows the trappings of Orphan’s motivation. Disc One sins, it gathers up musicians that have stuck by Waits for years, like Les Claypool, Marc Ribot, Brain, Larry Taylor, John Hammond, and even Waits’ son Casey, and pushes them into canonical spree. The results are exuberant, and describing each song is a trial of tedious dissection when each song exists in the heat of visceral conflagration, but let it be known that “Fish In The Jailhouse,” a braggart’s tirade over tinpan alley shuffle and orange juice guitar, and the eloquent, acoustic “Bottom of the World” are both simply glorious, even if a sane consolidation of Waits’ general sound. Orphans panders to everything it should: it’s a culmination, a slight reimagining, an introduction while a continuation, a celebration of trope and a celebration of singularity, a long tale of alienation, heartbreak, and an acumen for the effects of age; I believe Waits is bigger than this.

Yet, Orphans is mostly seamless. Ramones covers fit snugly with hissing folk, sidle up warmly against horrifying stops in the dead of winter. His voice moves it all, helms the locomotion, and still there is an overarching sense of regret. No, of acceptance and resolve, that the Waits of 2006 is not the Waits of 1973. Painful admission, I know; obvious shit we’re wielding here. If the career of Tom Waits has been the travelogue of a dying body, a body pushed a little harder towards death from smoke and alcohol and a world of weariness, then maybe Waits is finally stepping out from behind the physical anomalies he’s created and already doomed to freakdom. He’s the character now. He’s giant, he’s warped, and he’s obfuscated by mythoi too coffee brown to warrant much autobiographical truth, besides that maybe he’s tiring of the charade. Probably not, but we have Bone Machine, and we have our own failing skin, and we have the gambol of guessing whether the legend or the little, genius man will go first.