Tom Waits

Glitter and Doom Live

(Anti-; 2009)

By Dom Sinacola | 4 December 2009

Glitter and Doom Live focuses almost solely on the Tom Waits of my generation, my group of the i-fed and the unimpressed, our pop idols and traditions fully formed, readily legends. We’re removed in more ways than we can count from the visceral presence of these idols—if they were any more accessible we’d have to doubt them outright because that’s how we do—but we have the benefit of canons set and criticism beat to death to bring us up to speed and translate some of that missed immediacy to an active enjoyment on par with what must’ve been some excitement watching said artist, legend, whoever mature and slide into that vaunted rank back when it was actually happening. I was a little less than a month from being born when Swordfishtrombones (1983) was released; the Tom Waits I was born into had already passed a critical milestone in his metamorphosis, had already wholly imbued the tropes of Waits-ness before I was done with Sharon, Lois & Bram. Glitter and Doom is meant for me.

But it isn’t the document it could be. Though a reasonably great album and a clear testament to just how special seeing Tom Waits live is (was) in the soon-to-depart Oh-Ohs, Glitter and Doom Live just doesn’t sound that spectacular. As if it was hastily recorded, this live album seems conjured up on the fly when it should have been meticulously planned before Waits even left home. The tour from which this release was compiled, after all, was small, short, almost stubborn in its regional choices—why Waits’s snarl patters so tinnily through the speakers, why Omar Torrez’s guitar and son Casey Waits’s percussion, typically deep, coffee-rich accompaniments to the sometimes-horror of Waits’s throat, are mixed so unimaginatively, so uniformly, is baffling; disappointing at least. This isn’t an Austin City Limits release here, Anti-.

The main draw, obviously, is Waits’s voice, by this point in his career something of a parody of Waits the man. Frankly on top of everything, it’s still as otherworldy (or underworldly) as anyone should rightly expect, still fucking captivating, but beginning to lose the versatility that seemed to make Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (2007) partial to such a sensible organizational device. “Trampled Rose” and “Dirt in the Ground” make the most of this loosening grip on his vocals: the former’s gone from Real Gone‘s (2005) haunting, wraith-like semi-chorus to something utterly desperate, loud and without lilt; the latter’s robbed of its devastating minor-chord melody and instead flayed ragged, Waits more tired than crepuscular, those clarinets coffin satin though on Bone Machine (1992) they were once the titular dirt. “Green Grass” is here as warped as originally warped “Singapore,” which is the only remnant of ‘80s Waits, or Waits-in-flux, and “Goin’ Out West” is as stomping, shaded in gunmetal black, as “Such a Scream,” where before the two seemed to slink in different circles; the lines between bawlers and brawlers, between bastards and bawlers, aren’t as telling as they once were.

As a perfunctory introduction to Waits for the babies of baby-boomers, Glitter and Doom isn’t, I’m not entirely convinced, a sufficient cross-section of what this incomparable artist has been up to for the past twenty years. That’s what Orphans was, in all its swarthy, spreadsheet glory. Glitter is just an admirable tease, a reason to find a place to start but not that place, the applause laced throughout an aphrodisiac for the full on fuck that could be any of Waits’s full-length studio records. (Real Gone, which is headily covered here minus “Hoist That Rag,” almost inexcusably, has bettered, it’s worth noting, substantially since its initial release.) Why “Singapore” from Rain Dogs to illustrate the weirding Waits that, toward the later half of the ‘80s, was receiving both critical and popular notice? Why not something a bit more ubiquitous from Mule Variations (1999)—say, “Big in Japan”—than the unnerving “Get Behind the Mule,” here one of the only live cuts to retain a pre-recorded bit of vocal percussion, which is quickly subsumed by a moist electronic harmonica? These are rhetorical questions for the uninitiated, for those dependent on some utilitarian picks from Waits’s still massive fourth-quarter canon in order to find some footing. But for fans, what’re relayed here just seem some winking, intuitively enjoyed deep cuts. Not for nothing that ScarJo’s choice to fuzz-up the starkly aching “Fannin Street” is here complemented by Waits slow-dancing with a slide guitar; far from a head-turning Bawler cut, in retrospect it’s an empirical slice of the balladry and the corollary thematic conceits that often mathematically parallel his more psychotic songwriting.

The 35-minute “Tom Tales” is nothing that can’t be culled from interviews or assorted print content scattered over three decades, and it’s aimlessness further distracts from whatever coherency the album would need to properly represent a Tom Waits Live Experience. It forces the idea of Tom Waits as eccentric storyteller down the listener’s already sore throat instead of interweaving his lyrics and open, conversational arrangements (what other artist seems to have every percussive element born from gibbering, mortal clay?) with interstitial anecdotes and allowing the man’s two inimitable talents to congeal.

But I’m a fan (I’ve put in the work), so there’s some Home to be had in these eighteen tracks. Waits is still a force of nature; here confirmed. Waits is still an impassioned and awe-inspiring performer; here we can still hear, as invigorated as he was before I was born—or so I can guess. Therein is Glitter and Doom‘s most plangent merit: that the seemingly inhuman creativity that drove him to so atramentously redefine himself before all this music became classic is still there, still accessible, and still an immediate possibility for those of us born a month, a year, a decade too late.