A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
December 15, 2006
He’s at the piano singing inebriated ballads after hours at a smoky little dive at the end of dirty little dead-end street. Fat bar girls in blue sequined gowns sleeping in patched Naugahyde booths. A couple of bankers on holiday, too drunk to leave their tables, half listening to the almost familiar tunes.
He’s playing a battered guitar around an illegal fire near the railroad tracks outside of town, singing songs of girls with golden hair he left behind. One tramp uses a rusty knife to rip into a shoplifted can of SpaghettiOs. Others in the circle sing along keep time clanking empty bottles of fortified wine.
He’s walking backward down the alley moving his arms like some wounded bird, leading the ragtag gospel band, the sour trumpets, the sad trombone, the rhythmless drum — a Salvation Army Band that somehow escaped salvation. He bellows his dark hymns above the din, an unholy cacophony for Jesus.
Such are the images evoked by the music of Tom Waits. His songs are like dispatches from an archetypal shadowland of underdog America, a place where a nation’s dreams go to die — but where a thousand more dreams are born.
On his new collection — the 3-disc Orphans: Brawlers, Brawlers & Bastards — Waits proves once again that truly he’s one of the immortals.
Apparently Orphans started out as a compilation of stray Waits tunes that have appeared on various various-artist collections, tribute albums (including Daniel Johnston, Bertolt Brecht and Walt Disney), soundtracks (from Pollock to Shrek 2) and other artists’ records (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sparklehorse and others). But the project grew, with Waits re-recording some old tunes and creating new ones. Thirty of the 54 songs here are new recordings, and only 14 have been available on other albums.
Waits’ wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan once famously said that Waits’ songs can be divided into “Grand Weepers” and “Grim Reapers.” The first two discs roughly correspond with this. Brawlers mostly features Waits’ mutant blues and junkyard rockers. Bawlers consists mainly of his ballads, some of which indeed are wonderful tearjerkers.
This leaves Bastards, a glorious explosion of Waits’ experimental side, including spoken-word pieces (a Bukowski story, concert raps, jokes and shaggy dogs), his heart-of-Beefheart sonic craziness, lo-fi cries and other pictures from life’s weirder side.
At the moment, my favorite disc is Brawlers. The first four songs on this first disc are frankly the most convincing little rock ‘n’ roll set I’ve heard in ages. It starts out with an otherworldly rockabilly slugger called "Lie to Me," goes to a growling blues appropriately called “Low Down,” chugs down the track with a funky tune called “2:19” and ends up behind bars in “Fish in Jail,” which sounds like a voodoo insurgency.
Note: I’m writing this during daylight hours. Late at night I start leaning toward Bawlers. The lilting “Long Way Home” ranks up there Waits’ greatest love songs. And he turns The Ramones’ “Danny Says” into a truly gorgeous creature. “The Fall of Troy,” from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, is as sad as powerful as ever. And his steel-guitar flavored cover of “Young at Heart” will make you believe that fairy tales may come true.
Of course, when I’m really feeling twisted, there’s Bastards, which includes “Army Ants,” a biology lecture on the life of insects with a stand-up bass and robotic guitar backdrop and “On the Road,” a collaboration with Primus that first appeared on a Jack Kerouac spoken word album.
One of the most memorable tunes here surprisingly is one that been performed by countess singers, “Goodnight Irene.” With its hobo chorus you almost can imagine Waits singing it on a boxcar, harmonizing with Leadbelly himself as the train blows its whistle, click-clacking into a tunnel of no return.
Steve Terrell’s Tom Waits List
Best Waits Album: The Mule Variations (1999)
Best Waits Song of the ‘70s: "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)"
Best Waits Song of the ‘80s: “You’re Innocent When You Dream”
Best Waits Song of the ‘90s: “Filipino Box Spring Hog” (honorable mention: “Back in the Good Old World”)
Best Waits Song of the ‘00s: “The Day After Tomorrow”
Best “Grand Weeper”: “Georgia Lee”
Best “Grim Reaper”: “The Earth Died Screaming”
Best Waits spoken word piece: “Nighthawk Postcards from Easy Street”
Best Cover song Waits Has Done: “Phantom 309” (originally by Red Sovine)
Best Waits Duet: “This One’s From the Heart” with Crystal Gale (honorable mention: “That Feel” with Keith Richards)
Best Song About Waits: “Waiting for Waits” by Richie Cole
Best Waits sideman gig: Playing electric organ behind Roy Orbison on A Black and White Night.
Best Waits Cover by a Punk Rock Band: “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” by The Ramones
Best Waits Cover by a ‘50s Rocker: “Heart Attack & Vine” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Best Waits Cover by a Country Artist: “Down There by the Train by Johnny Cash (honorable mention: “Murial” by Eleni Mandell)
Best Waits Cover by a Soul Singer: “The House Where Nobody Lives” by King Ernest
Best Waits Cover by a Gospel group: “Down in the Hole” by The Blind Boys of Alabama (honorable mention: “Train” by The Holmes Brothers)
Best Waits Cover by a Blues singer: “Murder in the Red Barn” by John Hammond, Jr. (from Hammond’s Wicked Grin, which is the best Waits tribute album)
Best Waits Cover by a Foreigner: “In The Neighborhood” by Kazik Staszewski (from Piosenki Toma Waitsa, a Waits tribute album by this Polish rocker.)
Worst Waits Cover: “Downtown Train” by Rod Stewart.
Best Waits Movie Appearance: Down by Law (honorable mention: Shortcuts)
You guessed it: I’ll do a Tom Waits tribute Sunday night on Terrell’s Sound World on KSFR, 90.7 FM. Sound World starts at 10 p.m., the Waits segment will start right after the 11th hour. The show streams live on the world wide interweb.
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