One gets the sense that all Tom Waits ever wanted was to be the piano player at some burlesque joint, preferably down the street from a greasy spoon. He really missed the boat on that one, growing up just when burlesque was going downhill. But he’s compensated for it by dedicating his career to weaving a vision of an alternate Americana where speakeasies remain the center of social life and dames still carry flasks in their garters. It’s hard to name anyone else whose work has been so untouched by the decades. Tom Waits sounded unstuck in time in the 70’s, he sounded unstuck in the 80’s, and he still sounds unstuck. The only change is that he’s gotten more fearlessly weird over the years. Obviously, it’s a timeline that plenty of people would happily trade all their modern amenities for.
In 1975 Tom Waits was seen as just another prematurely hoarse young man in a porkpie hat singing earnest songs about the travails of the drinking classes. Not entirely dissimilar from Bruce Springsteen or Randy Newman. It wasn’t selling him a whole lot of records and it wasn’t bringing the accolades either. Waits was just itching to get weird with it. So he decided to record a live jazz album, which was just about the least cool thing in the world at that time. In time, Tom Waits would grow so fully into his ‘weird guy on the train mumbling to himself persona’ that playing some version of himself in movies would become a lucrative side gig. In 1975, however, it was an absolute novelty, and a big gamble. Surprisingly, it became his biggest hit to date. Unsurprisingly, his record label fired him anyway. But the character was born.
You will pry my Doors LPs from my cold dead fingers, world. We might be moving further away from the kind of unhinged rock star megalomania that Jim Morrison represents. We’ve come to realize that Morrison was kind of a bad person, and very definitely a sick person, and maybe we shouldn’t hero worship sick, bad people. Still, Morrison remains the Platonic ideal of the mentally unstable genius, and that shit is catnip for the romantic and sexual imagination. The entire premise of Morrison’s Messianic persona was that he was living life on a different spiritual level – not necessarily a more elevated one, but definitely removed from the ordinary realms of experience – and he could take you there, and though the journey might be difficult for you, you would emerge a changed person. That promise was fulfilled for fans who felt that the music had changed them in some way, in the safety of their own home. It was a much rougher journey for people who had the misfortune of actually having Jim Morrison in their lives. According to John Densmore, being in a band with Jim was very much like being in an abusive marriage, and that seems to be the general consensus. But the mystique of the very unstable genius persists, because we still want someone to take us through to the other side, against all better judgement.
As usual when I listen to The Clash, I’m forced to conduct research. Their records may have retained their relevance because their anger cuts across the specifics of time, but many of those specifics have long ago faded from public consciousness. In this case, Joe Strummer references the history of the Spanish Civil War and compares it to the terrorist activities of Basque separatists. The Basque nationalist organization ETA was fighting the Spanish government at around the same time and with similar methods as the IRA in Northern Ireland, but with less of a political leg to stand on. In the mess of violence and political instability rocking Europe (and elsewhere) in the 1970’s, the bombings in Spain were only vaguely noted by the international consciousness, and aren’t really known about today. Though the ETA’s activities may not have interested the world the way The Troubles did, they’re another reminder of the roiling dissatisfaction of that time, which drove some people to violence and others to start playing punk music.
In 1972 there were a lot of songs about space. People were still excited about the American space program, and artists couldn’t get enough of space travel’s boundless metaphorical possibilities. There was Elton John’s Rocket Man, and David Bowie’s entire Ziggy Stardust persona. Harry Nilsson didn’t do anything particularly different with the theme, although his rendition of the lonely cosmonaut is more on the comical side. Nilsson was no stranger to delivering a performance of heartbreaking tenderness. When he was in feelsy mode, he could make listeners melt down in tears. But he also had an irreverent streak that sometimes outweighed all rational concerns, and when someone expected full seriousness, Nilsson would instead deliver silliness. His silly take on the trendy hot theme of ’72 became a hit anyway, despite being written for shits and giggles.
Kraftwerk predicted a future in which the melodies that humans groove to are machine-tooled like car parts in a factory. And lo, so it has come to pass. It’s a pretty simple formula, it turns out, to simulate the note progressions that stimulate our emotional expressions. People like having their needs serviced by robots, unsurprisingly. What hasn’t come to pass, however, is people behaving like robots. Humans still behave in chaotic, senseless ways, totally at the mercy of the hormonal flux of their emotions and with no logical regard towards their own better interests. In that sense, the “man-machine” of sci-fi predictions remains purely fantastical.
“I know I’m small, but I enjoy living anyway” sings Marc Bolan, looking very small indeed. Some former flower children shed their hippie frippery crossing over into the 1970’s, but you couldn’t take the flower child out of Bolan. He carried over his habit of performing sitting cross-legged; probably the least optimal posture for playing to a stadium of squealing teenyboppers, but very cute. He also never lost his sense of cosmic wonderment. In nonsensical but heartfelt verse, he sang about being a small fragment in the universe, sometimes sad but still full of love. Or something. It was a vulnerable but ballsy performance, and that could be the epitaph for his entire life.