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.
Elton John has delivered decades’ worth of moving and dramatic performances, but this has to be the most moving. It is also, of course, one of the most personal. It recounts a particularly low point in John’s life, when he contemplated giving up his struggling music career for a sham marriage to a wealthy young lady, and felt so trapped and hopeless in his situation that he attempted suicide. The thwarted suicide may have been more of a cry for attention than a serious attempt to end his life – he turned on the gas oven and opened the kitchen window – but the angst was surely real. It would be many more years before Elton John finally fully freed himself from the half-assed pretense of straightness, but at least he realized that a life of phony bourgeoisie would never be his path. He listened to his friends, did the right thing, ended the engagement, kept on playing music and no doubt felt a lot better about himself. The memories of those low days, however, yielded some of his very best work.
Political commentary was never David Bowie’s wheelhouse, and when he goes there it tends to feel half-baked. Here, he’s into some loose concept of the manifest destiny of charismatic leaders, who are not dissimilar from rock stars in their larger-than-life appearance. It was a theme he was about to get into more deeply, having read a few too many books about the rise of fascism, before realizing that it’s not a fun or a healthy fascination, especially for a mentally unstable person. I’ve always thought that, lyrically at least, this was the weakest track from Young Americans. On the other hand, though, it’s the one that comes closest to capturing some real soul, as opposed to the plastic kind. That’s thanks, of course, to the vocal support of the then-obscure Luther Vandross, who completely oversteps his position as a backup singer to outshine his boss.
Brian Eno remains the undisputed master of ambient and cinematic soundscapes, despite many people’s attempts to compete with him. Eno’s genius was to bring a pop sensibility to instrumental music; and to write pop with a composer’s ear. Obviously, it was pioneering and unusual for a member of a rock band – even one as strange and unusual as Roxy Music – to cross party lines and dabble in long-form composition. It was the pop songwriter’s insight that fully realized instrumental compositions could, like pop songs, be very short. So it turns out that one of Eno’s best known works is also one of the shortest: The Windows ’95 startup sound.
Before there was Moby, there was Eno. That is obvious. Before there were most things, there was Eno. MGMT even wrote a song about it. Brian Eno is the slow, inexorable trickle-down effect of personal weirdness bleeding influence into everything around it until it’s come to subtly dominate huge swaths of popular culture. This is why you have half-ambient car commercial pop music as its own genre now. This is why we have a lot of the pop trends that we have, but as always, the original is better and more interesting.
Has Bob Dylan been singlehandedly keeping long narrative ballads alive in the public mind? Maybe not entirely singlehanded but close to it. Can we even follow a narrative of more than two minutes, in our time of micro-bullet points? If the popularity of podcasts is any indication, yes, we as a society still like to follow long narratives. However, I don’t know of very many narrative bards singing long tales and being wildly successful doing it. Bob Dylan’s job is not yet up for grabs, Bob Dylan being still alive and all, but eventually it will be, and who will step up?