Tom Waits before he went full-weird (was still weird but) really flaunted the true nature beneath the weirdness: an ooey-gooey starry-eyed hopeless romantic and a great documentarian of American life. Before he settled into his current persona – a mad carnival barker from an alternate universe where the Great Depression never ended – he was basically… Bruce Springsteen. Up until their paths diverged in the 80’s, those two practically shared the same diner booth, so to speak. They were both gravely-voiced troubadours in porkpie hats who sang about the plight of sad and lonely people (and also occasionally covered each other’s material.) Tom Waits is in own way as much of an Americana buff as anyone. If his songs evoke images as vivid as an Edward Hopper painting, it’s probably because he’s spent a lot of time looking at Edward Hopper paintings. He’s not the bard of the working class like Springsteen is. He’s the bard of the people below that, the dimebag hobos and floozies and all-night-diner wenches and the old men who sit on corner stoops all day because they’ve got no place else to go – people who live in a world where the Great Depression literally never ended. And he sees them with a sympathetic eye and he understands that what those people really want is some love and a little dignity and someone to listen to their stories. Everyone in those all-night diners and bus stations and wet street corners is just looking for a warm body and a sympathetic ear, and maybe some whiskey too.
At the end of the day, nobody does Tom Waits better than Tom Waits. (That shouldn’t even have to be said.) Tom Waits shows the kids how to do the crazy-old-man-in-a-hat boogie, and he shows up his peers as well. Who else can clap back at the Rolling Stones and then gets Keith Richards himself to play assenting backup on it? Oh, there will be satisfaction, Tom Waits demands it. He will have scratched every itch and won every duel by the end of the day. At the end of the day, he will be ready to roll of the mortal coil with no unfinished business. He will exit with swagger. Whatever satisfaction Tom Waits is checking off his list, it’s deeper and more diabolical than anything an angsty twentysomething trying to get laid has in mind.
I’m still waiting for the Tom Waits jukebox musical, or at least an extravagantly star-studded tribute album, but let’s face it, that won’t happen until he dies, and possibly not even then. There won’t be an all-star extravaganza selling out Madison Square Garden, there won’t special collector’s mini books published by Time magazine or Rolling Stone. Tom Waits isn’t the kind of an artist who attracts that kind of attention. If there’s to be Tom Waits musical it will have to take place in an abandoned warehouse down by the shipyards, with a cast and crew of hobos and hookers.
Another day, another saga of tramping and riding trains by Tom Waits. I’m pretty sure Waits isn’t actually old enough to remember the days when you could crisscross the country on a pony, adopting a new name in every town. But it is, in it’s own way, a very appealing fantasy, especially now that most of our waking moments are documented for eternity.
Do you sometimes find yourself wishing your life was more like a Tom Waits song? I do. My life needs more sad romance and trains. I would hop on a train when my romances got too sad and start over a few towns down the line.Tom Waits exists as the antidote to the vanguard of successful sexy people who mock your failures and exploit your inadequacies. In Tom Waits’ world, you’re not just a trashy drunk old woman down at the bar; you’re a sad luck dame, and you have a story to tell. In Tom Waits’ world, ugly old used up things have more value. Because ugly things have better stories than clean new shiny ones. Yeah, all that’s missing from my life is a Victrola, a kerosene lamp, and a mattress stuffed with horsehair.
“Choke those little bad days down to nothing. They’re your days, choke ’em.”
I want to live in Tom Waits’ infernal cabaret. I imagine it’s littered with empty gin bottles and old refrigerators. Populated by hard luck dames and men in porkpie hats. Sounds like a Jim Jarmusch movie – oh, wait, it is. Tom Waits is quite the movie star, in the classic sense. He isn’t glamorous or marquee handsome, but he’s got the allure of a larger than life personality. His rusty voice and bedraggled-dandy style are a well-honed persona. He is, in his own quirky way, one of the most thoroughly theatrical entertainers we’ve got going. Whoever he plays in movies, whether God or the Devil or just a low down gambler on the run, is always Tom Waits playing Tom Waits, and always stems from the Tom Waits he plays on his records. It’s all one long performance of one very unique vision.
“Hey little bird fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are alone”
Jim Jarmusch fans out there? You know what I’m talking about. Jarmusch and Tom Waits are such kindred spirits, they should make movies together all the time. Tom Waits should be the guy in all the Jim Jarmusch movies. They both have an affinity for Americana, the real Americana, the Americana of broken down cars on the front lawn, the land of weed-choked sidewalks and trainyards, one-barstool honky-tonks, old motel rooms with mysterious stains on the carpet, and the men who feel at home in those places. Down By Law is the most perfect example of that vision, full of vistas of the New Orleans tourists don’t get to see, and the bayou beyond. So what it was filmed in 1986. It could be anytime; those shotgun shacks don’t change much. I don’t think I’ve ever not liked a Jim Jarmusch movie, but this is the best one without question. It’s also the best Tom Waits screen performance without question, being that his entire persona seem to incorporate what this movie is trying to say. Or the other way around. This movie is the movie of all the Tom Waits songs and the movie of everything we think Tom Waits is. And also, where else are you gonna see him sing the ice cream song?