There is something in me, something typically English that identifies with eccentricity. Of course being eccentric sometimes seems to be synonymous with being born in the British Isles but we are not alone. When I think of America and its wonderful music, I tend to think of The Kings of Leon, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan all of whom typify one aspect of what the world sees as 'Americana.' Of course, there is another side, a darker one perhaps, more cranky for sure but a facet that I love. I have mentioned both Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa but there are other idiosyncratic songwriters in American music. Tom Waits is one of them.
He sits somewhere left of centre but still within the general framework of what we call the ‘mainstream’ but the field he ploughs grows some weird fruit. He is individual in the extreme. People like Tom Waits are a rare and dying breed especially in light of TV shows such as ‘The X-Factor.’ I wonder what they would make of him? Who cares? I for one don’t give a damn.
Before you go anywhere with Tom Waits, before you write a single word about his music the first thing to mention is his voice. The fact I have left that abrasive instrument until the third paragraph only illustrates my own willful nature. His voice counts. It is biblical, vast, towering, rasping, sounding as though it was made of the same stuff as the grand canyon. Like Cormac McCarthy Mister Waits is not so much of the United States but a physical embodiment of it. His voice, as described by Daniel Durchholz, is like it has been soaked in bourbon, then hung out in a smoke-house before being run over by a car. It is an effective tool for it carries the weight of words, the power of the authors songs and then spits them out in the way a grizzly would a skunk. Rough as tree bark, gentle as a leaf. For me, his voice is more like broken glass and razor blades chucked into a grinding cement mixer before letting it settle in an old wooden keg.
With any artist, it is the combination of influences that form into an odd brew when mixed with the mind that wishes to convey their art that appeals to me. Mister Waits counts among those who have impacted on his taste artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Captain Beefheart, from folk to jazz to swampy delta blues. Above all, though his influences seem to come from roots music, that is music with the past, a history and one that is just as likely to be covered in shit as glitter. Rough diamonds are made of coal.
His robust songs, sometimes gentle but always unsentimental, are a thing of rare dirt brown beauty. They are the sort you hear folks sing when gathered together on a porch or a basement. They are very much of the people and are timeless in their feel. Perhaps it that soiled honesty that resonates or maybe the lurching timbre of some of the songs, the way they launch themselves like sea sick sailors landlocked and clumsy. The way they flop and fall, hammer and tong, to a backyard rhythm that crashes the gate on slick production. Whatever...I like it.
If the term Americana could be personified then look no further than Tom Waits for he, along with Bob Dylan epitomizes what qualifies that sound. It is a thing of the American spirit, of its mountains, its streams its adobes and its tumbleweed. Free roaming, a little in search of a depth of history it doesn't think it has but which in reality, when you lift those old stones, rocks and boulders, it has in rich profusion. Soaked in bourbon, smoked in pool hall rooms, down rickety wooden stairs, across slatted bridges that move as you walk across them, of Mark Twain and ferry boats with card hustlers turning aces, of jazz dens playing black music to a white audience, of Cadillac's and Pontiac's and Buick's with white walled tyres, of skiffle and jug bands, of rhythm and blues, of gospel choirs with pale palms slapping a negro beat, of Steinbeck and Burroughs, Hemingway and Poe and yes, Cormac McCarthy
I find it hard to select just one album of his that I think better than the rest. It is as unenviable a task as doing the same with The Beatles or Bowie - an impossible mission. The best thing to do is open a bottle of red, pour out a glass then with a blind seeking finger pull out a CD, anyone will do, slide it in, turn up the volume and settle back and enjoy. One thing is for sure, whatever songs of his plays you'll be in for one entertaining evening.
all words and art are copyright © of Russell C.J. Duffy.