Opinions, Column

The Incomparable Voice, Style, And Lyrics Of Tom Waits

As Bob Dylan once said, “Sometimes the best songs are just the ones that can pull something out of you. Maybe that’s anger, compassion … or maybe it’s guilt or shame—I don’t know. I like to think that the good songs give voices to the people who don’t have them, you know? And Tom Waits, he probably does that better than anybody … the guy puts poetry where you’d think it’s got no business being.”

By this point, you might be wondering, did Dylan actually say that?

No, he didn’t. I made that up.

But I like to think that he—and anyone else who writes and performs music—would agree with at least the last part. There isn’t a singer in the world with a sound like Tom Waits.

In terms of strong reactions, there are few artists in the world who can get what the torn-up, rattling growl of the 64-year-old American folk and blues artist has been getting out of people since 1973. Faced for the first time with the odd jumbling of his guttural vocals, crackling guitars, drums, and accordions—topped off with whatever else happened to be lying around the old deserted woodshed in which I’ve always imagined his music is recorded—listeners never quite know what to do.

I’ve found most turn to nervous laughter or feigned appreciation, while others shut it off and throw whatever machine it came from across the room like it just insulted their sister. No one does nothing, though.

In fact, not once in the eight or so years since I found my first copy of his 1985 double album Rain Dogs in the back of a used CD store (a big building where they used to sell those silver, flat, bagel-looking things) have I been able to listen to his music around other people without getting a few questions. While a majority of these concern my sanity or taste in just about everything, they’ve all been slight variations on the same theme: How on earth could anyone like this?

Truth be told, I didn’t always like it, either. And I feel like you and I have gotten close enough for me to tell you that, when I put on the album’s first track, I thought that the guy must have been joking. The voice came out of the speakers with this comical sort of arrogance, reminiscent of the cookie monster or a zombie Santa Claus, seeming satisfied in a sadistic sort of way.

I removed the CD from its tray, overcome with the impression shared by many others before me. He must be one of those singers whom no one really enjoys, but who would forever retain a sort of mythic, misunderstood-genius kind of prestige because no one would ever actually admit to disliking his music. I was, I thought, holding The Catcher in the Rye of rock and roll music.

Looking back, I haven’t the faintest idea what made me pull the dusty CD back down off of the shelf that it went on to occupy for the better part of two years, but I’m glad I did. I wasn’t much different, and the songs hadn’t changed, but—almost inexplicably—I started to hear it in a way that I couldn’t before. I heard it the way I still hear it now.

There isn’t a bad moment on that album. Every bass note and beat-to-hell guitar string sings—every subtle imperfection in the vocals fits like calculated splatter on a Jackson Pollock canvas. After a few listens, the simple, eclectic instrumental foundations upon which the songs are built begin to recall the best of early New Orleans jazz and Southern blues, dirty and unconventional enough to have been recorded yesterday.

And the lyrics were brilliant. It’s in them that Waits finds his greatest strength—they are where he lives and breathes, delivering the rough, hard-luck poetry with a swagger that other singers would be loath even to imitate. The words, above all else, are the reason that his songs remain the most respected in the music business.

Covered over the years by everyone from Rod Stewart and The Eagles to Norah Jones, these rugged vignettes are a kind of front-line report on the most universal themes—heartbreak, addiction, loneliness—from the sort of disaffected, ugly characters who never quite seem to find the place in art that they deserve. Waits is often attacked for his delivery, but it’s hard to imagine even the man’s most ardent, vitriolic critic attacking lines like, “She was sharp as a razor, and soft as a prayer” from 1976’s Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.

With the release of his latest studio album Bad As Me in 2014, the music of Waits is more popular than it has ever been. Just as he did with the outlandish collection of broken American folk songs in 1985’s Rain Dogs, he has again provided an outlet for a kind of peaceful regression in the wake of perfection.

When the shiny, contrived, corporate-mandated Top-40 hits become tiresome, we begin to crave something that isn’t quite perfect. After the sixth or seventh auto-tuned flourish in a rap song’s chorus or the eightieth mention of beer or pickup trucks in a country ballad, Waits—and the degenerate, beautiful, unmistakably American characters to whom he gives a voice—are there as a reminder of both from where our country’s music came and the constant innovation that will continue to give rise to its best songs.

Featured Image by Soeren Stache / AP Photo

November 6, 2014