Tom Waits

Eluding the Authorities

by Tim Scherman

9 January 2017

"Self-portrait" from  

"Alternative to WHAT?"

If part of Waits’ resistance to the commodification of his voice was to gain legal control over it, his frustrations with the system of which the meaning of his art was becoming the effect long predated the kind of economic success that could purchase a relative autonomy from the system. Indeed, from almost the beginning, Waits’ resistance has inhered not in legal proceedings or public statements on behalf of artistic integrity but in the form of his music itself. In an interview following the release of Small Change, still some years before he would leave Bones Howe (who also produced Sinatra, Elvis, and the Monkees) he’d come to realize that the music business is just like … the restaurant or casket business.” But “instead of spouting my views in Scientific American on the vulnerability of the American public to our product-oriented society,” he explained, “I wrote “Step Right Up.”

Waits’ work creates unstable isotopes of sound that challenge listeners to change their expectations for what has passed as pop.

It’s not that Waits discovered a more efficient “delivery system” for his critique of a culture of copies, for the history of musical style and culture has proven itself every bit as insistent on codes of rules and patterns of appropriate behavior as the legal system that had given him only economic control of his image and art. “There is a certain veneer to jazz and to any music,” Waits explained in an interview, “after a while it gets traffic rules, and the music takes a backseat to the rules. It’s like aerial photography, telling you that this is how we do it.” Rather, what has allowed Waits to make musical form his resistance to the commodification of his work is a complex strategy that arguably presages features of art beyond the postmodern. Refusing generic divisions (for example, that between overt cultural critique and jazz) along with the kind of consistency that would allow the market to reproduce an accurate image of his work, Waits has given even his recorded work the ineffable, unreproducible, “had to be there” feel of performance. In its almost total abandonment the idea of an art one can trace back to an “original” genius who would “own” it, Waits’ work inaugurates an authorship that is collaborative, spontaneous, and multivalent. Encouraging the musicians around him to find shades of difference in an industrial environment that must categorize him as “Alternative” (“alternative to WHAT?!” Waits once shouted at his collaborator, Jim Jarmusch), his work is less to write music than to create an environment in which musicians challenge him, and he challenges them, creating unstable isotopes of sound that challenge listeners to change their expectations for what has passed as pop.

Since the mid-‘80s, the phrase Waits has used to describe the resistance of his work to mere consumption or stylistic appropriation is “the hair in the gate”, a phrase he claims to have borrowed from Richards (who likely borrowed it from Warhol) that in the hands of linguists like Jakobson or Shklovsky might connote the phatic use of language, or language that refers to the medium of communication itself (e.g. ,“look, I’m typing”). Now common in the discourses of film and photography, the reference invokes the idea of literal dirt and hair one might see in the corner of a film as a celluloid film passes through the gate of the projector, the effect of which is to draw our attention away from the image represented and to the fact and conditions of its representation, its celluloid medium, the production of the illusion, and the work of the artist. Put enough hair in the gate, and it becomes almost physically impossible to see through the medium to the image and its effect, to consume it without reflection. Our attention is diverted to the medium of the artwork’s production—even to the decaying body of the artist, shedding hair. Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis claimed this “kind of self-consciousness” kept Waits from becoming popular in the first decades of his career. “It is not an American thing,” he explained, authoritatively missing the point I am suggesting here, that in fact, Waits’ whole aesthetic seeks to revise the way Americans listen to music (Under the Influence).

In musical terms, “the hair in the gate” takes myriad forms in Waits’ work. The first is most obviously his vocal style, which given the threat of Waits’ displacement by the “brand” by which he has become known may seem less a resistance to and more a symptom of a postmodern culture that diverts every index leading to history or authentic human creation into a self-reflexive channel—back to a “style” that can then be packaged and sold. But listen to Waits’ early songs, which reveal a relatively smooth baritone with perfect pitch and a tremendous range, and you realize that however many smokes he’s inhaled since childhood, the trademark growl is a choice, and it is perhaps the first step Waits took to arrest listening consumers and direct their attention to the work of musical performance.

Another method of achieving “the hair in the gate” is found in Waits’ technique of adopting styles, forms, and even references that audiences recognize only to present them in what might be called “inappropriate” musical or lyrical contexts that produce what I have elsewhere called a “translated” feel, “the disquieting suspicion that somewhere here we are missing something” (Scherman, 293-94). At times this effect is achieved through tensions between style—or the traditional content of a given musical form—and sense. With its throat-tearing chorus and the open distortion of Marc Ribot’s guitar, “Hoist that Rag”, for example, delivers an auditory violence that tells us this song is a critique of American military imposture (“stick our fingers in the ground, heave and turn the world around”), but behind it all, the beat of a happy mambo that could equally be taken for macho celebration of power is unmistakable. We may be relieved that a suicide doesn’t happen in the eerily spoken “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today,” but before we can categorize it as a powerful male representation of an inner monologue from Shakespeare’s Ophelia or Chopin’s Edna Pontellier, we notice Waits’ queer nasal delivery, giving listeners the distinct sense that he has recorded the song while wearing a diving mask and snorkel.

In “Walking Spanish” those unacquainted with prison slang gradually learn the phrase refers to a prisoner’s walk to the electric chair or gas chamber, but even as we are invited to share in the inmates’ pride that the condemned “never sang when he got hoodwinked—they tried it all but he never would”, Waits’ setting of the scene in a swinging beat and the flaring accents of New Orleans Jazz makes us question what is to be “celebrated” here in the killing of a man. If that’s not enough, the song iconoclastically concludes, “Even Jesus wanted just a little more time, when he was walking Spanish down the hall”—a metaphor the Bible tells us might be literally true, delivered in a context pretty foreign to Easter sermons.

The reference to Jesus in “Walking Spanish” is one of many, and the more one listens, it becomes clear that the Bible is one of two referential spaces Waits regularly returns to in ways that generate the jolt of incongruity in mismatched content and context, disallowing anything like “easy listening.” “Black Wings” from Bone Machine may provide the most obvious example. While the opening lines promise a traditional religious reference base “You take an eye for an eye / a tooth for a tooth / Like the say in the Bible”, what we get very soon is a darkly gothic Jesus in a sinister translation of the transition from the passion of Christ (“he’s not there for he has risen”) to the Acts of the apostles, or a scene where rumors of a black shadowy figure circulate to horrify the apostate: “one look in his eye / And everyone denies / Ever having met him”. Of course, those of us who grew up Christian may recognize the apostle Peter here (who denied knowing Jesus three times), but the tune, along with the confusing combination of claims that the black winged figure “once saved a baby from drowning”, and “once killed a man with a guitar string”, stalks the earth under a “moon that’s a cold chiseled dagger”. all of it delivered in a narration more hissed (and low) than spoken, leaves us unable to classify the song as purely referential, or for that matter irreverent. Waits’ upbeat jazz translations of the gospel shout like “Chocolate Jesus” (Mule Variations) “Jesus Gonna Be Here” (Bone Machine) and “Way Down in the Hole”(Frank’s Wild Years) seem to evoke religious references more or less traditional, but then we trip over the refrain to “Heart Attack and Vine,” (“That ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk”) and return to our uneasiness.

The second referential space where Waits frequently plays with listener expectations is that of the nursery rhyme, or more generally the songs and contexts of childhood—where the effect is something like happening upon a five year old girl in pigtails in a hash den or playing on the corner next to a bevy of prostitutes. Either way we can’t quite concentrate on either point of focus. “Heart Attack and Vine” again provides a classic example, beginning with the rhyme “liar liar with your pants on fire”, and later a reference to “doctor, lawyer, beggarman, thief” all in the context of a bums contemplating another hit (“this stuff will probably kill you / Let’s do another line”) as they hang out on the title’s punned street corner. In early Waits, the effect is more creepy; for example, “$29.00, whose “little black girl” barely survives her un-narrated rape, but “A Sweet Little Bullet with a Pretty Blue Gun” is the most difficult to think about.


Beginning “it’s raining, it’s pouring”, and later reminding us of the evening prayer “now I lay me down to sleep”, it narrates the murder of one those “little girls with sweet little dreams” at “that place on the drag, the Gilbert Hotel, with a couple letters burned out in the sign”. When we discover how young “small change” is in the song of that name off Blue Valentine (no more chewing gum or baseball cards, or overcoats or dreams), it’s just sad: his “headstone is a gumball machine”. Waits’ anti-tribute to Disney’s Snow White in “Heigh Ho” sets the elves cheery tune “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, it’s off to work we go” in the chamberlain’s dark minor chords, its originally saccharine chorus nearly drowned out by railroad rhythms and Optigan sound effects. If one imagines Brennan and Waits singing ironic lullabies like this and other “Bastard” adaptations (off Orphans) to little Sullivan Waits as they tuck him into bed, they’ve succeeded in their effect. (Sullivan, who like his brother Casey has his own musical career, is actually credited for guitar work on the album.)
One of the most arresting effects preventing the easy appropriation or consumption of Waits’ lyrics is their frequent rhythmic dislocation (what some musicians call “back phrasing”), purposely misaligning syllables of words with beats of music, or simply packing too many beats into a measure. This effect achieves a kind of realism in songs like “New Years Eve”, which depicts domestically dysfunctional moments around midnight on the holiday with a halting rubato of “Auld Lang Syne”, cleverly evoking a sense of the celebrants’ collective inebriation. More haunting, perhaps, is the eponymously tricky chorus to “How its Going to End”, where the insistent pizzicato rhythm of background strings is matched with a rhythm of the title phrase differently each time it arrives, so that we never quite know… well, you get the gag.

In all, the point is not that these distortions, dissonances or realignments making up “the hair in the gate” make Waits’ music “unlistenable”. Rather, my claim would be that they enact what we might call after J.L. Austin a musical performativity, making it difficult, if not impossible, for listeners to consume these songs—redirecting us instead, in a material sense, to what we are listening for, and if it’s what we think we know, Waits won’t let us hear it. Indeed, with all the allusions to what might be called the resistance of defamiliarization and self-reflexivity to capitalist consumption, the “separation” of elements in Waits music that makes their transparency impossible, I imagine some readers may be thinking all I’ve done is turn Tom Waits into a latter day Bertolt Brecht. While it might bear repeating, in theoretical terms, that we cannot will ourselves back to modernist foundationalism or referentiality or for that matter to modernist defamiliarization in an age whose set of reading assumptions make such moves impossible, perhaps the point is better made by saying that it’s hard to do Brecht’s trick in an age when the word “Brechtian” has become a familiar term designating yet another well-used style or mode that might be adopted and sold in the cultural marketplace. When David Fricke warns readers of his Rolling Stone review of Waits’ Mule Variations that they will find all these songs still in the “Brecht-does-Lead Belly” school, he’s more likely looking for a clever label, and not a description of how Waits’ work works.

Similarly, we might want to applaud Waits’ attempt, in his work’s insistent referentiality, to recover a uniquely American series of traditional musical idioms that we have lost, but again the danger of such a claim in an environment that would turn authentic “idiom” to mere “style” would be the way differences between copies and originals still tend to “get lost” in our predominantly depthless culture. Waits’ work, described as “alternative” by the market, is probably better described by the term “anti-”, even if that happens to be the name of his record label—not because it counters market forces in some utopian fashion, but for the way it performs like anti-matter in contact with the everyday, simultaneously destroying itself along with its commodity form, and leaving behind the positive energy of that reaction—what Richards and Waits call on a song from Bone Machine, “That Feel”, which once given, can’t be pawned, traded away, sold, or lost.

Works Cited

Montandon, Mac.Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader.New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005.

Scherman, Timothy.“Translating From Memory: Patrick Modiano in Postmodern Context.” Studies in 20th Century Fiction 16/2 (1992).

Waits v. Frito Lay, 978 F. 2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992)

Waits, Tom.Under the Influence>.DVD. 2010.

The Tom Waits Library—Grand Weepers, Grim Reapers—Biography. Website. Accessed Sept 15, 2015.

Tim Scherman has taught American literature and culture at Northeastern Illinois University since 1993. His essays on American literary and cultural history, postmodernism and literary theory have appeared in journals such as Arizona Quarterly, Studies in 20th Century Fiction and Paideuma.

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