Death's Head Lullabies

Tom Waits - "Such a Scream"

by Cole Waterman

24 September 2012

Feral and clangy, "Such a Scream" is one of the finest examples of Tom Waits’ ability to hone his workspace and use it as an instrument for imbuing his tunes with atmosphere.
cover art

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

US: 8 Sep 1992
UK: 7 Sep 1992

The piano fade-out of “Dirt in the Ground” suitably lowers the listener’s guard for the primal assault of “Such a Scream”, one of Bone Machine’s most savage songs. Feral and clangy, it is one of the finest examples of Tom Waits’ ability to hone his workspace and use it as an instrument for imbuing his tunes with atmosphere.  The piece is pure boiler room cacophony, the ragged percussion sounding as though Waits and his cohorts are banging on the walls of some abandoned garage. Minimalist-industrial might be the most apt description.

At just over two minutes long, the frenzy does not let up for an instant. Bleating alto and tenor saxophones lay down the song’s foundation, a muddy electric guitar playing over it. Breaking up any guise of a consistent rhythm is the scattershot drum patterns, the chaos of construction workers taking crowbars and hammers to garbage pails and oil drums. A maraca rattles throughout, alternately like a bokor shaking his asson or the fluttering of insect wings.

It’s no coincidence that the maraca elicits a comparison to an instrument of the Vodou religion, the song so obviously influenced by the infamous rock ‘n’ roll houngan Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Truly, the song could be a conjureman’s chant, a dispatch recited in some sweat-soaked ceremony in a backwoods peristyle. One can picture Waits as a Vodou leader spitting out his lyrics, trying to get the Lwa to mount him as his congregation keeps up the furious pounding behind him.
The influence of Vodou is an often overlooked, or downplayed, component in blues music. For early bluesmen, the two went hand-in-hand. With Vodou being the syncretism of West and Central African beliefs and Catholicism, it served as a vessel by which slaves and their descendants kept traditional African music, culture, and lore alive in the New World. In turn, many of those traditions found their way into early blues music. As Bone Machine is essentially Waits seizing and testing the limits of the blues, it was all but essential he tackle Vodou so directly.

Facilitating the evocation of such an aura is Waits’ lyrical imagery harmonizing seamlessly with the rattle and stomp percussion. Grotesque as they are, the lyrics come across as an experiment in using moribund metaphors to communicate love, for Waits has said “Such a Scream” is, through all the mire and ugliness, a romantic ode to his longtime wife and co-songwriter Kathleen Brennan (notably, she does not share a writing credit on “Such a Scream”). “She just goes clank and boom and steam / A halo, wings, horns, and a tail / Shoveling coal inside my dreams”, Waits brays in the first verse, pushing the boundaries of expressing an endearing sentiment, following in the second verse with, “The plow is red / The well is full / Inside the dollhouse of her skull”. The way in which Waits howls and barks also draws a comparison to a Southern Baptist preacher, testifying from the pulpit about yearning for that good ol’ time religion, the focal point in Waits’ faith being Brennan.

A trace of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique is also evident here. Waits has said the creative process of Bone Machine involved components of separate songs being Frankensteined together, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine lyrics being thrown together in favor of a vivid aesthetic than a practical or literal one. Being a scholar of Beat literature and a collaborator of Burroughs on his subsequent album, The Black Rider, it seems Waits would have no problem trying his hand at Burroughs’ method of slicing up words and phrases and stringing them together. “A milktrain so clean / Machine gun haste / You’ll ride the only wall of shame / And drag that chain across the state”, Waits sings, the lyrics nonsensical yet evocative of some indecipherable menace. (Also of note, the song marks the first appearance of the Eyeball Kid, who garners nothing but a cameo here but would come to have an entire narrative and a song bearing his name on Waits’ 1999 album, Mule Variations.)

As one of the album’s briefest songs, “Such a Scream” veritably bleeds into its follow-up, another ghastly take on gospel blues and brimstone devotion, “All Stripped Down”, but we’ll delve into that next week.

Previous entries

*“Earth Died Screaming”
*“Dirt in the Ground”

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