Whereas “Earth Died Screaming” opened the first half Bone Machine with the soundtrack to the end of the world, “In the Colosseum” begins the flip side with the panicked howls of society reacting to the destruction of all it knew. “Earth Died Screaming” offered a glimpse of the world fissuring; “In the Colosseum” details the dog-eat-dog entropy that results, how those left on the planet’s shell fight and clamor over the heaps of stacked bodies to survive just a while longer. It is the sound of anarchy rising.
If Bone Machine is any indicator, Tom Waits doesn’t foster a particularly favorable view of humanity (just look to the axiom he’d offer on Blood Money’s “Misery is the River of the World”—“If there’s one thing you can say about mankind / There’s nothing kind about man”). The theme of man’s cruelty to man is just as prevalent throughout the album as the central concept of death, and “In the Colosseum” depicts this is grandiose fashion. When it comes down to it or when given the proper prodding, humanity’s bloodlust—the urge that made fight-to-the-death spectacles and public executions so popular, and which has been sublimated through fictional violence a la horror movies—will boil to the surface and break through the guise of civility. The desire to watch wholesale slaughter still exists in individuals, Waits seems to be saying, it’s just been repressed for the sake of maintaining order and decency, the societal ruse being that we have evolved beyond such profane wants. In true sausage effect fashion, though, when an impulse has been stifled so long, it inevitably flares up in a proportionate surge, and that is what is happening in “In the Colosseum”.
Using politics as the vehicle for communicating this perspective, Waits compares the senate floor to the sanguinary tableaus that once filled the Roman Coliseum (why it’s misspelled in the title is anyone’s guess; possibly it is to signal that in the decay of civilization, conventions of written language are among the first casualties). The case could be made that the song is meant as a literal snapshot of the Roman Empire at the height of its debauchery, but that is far too simplistic for a songwriter with as much depth as Waits. The references to Rome are clearly allegorical, using the Empire as a case-in-point to show the depravity that has endured as a mainstay throughout civilization. Maybe there is a level of satire in a world where “bald-headed senators decapitate presidential whores” then splash in blood puddles, feeding the scraps of their kills to street dogs, but satire is often the realm where the purest truth lies. The idea that such butchery is ingrained in the collective unconscious and will continue unabated is repeated throughout: “Their families cry blue murder / But tomorrow it’s the same”, Waits states with unflinching honesty.
That political infighting is likened to gladiatorial combat offers a rich avenue for further exploration, crafting a Rorschach quality for discerning the factions at work in the narrative. Is it the tale of gluttonous and decadent rulers feeding their subjects to the lions’ den for their own entertainment? Or is it depicting a revolution, wherein the usurpers are storming the halls of the old order and meting out kangaroo court justice, relishing in their bloodletting? The fact two such opposing conclusions can be drawn is itself proof of how indistinguishable the ends of each camp are, underlying the truth that revolutions have a knack for leading to tyranny and oppression equal to (if not worse than) that exhibited by the previous rule they overthrew. “No justice here, no liberty / No reason, no blame / No cause here to taint the sweetest taste of blood”, Waits spits out, offering the mirror image binding the revolutionaries to the focus of their scorn, or the despots to their underlings.
Yet for all his cynical misanthropy, the song’s narrator is not a curmudgeon. Rather than being bitter in his assessment of humanity, he is reveling in the carnage, or, at least just calling ‘em as he sees ‘em. He stands at the entry to the grand amphitheater, a carnival barker luring passersby in for the show they can’t resist. Waits’ clenched vocal cords make his character sinister in his showmanship and profiteering. As far as he sees it, to rebel against human nature is a fool’s errand, for who can fight against thousands of years of impulse? “Greetings from the nation / As we shake the hands of time / They’re taking their ovations / The vultures stay behind”, he growls without a trace of shame before launching into the chorus, astute in its simplicity: “In the Colosseum / We call ‘em as we see ‘em / In the Colosseum tonight”.
What makes the song’s message all the more convincing is that the bedlam is adroitly represented in the music. At the time of Bone Machine’s release, “In the Colosseum” stood as the most ramshackle and rabid song in Waits’ oeuvre, though his experiments in noise and clatter would reach their zenith on 2004’s Real Gone and in “Hell Broke Luce” from 2011’s Bad As Me. This is largely due to the presence of the conundrum in “In the Colosseum”, the epitome of a junkyard instrument. A large iron cross with pieces of old farm equipment hanging from it which are then whacked with a mallet, Waits designed it himself and had neighbor and sculptor Serge Etienne weld it together. It has the appearance of a torture device at home in some medieval dungeon, and the noises it generates certainly sound as though they’re resonating from such a dire setting. Its din is akin to the slamming of a prison cell door or the latching of an iron maiden, the dragging of steel shackles or the tossing of a body down a flight of stairs, and that—mixed with the garbled voice of an auctioneer in the background seemingly cataloging livestock for the butcher mill—makes for a melody that unravels within your ears. Waits has always been good at creating soundscapes that replicate the emotional impact he’s driving at, but he outdid himself on “In the Colosseum”, the result being one helluva nauseating listen.
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