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Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "Goin' Out West"

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Monday, Nov 12, 2012
"Goin' Out West", simply put, flat-out rawks harder than anything else on Bone Machine. From the moment the drums kick in at the 15-second mark, the tune throbs and pulsates without relent.
cover art

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

(Island; US: 8 Sep 1992; UK: 7 Sep 1992)

Ah, the hit of the record, or at least a hit by Tom Waits measures. While it’s no radio staple, “Goin’ Out West” is the Bone Machine song that’s unfurled its wings the furthest. It’s appeared in the film Fight Club, been covered by Queens of the Stone Age, Gomez, and Widespread Panic and is even available for karaoke in certain hip bars. That the song has become among the most popular in Waits’ canon is one of the many ironies surrounding the man, considering that it is the Bone Machine number least connected to its unifying theme of death. While its harsh music fits snugly into the mix, lyrically it sticks out against the overall concept. Well, that might be unfair; let’s say it’s the one that requires the most attention to its lyrics to decipher its place among the whole.
The music has quite a bit of disparate components swirling together, the heavy-hitting drumming being the most dominant element. Pounding with an unbridled ferocity, it seems to emanate from the belly of an industrial factory, some disgruntled worker pounding on the heavy machinery. Offsetting the brutal clamor is a sidewinding guitar part that would fit in with a film noir from the 1930s, itself trading off with some fuzzed-out distortion. What results is a surging rhythm that flat-out rawks harder than anything else on Bone Machine. From the moment the drums kick in at the 15-second mark, the tune throbs and pulsates without relent. Sparks flare up from it like two pieces of steel grinding against one another. A sensation of anxiety or jitteriness is stirred in the listener, one which all but compels you to get behind the wheel of a jalopy and floor it down the highway ‘til the wheels roll off. 

Then there is the persona Waits dons — an amphetamine-fueled narcissist charging westward as a force of nature, a sandstorm sweeping across the desert as lightning crackles from the thunderheads above. The answer to the question of where death fits into this song is that it resides in the psyche of the protagonist. His ravings are pure caveman braggadocio, presented most directly in the cocksure chorus: “I know karate, Voodoo too / I’m gonna make myself available to you / I don’t need no makeup / I got real scars / I got hair on my chest / I look good without a shirt”. A menacing ex-con with delusions of grandeur, heading west for an unspecified reason, he could be following the spree-killer archetype established by such figures as Charles Starkweather. Murder is never outright stated, but the very avoidance of it conversely serves to imply its presence, especially when considering death’s oppressive specter on the rest of the album. That such a topic seems deliberately avoided in turn draws the conclusion that wanton killing is no big deal to the song’s speaker.

The promotional video that accompanied the song effectively bolsters the image of the maniacal madman.  Shot in grainy black-and-white, the video features an unkempt and bushy-topped Waits bucking and braying, playing a dwarfed guitar as gusts of steam billow about him. The grime and heat radiate from the austere footage and steampunk concept. Waits recalls the record’s cover photo with his welder’s goggles and horned headgear, looking every bit the leading man who is badass enough to wrangle the devil on a leash. He truly looks the part of a man who could get away with a moniker such as Rex or Hannibal.

Interestingly, Waits has drastically tinkered with “Goin’ Out West” for live renditions (check it out on 2009’s Glitter and Doom Live album). Instead of the assaultive percussion of the album’s version, the song in a live setting shifts to more of a country-blues shuffle. It chugs on slow and steady like a locomotive, maracas, harmonica and some jazzy keys rising to the forefront of the instrumentation. Rather than simply being a tweaked arrangement, it comes across as an update on the tune’s narrator several decades down the line. He’s still as defiant and full of piss and vinegar as ever, still not beaten, imprisoned, or dead. As he declares in a tag attached to the end, he’s stronger than dirt. He’s still got that masculine face and keeps looking good without a shirt.

Previous Entries

*“Introduction / Earth Died Screaming”
*“Dirt in the Ground”
*“Such a Scream”
*“All Stripped Down”
*“Who Are You”
*“The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”
*“Jesus Gonna be Here”
*“A Little Rain”
*“In the Colosseum”

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