Death's Head Lullabies

Tom Waits - "Black Wings"

by Cole Waterman

26 November 2012

One can imagine "Black Wings" playing in the background as the ghostly image of the poncho-laden Man With No Name of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” rides across the sun-baked orange and red desert.
Photo by
Anton Corbijn from
cover art

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

US: 8 Sep 1992
UK: 7 Sep 1992

With “Black Wings”, the Deep South setting that dominates most of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine is replaced for the scorched earth landscape of the American Southwest. The work of Ennio Morricone is a clear touchstone, the spaghetti-western guitar line weaving like a snake through the sand as a maraca rattles as the tip of its tail. The percussion is sparse and downtempo; Larry Taylor’s upright bass sonorous in its twang. One can imagine this tune playing in the background as the ghostly image of the poncho-laden Man With No Name of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” rides across the sun-baked orange and red desert. The song’s lyrical content also bolsters such imagery, depicting a drifter who trades in mysteries and murder.

Waits relays the narrative in impressionistic form, like an old yarn-spinner offering glimpses of rumor and innuendo about this roaming desperado. Nothing is known for certain; the figure here is a legend, and the fact that there is no definitive information related serves to cement his mythological status. Does he exist at all? Who can say? After all, “He can turn himself in a stranger” and with just “one look in his eye / Everyone denies / Ever having met him”. Some says he’s rubbed elbows with royalty, others that he has broken out of every prison he’s ever been confined in (though the reasons for his incarceration are unknown). He follows the rules of the Bible, but only to justify his eye-for-an-eye style of justice. An air of the supernatural hangs about him, but perhaps that is just further speculation by the gossipers to make sense of his senselessness.
If one takes the rumors as truth, the question arises as to whether this figure is a saint or an archon of Hell. Based on the conflicting stories surrounding him, it would seem a bit of both. As he is a personified mystery to all he encounters, his origins and purpose may be unknown even to himself. He passes throughout the centuries and nations without a grand design; he’s merely a walking battery radiating a anarchic influence on those he passes. A quick comparison could be made to the Randall Flagg character from Stephen King’s The Stand, though this figure has no grand tyrannical ambitions. Rather than being good or evil, he is the embodiment of humanity’s chaos. He can garrote a man with a guitar string one moment, then save a baby from drowning the next. True anarchy of the soul would not be evil, but would be just as unpredictable and prone to either end of the moral spectrum, committing acts of malevolence or benevolence at random. Such a truth is exemplified by this character’s conduct.

The aura of unease and menace this antihero exudes is, once again, largely the result of Waits using his voice as an instrument. A sandpaper whisper is all he needs to get his point across, hissing his s’s and rumbling low beneath the surface. While Waits may be far from a technically gifted singer, he is an absurdly talented vocalist. The different guises he steps into from song to song would not be so convincing were this not the case. Whisper, bark, falsetto — they’re all arrows in his quiver, and his ability to use them to imbue his characters with sympathy, dread, and every emotional response in-between is an often overlooked aptitude of Waits. 

On a side note, “Black Wings” shares quite a few similarities with the work of Nick Cave. Granted, Cave and Waits are often linked, compared, and contrasted, but in this writer’s opinion, no other Waits song has a more overt Cave sound to it. The moral ambiguity of the protagonist, the palpable anxiety he elicits in those he runs across, the warped Biblical interpretations, the focus on atmosphere—the song would have been at home on Cave’s 1986 record Your Funeral…My Trial or 1988’s Tender Prey. Was Waits deliberately tipping his hat to Cave? Who knows? In a possible reciprocal homage, Cave’s 1994 record, Let Love In, featured one of his best known songs, “Red Right Hand”, which could be describing the same character that features in “Black Wings”. Furthering the connection, Waits in 2009 issued 5,000 copies of a booklet titled True Confessions, wherein he interviewed himself. To the question of which songs have served as beacons for him, Waits placed Cave’s “Red Right Hand” among the list. 

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”
*“Goin’ Out West”
*“Murder in the Red Barn”

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