Death’s Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - “Jesus Gonna Be Here”

[22 October 2012]

By Cole Waterman

On an album overflowing with avant-garde blues, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” stands as the centerpiece or reference point from which every other song stems. It is at once Bone Machine’s most straight-forward take on the blues and its most warped.  By simultaneously being the record’s purest distillation of the genre, a veritable tribute to its traditions and motifs, and a conscious caricature of the form, it serves to continue the record’s trend of playing up dichotomies, of welding contradictory aspects to each other and giving listeners an open piece to interpret.

Forsaking the industrial leanings and abrasive percussion found throughout most of Bone Machine, the song is a stripped-down experiment in bare necessities. Tom Waits delivers his howling devotion to his Lord in nearly a capella fashion, his warbling falsetto a testament to the storied life his character has endured with the hope that Jesus would make it all right in the end. His vocal pattern is what carries the 12-bar blues template, the instrumentation backing him so sparse that it serves to craft mood more than melody. Floorboard-stomping, the creaking of a rocking chair, and an open-tuned bass delivering two notes at six-second intervals are all that support Waits as he sings with the fervor of the blindly devout, hankering for his faith to be rewarded. He repeats the titular phrase, “Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”, as a mantra, a vocal talisman for warding off the devil’s temptation or doubt.

The record’s standard atmospheric production holds true here, the level of intimacy making you feel like you’re part of the jug band sitting on the porch of the clapboard shack from which Waits delivers his hymn.  Such a focus on creating an aura for the song adds to its authenticity, making Waits sound as though he’s been mounted by the ghost of Blind Willie Johnson, carrying on his style of spiritual blues. One can’t help but envision a bucolic setting: Waits as an ailing old man, his skin leathery and wrinkled as a catcher’s mitt, arthritic hands barely able to strum the guitar on his lap. The humidity is stifling, but the old-timer keeps his eye on the horizon, waiting for his Jesus to roll up and take him from this vale of tears. Life’s been painful, but relief is just around the corner, coming any minute now: “With a promise and a vow / And a lullaby for my brow / Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”. It’s a song delivered from a deathbed, yet the protagonist is hopeful, looking forward to death for it means his union with Jesus. “I’m just gonna wait here / I don’t have to shout / I got no reason / And I got no doubt”, he sings with absolute conviction, “I’m gonna get myself unfurled / From this mortal, coiled-up world / ‘Cause Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”.

For all the surface-level optimism and assurance of the narrator, there is — of course — a darker interpretation wedged between the lines. One could see this singer as the victim of a con, his religion being the scam that victimized him. There is a sense that despite his steadfast adherence to his faith, it’s all for naught, that as the light increasingly fades from his cataract eyes, there is no Jesus getting any closer to save or redeem him. It’s not the tale of a life spent worshipping a deity that ends with that god rewarding devotion with eternal life and endless riches in heaven, but of a life wasted in distraction. What makes it all the more tragic is the idea that the speaker himself never, not even in his final moments, realizes he’s been so duped. “I’ve been faithful / And I’ve been so good / Except for drinking / But He knew that I would”, he states toward the end, as if maybe a little doubt is starting to creep in, that Jesus might be taking longer to arrive than he expected, but he immediately catches himself and remains determined to see the face of his Lord with “I’m gonna leave this place better / Than the way I found that it was / And Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”. In this context, Jesus is the carrot, the narrator is the donkey desperately reaching toward it, and life itself, with all its torment and hardships, is the cart being dragged along. (Waits even gets in a little dig at the materialism of the modern-day church, mentioning Jesus as rolling up in a brand new Ford, Hollywood being His name.)

With this interpretation, an innate blues trope is once again turned on its head. In the traditional blues of the American South, spirituals were conceived and delivered with the utmost sincerity. They were honest declarations of faith and testimonials of a love for Jesus, free from any irony. This Christian faith in the South’s African-American population—and the music by which such allegiance is displayed—evolved over the centuries from the religions of their ancestors. Polytheistic or animistic religions were a crucial factor of life for indigenous African tribes, as their worldview didn’t distinguish between the natural and supernatural realms in the way most Western monotheisms do. When members of Africa’s Wolof, Fon, Yoruba, and Bantu tribes were taken to the New World as slaves, their religious devotion remained largely intact (though there was cognitive dissonance among the Africans regarding how and why their gods would allow them to be enslaved). As slave owners aggressively campaigned to stamp out the religious life of their subjects (even making it a point that religious elders not be brought to the Americas), the Africans disguised their beliefs by essentially covering them with Christianity. In the same way they maintained their musical traditions, passing them down generationally, they too ensured their religious beliefs survived in a syncretic form as their native religions increasingly merged with Christianity. Throughout the generations, a genuine devotion to Jesus replaced the worship of tribal deities like Damballah, Olorun, or Bondye in certain locations of the American South. However, the slaves and their descendants retained their methods of praise, in which music played a key role. In those smaller religions that were more steeped in African traditionalism and took Christian elements without the belief that Jesus is the literal son of God — Vodou, Santeria, Candomble — the relevance of music is even more pronounced than in their more Christ-centered counterparts. Thus, blues music is a natural descendant of that religious background.

“Jesus Gonna Be Here” is a sardonic take on that loyalty to an unseen, omnipotent entity. And yet, Waits’ criticism is conveyed in such a manner that it is not overt or indicative of a superior attitude. It is an homage to history with a slight, meta-level jab at the beliefs inherent to them.

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”

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