Tom Waits: Real Gone

[4 October 2004]

By Zeth Lundy

Down, Down, Down

Now that we can all safely distance ourselves from audience participation fluffernutters like “Achy Breaky Heart” and the Macarena, it’s time we all grew up and learned a new dance. We need a dance as burdensome and Bushed as our pre-apocalyptic, nuclear-proliferated reality, a sharp two-step that reminds us of our own mortality while sweating us into shape. You know, a dance that shares the shit out of you just enough to get your midriff twisting.

I’m thinking that the “Metropolitan Glide” is just the ticket. You’ve heard of that one, haven’t you? The one that Knocky Parker taught to Bowlegged Sal? Tom Waits can show you how to move your feet to its skewered, cataclysmic groove, though you’ll probably want some different shoes than those. Some initial pointers, from the mouth of Waits himself (these will really help): “Turn off the ringer on your cellular phone / Whip the air like a Rainbow Trout / Drag your tail pipe till you bottom out.”

If you can’t grasp it right away, there’s plenty more where that came from. Tom Waits’ new album, Real Gone, boasts countless songs for dances that haven’t been invented yet: there’s “Top of the Hill”, if you want to turn it loose like James Brown dancing with skeletons in a twig-and-mud hut; or “Shake It” if you want to grind along to an escaped convict’s grotesque jump blues; or if twitchy bleats and thick-fingered guitar chomps are your bag, crank up “Baby Gonna Leave Me” and resoundingly declare, “If I was a tree, I’d be a cut down tree / And if I was a bed, I’d be an unmade bed.” You have to embrace your imperfections nowadays, people, because someday they may be the only thing you have left.

These songs aren’t merely potential stream-of-consciousness struts (or, “cubist funk” as Waits calls it); all are bound by the guttural beat-sounds (I hesitate to use the term “beatboxing”) of Waits’ voice. Waits recorded hours of these vocal rhythm beds in preparation for Real Gone, using their maniacal foundation for the composition of songs (as always, with his co-creator and wife Kathleen Brennan). Waits took the rhythms and songs into the studio with a small core of musicians—bassist Larry Taylor, guitarist Marc Ribot (marking his first return to Waits’ group since 1999’s Mule Variations), ex-Primus drummer Brain and current Primus bassist Les Claypool, Harry Cody, and Waits’ son Casey—and set Real Gone to tape in a flurry of first takes. Waits drags his mudfunk down to cacophonic depths; he’s in the belly of the whale, and it becomes him. Real Gone leans on nail-bending percussion and swagger in a manner that recalls Bone Machine‘s metallic binge more than the recent theatrics of Alice or Blood Money.

Real Gone is so distorted and frayed, at times I thought my speakers had blown. But Waits’ music works best when it’s molested and shorn through a shredder, emerging like a hound-faced beatnik with two-day stubble. You don’t own a run-down turntable with a rusted stylus? No worry, Real Gone has been recorded and mixed to make you believe that you do. Percussion clanks and scrapes like a ruckus in a submarine’s bowels, guitars and turntables (yes, turntables) squeal like midnight transmissions from pirate radio, chairs squeak and banjos hypothesize. Waits gets more eccentric as he gets older: he’s a long way from Closing Time‘s beat poet piano man, but it’s impossible to think of him as anything else. No one is making music like this today; hell, no one can even cover music like this (there’s a reason why Waits covers are always from his early years or restricted to his piano ballads: no one can touch his idiosyncrasies).

So Waits is completely on his own here, stomping the grass flat in a territory no other contemporary artist can enter. He captains a Buena Vista Social Club pirate ship in “Hoist That Rag”, bellowing “HOISSTHARAAG!” with rasping menace. He’s the giant chasing Jack down his beanstalk in the lumbering “Don’t Go Into That Barn”, leading a march of ghost soldiers through tales of maniacs loose in the woods, “high on potato and tulip wine”. And “Make It Rain” is a perfect existential creeper in which Waits is “just another sad guest on this dark Earth”. With Casey’s understated drum work and Ribot’s diced-up Albert King-isms as its backbone, “Make It Rain” searches for answers when all that exists are questions: “It’s the same old world, but nothing looks the same”.

Real Gone has its fair share of ballads, but is noticeably devoid of Waits’ piano songs (“grand weepers”, as he named them). The emphasis on guitar allows these songs to resonate emotionally without the piano’s ballooning, grandiose gestures. The most effective ballads on the album are sequenced at its beginning and end. The 10-minute “Sins of My Father”, bravely placed early in the record, is a dark alley crawl through a world that “turns on nothing but money and dread”. “Wicked are the branches on the tree of mankind,” Waits hisses in his cautious growl. “The roots grow upward and the branches grow down.” The explicitly political “Day After Tomorrow” is the album’s final song (not counting the one-minute hidden track “Chick a Boom”); its sober mortality adds undeniable weight to its predecessors. Composed as a soldier’s letter home from the front lines of war, “Day After Tomorrow” aches with longing and prays for optimism: “You can’t deny the other side / Don’t want to die anymore than we do / What I’m trying to say is don’t they pray / To the same God that we do / And tell me how does God choose / Who’s prayers does he refuse?”

Waits has dug out his own cavern of mythology with a sprawling, barbaric yawp ever since he began to reinvent himself with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones (for those keeping track with Tolkien-revered fervor, add Piggy Knowles, Sing Sing Tommy Shay Boys, Bum Mahoney, Everett Lee, and Horse Face Ethel and Her Marvelous Pigs to the growing list of characters). Real Gone busts open the noir cabaret of Alice and Blood Money to new possibilities, much in the way that Bone Machine expanded on his groundbreaking output of the 1980s. The farther Waits descends into the darkness, the more relevant he becomes. So toss Real Gone on the stereo and shimmy to your own mortality.

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