Music

The 15 Best Tom Waits Songs

Photo: Courtesy of Anti- Records

From apocalyptic blues boasts to backwoods chant-alongs, here are 15 songs that encapsulate Tom Waits' incredibly varied career.

It's difficult to write a proper introduction to any piece about Tom Waits. If you're a fan, you'll already know everything I could say about him. If you're not, here's what Wikipedia has to say: "Thomas Alan 'Tom' Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist and actor. Waits has a distinctive voice, described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding 'like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.' With this trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock music styles such as blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music, Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona."

So, um, there.

Waits' music treads so many stylistic paths that the challenge I wanted to present myself with here was, "In just how few songs can you sum up the man's music?" Fifteen was about as close as I got. The goal here wasn't just to put the songs on here that I couldn't live without (because I left off, oh, say, 50 or so), but to find 15 songs that represent every facet of Waits' music: the backwoods, the cabaret halls, the grimy sidewalks. It was a challenge, to say the least.

Pink Fender by rahu (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

15. "Just the Right Bullets" (The Black Rider, 1993)

Tom Waits' music has always had an odd theatricality to it, borne of (I think) a fascination with Kurt Veill and Bertolt Brecht. Never has this been so apparent as in The Black Rider, a "musical fable" produced in collaboration with William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson. "Just the Right Bullets" is a bizarre combination of lurching, music hall cabaret, and surging, double-time instrumental passages -- I think it's as appropriate as any cut to demonstrate Waits' theatrical leanings.

14. "Hell Broke Luce" (Bad As Me, 2011)

Taking its title from a piece of graffiti carved into the walls of Alcatraz during a prison break, "Hell Broke Luce" finds Waits agitating on behalf of one of his favorite causes: the beleaguered Army grunt. But this isn't a tender ode to homesickness like Real Gone's "Day After Tomorrow": this is an apocalyptic field chant that conjures visions of a dusty, demoralized desert before strafing it with Keith Richards' and Marc Ribot's guitars. Fittingly for someone who's spent a career chronicling the least among us, Waits hurls vitriol for those at the top: "How is the only ones responsible for making this mess / Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?"

13. "Goin' Out West" (Bone Machine, 1992)

Stark, eerie, and hilarious, "Goin' Out West" is the highlight of Bone Machine. Its genius is the naked ambition and hilarious blues boasting in the lyrics ("I'm gonna change my name to Hannibal / Or maybe just Rex") that butt up against the end-of-the-world menace of the band's relentless swing.

12. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" (Rain Dogs, 1985)

At a New Orleans funeral, it's traditional to have a brass band play a song as a dirge on the way to the cemetery and then as a high-spirited march on the way back. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" has the same construction -- it's a mournful, nakedly emotional song of resignation that fades into a beautiful, uptempo march at its end, with Waits banging away at a huge bass drum as he and the band strut out of the cemetery.

11. "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six" (Swordfishtrombones, 1983)

A shuffling, slouching tale of a long strange trip through some unnamed wilderness with a crow trapped in a guitar and a mule as traveling buddies, "16 Shells" was borne of Waits' obsession with old prison work-gang chants. If you aren't terrified by Waits howling "I'm gonna whittle you into kindlin'", then you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

10. "Step Right Up" (Small Change, 1976)

Much of Small Change finds Waits dipping dangerously into zeeba-baba-doo-ba "gee ain't I the hippest cat" territory. That said, you are a humorless prick if "Step Right Up" doesn't astound and delight you. A litany of huckster come-ons over a dangerously limber jazz trio, "Step Right Up" is positively one of Waits' most incredible vocal performances: it's hilarious, it's athletic, and it contains the indelible line, "The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away." This live version is slower than the record, as if Waits knew that was a feat he couldn't replicate nightly.

9. "Jockey Full of Bourbon" (Rain Dogs, 1985)

Another positively iconic Waits tune thanks to its use in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law. "Jockey" cruises in second on hand drums, upright bass, and Ribot's guitar set to "stun". Waits' vocal proves he doesn't have to bellow to cast his spell -- his sandpapery whisper paints images both baffling ("And I've been stepping on the devil's tail / Across the stripes of a full moon's head") and terrifying ("Bloody fingers on a purple knife").

8. "Hoist That Rag" (Real Gone, 2004)

"Hoist That Rag" sounds like it was recorded in a raft that just left Cuba. And I mean that in a good way. Listening to Waits shift between his high, keening register on the verse and that rafter-shaking bellow on the chorus is an unmatched thrill, and Marc Ribot turns in a hypnotic, catchy gem of a solo midway through.

7. "Downtown Train" (Rain Dogs, 1985)

The irony in this song being covered by Rod Stewart is that Waits' original version comes closer to the brandy-soaked, rough-edged charm of Stewart's early records. That's Richard Hell and Lou Reed's old bunky Robert Quine playing guitar, and aside from Waits' husky, strained vocal, his guitar is the real soul of this song. "Downtown Train" is wounded, lonely, but still ultimately hopeful -- Waits in a nutshell.

6. "Warm Beer and Cold Women" (Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975)

Early Tom Waits was often in danger of be-boppin' and finger-snappin' his way into caricature, but "Warm Beer and Cold Women" walks the line between character and caricature beautifully. It helps that Waits assembled a top-notch band of L.A. jazz session vets to help his song softly strut through Nighthawks at the Diner -- Pete Christlieb's deftly supportive sax and Jim Hughart's supple bass work elevate this tune to the closest Waits ever got to pure jazz.

5. "Temptation" (Franks Wild Years, 1987)

Waits grew up in California, taking frequent trips to Mexico, so the Latin tinges in his music are deeply ingrained. That falsetto, though (which he refers to as his "Prince voice") comes from somewhere else -- it's like a tailored shirt that got dragged through a briar patch on its way to your back. "Temptation"'s slowly percolating rhythms and broken-jukebox horns all add to one of the best vocal performances Waits has ever turned in: play this to your friends who think he's just a bellower.

4. "Hang on St. Christopher" (Franks Wild Years, 1987)

Demented horns, tribal percussion, needlepoint guitar, and Waits' voice through a police bullhorn: this is about as close to an archetypal Tom Waits song as you can get. Fortunately, it's just fucking awesome. St. Christopher ain't the only one who should hold on when you put this one on.

3. "Gun Street Girl" (Rain Dogs, 1985)

There aren't many Tom Waits songs like "Gun Street Girl". Built on minimalist bass, percussion, and banjo, the tune's singsongy, half-chanted vocal line is a winding narrative of fugitives, murder, and the woman at the center of it all. It's strange, catchy, and like all the best of Waits' songs, it creates a world of its own that draws you in and keeps you there, whispering secrets about day-old bread soaked in kerosene and the gun street girl who was the cause of it all.

2. "(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night" (The Heart of Saturday Night, 1974)

No bellowing. No brake drums. No turn-of-the-century railroad slang. Just acoustic guitar, upright bass, and one of Waits' most unaffected vocal performances. The song's sense of youthful yearning is only slightly offset by melancholy -- even the best Saturday night turns into Sunday morning at some point. Even at 25, Waits could pack a couple of extra decades worth of sadness into hard truths like that.

1. "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" (Blue Valentine, 1978)

There are more creative Tom Waits songs, and ones that he actually, well, wrote ("Christmas Card" is adapted from a Charles Bukowski poem called "Charlie I'm Pregnant"), but there aren't quite as many that can utterly devastate a room full of people with quite the same slurred, finely-detailed aplomb. For maximum tears in your bourbon, watch this live version, which features a bedraggled interpolation of "Silent Night" and Waits' rendition of that Little Anthony and the Imperials record. The audience laughs a bit at some of the lyrical gems, but after that final verse, you can hear a pin drop.

* * *

This article originally published on 9 January 2013.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.