Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "Dirt in the Ground"

“Dirt in the Ground” is the whimpering microcosm of the individual’s irrelevance. It is the maudlin acceptance of inevitable decay, a funeral dirge for the sadly dead.

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

Label: Island
US Release Date: 1992-09-08
UK Release Date: 1992-09-07

Bone Machine’s second song stands as a mirror image of its predecessor. Where “Earth Died Screaming” was all bluster and chaos, the soundtrack to the world breaking apart at its seams and its fissures opening to claim saints and sinners alike, “Dirt in the Ground” is the whimpering microcosm of the individual’s irrelevance. It is the maudlin acceptance of inevitable decay, a funeral dirge for the sadly dead.

As the tune itself is more subdued, so too does Tom Waits’s voice do a 180-degree turn, from serrated bark to raspy falsetto. Rather than snarling like a hellhound, he howls mournfully with all the pathos of a coyote alone on the ridge. Waits has characterized this vocal turn as his take on Prince -- not the most obvious influence one would associate with the man, but nevertheless, one Waits has gone on record as praising. (For Waits singing the ditty in his more familiar guttural rasp, check out the version on 2009’s Glitter and Doom Live, which is surprisingly no less affecting.)

Gospel blues is the most obvious musical touchstone, though as Waits did with the field holler on “Earth Died Screaming”, the paradigm here is again flipped inside-out. The stripped-to-the-bone manner in which Waits delivers the gospel chant chorus sums up the broken sentiment the narrator is espousing, swapping that genre’s typical message of hope with an attempt to spread the truth of there being no other side to death. Death here is not a sacred passage into some bright-lighted tunnel; it’s the epitome of the profane, a reversion into nothingness. The nihilism is potent —all your hopes, dreams, aspirations, and memories are nothing but fool’s errands, as you’re just walking dirt biding your time until you fall back into the ground. “What does it matter / A dream of love or a dream of lies? / We’re all gonna be the same place when we die”, runs the epigram Waits opens the song with. “Your spirit don’t leave knowing / Your face or your name / And the wind through your bones / Is all that remains”. The narrator is not reveling in this meaninglessness of life, but neither is he raging against it. He’s a figure who previously fought against the grain of this truth, but is now going out with a moan of resignation. He sought to find purpose in life, struggled with a faith to believe in something more, but lost his footing along the way. The cognitive dissonance that results has not granted him freedom or release, but despair.

Waits would revisit this idea of life having no innate meaning on Blood Money’s “Everything Goes to Hell”, though that song offers a diametrically opposing perspective. The narrator of that tune, far from being left a quivering bowl of jelly over life having no intrinsic value, sees it as justification to indulge in moral anarchy. Why worry about tomorrow’s consequences when life is so short and pointless? Everyone is just going to go to hell in the end, so let’s take that as a license to run hedonism to the nth degree.

Getting back to “Dirt in the Ground”, gospel and the blues aren’t the only musical forms touched on here. Despite the earthy title, the song owes much to traditional sea shanty structure. It ebbs and bobs like a ghost ship adrift in a harbor, the occasional bells tolling like a buoy signaling the vessel’s overdue return. There is a work-song-like manner in which the refrain is delivered, the repeated “yeah-yeahs” between “We’re all gonna be” and “Just dirt in the ground”, delivered with a sleepwalker’s lethargy, calling to mind a chant of boatmen hoisting the sails. Waits, in his plaintive desperation, is the last sailor among the doomed seamen, the final bone of the skeleton crew, perpetuating a work song of one. The alto and tenor saxophones provide the swelling and breaking waves upon which the plague ship sways, their dialogue of sustained notes serving as the most emotionally evocative component of the piece. Coupled with the sparse piano notes, the splintering masts and tattered sails are painted in the forefront of the listener’s mind.

The song has a direct lyrical link to “Earth Died Screaming”, echoing the current state of the afterlife’s two halls as initially addressed in that song: “Hell is boiling over / And heaven is full”. Right from the get-go, Waits wants to make it clear this album is a unified work, that the songs will reference one another while offering distinct perspectives on the central theme of mortality. Man’s inhumanity to man, a recurring theme in itself, is first referenced here in the third verse’s description of a killer with nerves of stone mounting the gallows to the lapping horde of spectators, but will come up again more directly on “In the Colosseum”. The Biblical allusions likewise reappear in the song’s final verse with the retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, the world’s first murder, if you believe in that kind of thing. “Now Cain slew Abel / Killed him with a stone / The sky cracked open / And the thunder groaned”, Waits describes, merging a Genesis parable with imagery straight from Revelations. From the inception of humanity, death has been the connecting vein, the only thing more assured than taxes. It’s not hard to imagine such a literary songwriter as Waits building this song around a quote from Flannery O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, spoken by the work’s deranged religious zealot Mason Tarwater: “The world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are. There’s a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive.”

Waits wraps the cut with the most succinct summation of its prophecy of existential dread — “Along a river of flesh / Can these dry bones live? / Take a king or a beggar / And the answer they’ll give / Is we’re all gonna be / Dirt in the ground”. Waits’ wife and songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, has said her husband composes two types of songs — grim reapers and grand weapers. “Dirt in the Ground”, though, is both forms in one. The Grim Reaper himself may be the song’s narrator lamenting his own looming demise in a world on the cusp of oblivion. As Ely, the blind scavenger in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road says, “When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but Death and his days will be numbered too.”

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