Counterbalance No. 100: Tom Waits’ ‘Swordfishtrombones’

Tom Waits

Mendelsohn: Not having spent a lot of time with Tom Waits, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I dropped the needle on Swordfishtrombones for the first time a couple months back. The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Oh no, it’s Captain Beefheart redux.” After taking a week or two to fight off the fear and apprehension I gave it another try, absolutely sure I was going to hate each and every moment of this record. You want to know something, Klinger? It never happened. I only really hate the first three minutes and thirty seconds, after which I start to enjoy myself. But it’s not until Waits actually starts to sing in “Shore Leave” that I relax and let his odd approach to rock expand inside my brain.

This is a bit of an oddball record, vacillating between sparse avant rock and lush, slightly off-kilter arrangements, and as it stands today, Swordfishtrombones rounds out the Top 100 on the Great List. Fill in the blanks for me, Klinger. Is Swordfishtrombones deserving of its spot in the rock ‘n’ roll canon and the distinct honor of being the bookend to the Top 100?

Klinger: Oh, it’s an oddball, all right—so odd that Waits’ original label, Asylum, actually passed on it. Now I’m more of a Rain Dogs man myself, but I am a pretty massive Tom Waits fan, and I understand why Swordfishtrombones ended up being The One in the critical consciousness. It’s a marked break from his earlier albums, which were more straightforward excursions into folky jazz (Closing Time, his 1973 debut), regular jazz (Nighthawks at the Diner), and seedy bluesishness (1980’s Heartattack and Vine, his last Asylum LP), and it points the way toward the rattletrap clanging that’s been his stock in trade for the past couple decades. I love all those aspects of his career—I’m of the opinion that he’s never released a bad album—but Swordfishtrombones is certainly a pivotal point.

But yeah, I was worried about your reaction to it, given the obvious influence Captain Beefheart had on this album. I discovered Waits before I ever heard Beefheart, which could explain why I was more sympathetic to Trout Mask Replica than you were. (I might also have liked Piper at the Gates of Dawn because early exposures to Robyn Hitchcock had already softened me up, now that I think of it). But regardless, there’s more accessible songwriting on exhibit here, not to mention a certain poignancy that makes all the difference. The skewed little Gershwin-esque miniature that is “Johnsburg, Illinois” still gets me every time.

Mendelsohn: “Johnsburg, Illinois”, that weird little Broadway number that it is, is probably the reason I found my way to liking this album, plus that song backs right up to “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”, and if I had any reservations about liking this record, they all disappeared right there. I see the Beefheart influence in this record; it’s smeared over the seams, sort of the gooey stuff that holds all the pieces together. And while I had a hard time even getting through Trout Mask Replica, I can’t say the same thing for Swordfishtrombones as Waits is a marked trade-up in the songwriting department. Where Beefheart trafficked mostly in noise and off-sync beats that made my skin crawl, Waits has come through with a much more classic approach, and I appreciate that greatly. So when he does trip into the avant territory, I can always remind myself that it will be a short excursion before recognizable song structures anchored by Waits’ sandpaper and bourbon voice will return to soothe my soul.

While I think Waits’ voice is more suited to the blues or the ballads, I always find myself returning to the jazz-lounge numbers. They seemed like such a novelty at first, but on repeated trips through this album it’s always “Frank’s Wild Years” or “Swordfishtrombone” that I find myself waiting to hear.

Klinger: Absolutely—songs like those are probably most people’s point of entry for Waits, what with the wry humor and the attention to detail and all (speaking of which, Frank assumes a $30,000 loan at 15 1/4% interest! The early ’80s were a crazy, crazy time). Your ears get all buttered up with “Frank’s Wild Years” and its jazzy Hammond organ played by Ronnie Barron, who worked with Dr. John and (wow, really?) Sonny and Cher. Then it gets it easier to absorb the Brecht/Weill vibes that make up the other dominant strain throughout Swordfishtrombones. You hear that in the title track, the stately, groggy beauty of “In the Neighborhood”, (another track that gives me chills) and the little “Dave the Butcher” instrumental. I also hear the Weimar groove in “Underground” much more than I hear any overt Beefheart references, but again that’s where my ears are just more likely to be headed. It all suggests the broader range of influences that Waits had surrounded himself with—most notably, from a musical standpoint, Victor Feldman, who played with everyone from Miles Davis to (wow, really?) Joe Walsh.

This shift in direction can also be attributed to the arrival of Kathleen Brennan, who began introducing Waits to a variety of diverse stylings, including some that it turns out were hiding just below the surface throughout Waits’ prior recorded work. Her influence here really can’t be overstated, and it would become even greater in the coming years, as Waits began openly collaborating with his bride. Their partnership reinvigorated his work immeasurably, keeping him from becoming a (let’s face it) novelty act. But as you know, Mendelsohn, a good woman can change everything.

Mendelsohn: Yes, behind every great man there is an even greater woman. Just out of curiosity, do any of the early Tom Waits fans consider Brennan to be something of a Yoko Ono for pushing Waits down the path less travelled? I imagine going from jazz and blues to the rattletrap that comprises the majority of this album could come as a bit of a shock. Or was it more of an organic maturation on the part of Waits as an artist and his exploration of the roads that jazz and blues would eventually lead him down?

Klinger: I can’t imagine that anyone would bear Ms. Brennan any ill will, especially when you listen to the results of their partnership. I think most people recognize that Waits’ prior neo-Beat boho was something of an unsustainable model and could easily slip into self-parody (although, again, I don’t think he was anywhere near that point, say what you will about his string-laden, Crystal Gayle-spotlighting soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 mega-flop One from the Heart).

Also when you listen to Waits’ progress from Closing Time to this album, you can detect a gradual shift that actually makes Swordfishtrombones considerably less jarring. Heartattack and Vine is gritty and grubby enough to serve as a signpost for the Howlin’ Wolfery of “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six” or “Gin Soaked Boy”, both of which feature deliciously salty guitar work from Fred Tackett of (wow, really?) Little Feat.

But enough of my historical perspectivizing and guitar tasting. I used to consider Waits fandom to be an excellent bellwether of cool before I stopped judging people based on their pop culture intake. (OK, I still do that a little, but Lord knows I’m trying not to.) Mendelsohn, does this album, on balance, hit you the right way?

Mendelsohn: Yes, it does. And it does so in a manner that will probably bring me back to Waits and open a dialogue for the exploration of more of his material. Swordfishtrombones has a lot going on inside those 40 minutes or so, a diverse and eclectic mixture of styles that on paper seems so at odds with each other but on wax come across at ease with the way Waits molds them together. I like it because I can either lean in and hear it or sit back and just listen and either way, I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.

And now would you please stop looking down your nose at me through those thick-framed hipster glasses? If you are going to stare at me judgmentally, at least take them off, I know they are fake.

Klinger: I have a prescription.