Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "All Stripped Down"

In "All Stripped Down", the visual comes to mind of a skin and bones Tom Waits in some tent show revival, his garment frayed and white collar stained yellow, conveying his message of salvation to a crowd of the undead at Armageddon’s zero hour.

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

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

Rising like a miasma from the Mississippi Delta, “All Stripped Down” is one of Bone Machine’s most minimalist tracks. The maraca’s buzzing insect wing shake from “Such a Scream” carries over, serving as the main instrument of the piece. For the first 50 seconds or so, the noise of snake vertebrae clanging against each other amounts to white static, Waits’ voice distorted to the degree that his hoodoo chants are indecipherable.

From this sludge arises the zombie proselytizer that Waits plays here. The gospel theme continues in its most barbaric form yet, another call-and-response template echoing the paradigm that runs through “Earth Died Screaming”. Waits uses his falsetto to spew hellish Biblical imagery in couplets before answering his own calls in a congested yawp reciting the song’s title. “Well the time will come / When the wind will shout”, he sings in the beginning, before switching roles from priest to congregation, “All stripped down / All stripped down”, croaking the refrain like a frog in the bayou. The visual comes to mind of a skin and bones Waits in some tent show revival, his garment frayed and white collar stained yellow, conveying his message of salvation to a crowd of the undead at Armageddon’s zero hour.

The inversion of gospel tropes takes on a more profane glimmer here as well. The odor of sex surrounds the track, about as clear a sacrilege as one can deliver in a religious framework. “Well take off your paint / Take off your rouge / All stripped down, all stripped down / Let your backbone flip / And let your spirit shine through”, Waits commands. Sure, it could be a declaration to reduce oneself to bare essentials before coming before the Lord, but a lewder connotation is unmistakable. “Ain’t nothin’ in my heart / But fire for you / All stripped down, all stripped down / With my rainy hammer / And a heart that’s true”, Waits chortles at the end, his use of the hammer as both an instrument of divine justice and an organ of animalistic lust being some of the clever word-bending Waits is so revered for. The concern for the carnal shows the tune tipping its hat to R&B and soul forms as well. Note, though, that just because the song oozes sex does not mean it is particularly sexy; this is a song of sweat and stank, not romance. Suffice to say, it’s not a song guys should play to help set a mood to facilitate them getting laid -- don’t substitute it for Al Green.

Overall, in terms of instrumentation, African-American musical touchstones, Waits’ distorted-cum-cooing vocals, and the revivalist flavor, “All Stripped Down” shares much in common with the Rolling Stones’ “I Just Want to See His Face”, from their famously stripped-down album, Exile on Main St. As Waits in 2005 listed that Stones record as his fourth most cherished album of all time, the similarity is certainly more conscious homage than coincidental link. “That song had a big impact on me, particularly learning how to sing in that high falsetto, the way Jagger does”, Waits told The Observer. The fact that Keith Richards cameos elsewhere on Bone Machine and has appeared on Waits’ albums throughout the years lends some additional context to the Stones-aping.

“Such a Scream” and “All Stripped Down”, with their double entendres and bawdiness, are the record’s most humorous and light-hearted moments. (Yes, it takes an exceptionally dark sense of humor to get the joke, but still . . .) As they arrive in tandem, they stand as the listener’s only comedic respite from the darkness that pervades Bone Machine from here on. The next two songs are so bleak, they are practically proportionate responses to their predecessors’ irreverence.

Previous Entries

*"Introduction / Earth Died Screaming"

*"Dirt in the Ground"

*"Such a Scream"

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