Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me"

Photo: Danny Clinch

In its depiction of a botched suicide, "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me" conjures goosebumps, accelerates heartbeats, and leaves a seasick queasiness in the listener.

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

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

If you’re one for listening to an album in the dark, a pair of headphones wrapped around your ears, and you somehow succumb to sleep during Bone Machine, it’s best that you don’t drift back to consciousness during the sixth cut, “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”. The results of surfacing from a brief nod in the midst of such track could be . . . unsettling, to say the least.

In an album of experimentation, “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me” is the work’s most experimental piece, a spoken word meditation on a botched suicide. Even after listening to it umpteen times, and steeling yourself for its inevitable appearance through the first five songs, it’s still an uncomfortable listen. It conjures goosebumps, accelerates heartbeats, and leaves a seasick queasiness in the listener. Subtle and primal thumping, the tolling buoy from “Dirt in the Ground” and the seesawing electrical coloration of the Chamberlin are all that accompany Tom Waits as he recounts his unrequited desire for a watery grave. Sounding as though he is fighting his way through a haze of ham radio static, Waits’ voice serves as the instrument around which the palpable creepiness is built, languidly whispering and drawing out syllables to convey the vividness of his imagery.

Spoken word pieces were nothing new for Waits by this point in his career, but never had he so effectively created a mood piece to accompany his poetry. “Frank’s Wild Years” was quirky and fun in its juxtaposition of lizard lounge jazz with the yarn of a man who kills his wife and torches his house, and “9th and Hennepin” had a rich, noir gangland vibe in its surreal depiction of inner city entropy. But with both of those pieces, there is a distance between the storyteller and the listener; you never forget that you’re merely observing another world. With “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”, though, you feel like you are tethered to the speaker, being dragged along into the surf and watching as the last air bubbles float above your head. The level of intimacy crafted by Waits’ voice and the backdrop of unnerving sound effects wound up serving as the paradigm for his future spoken word bits. Most notably, the paranoia of “What’s He Building?” from 1999’s Mule Variations amounted to a sequel-in-spirit, so resonant were the connections to the subject of today's Between the Grooves entry.

Despite the track’s subject matter of suicide, it’s not despair that seems to motivate the speaker, but lust. He sincerely wants to be part of the ocean, but the ocean wants no part in granting his wish. When he states his longing to “open my head / And let out all of my time”, you get the feeling it’s a deluge of post-coital relief that will flood from his skull when he achieves his goal. One could see the recitation as a loving ode, a plea to the sea to reconsider its assessment of the narrator. Waits longs for “the strangles” -- a portmanteau of “strange” and “angels” -- to take him “down deep in their brine” and romanticizes “the mischievous braingels” which he likewise hopes will suck him “down into the endless blue wine”. What exactly strangels and braingels are is open to interpretation, but within the context of submarine imagery, one is left visualizing watery nymphs toying with Waits, pulling and shoving his disheveled self as tries to remain in the deep.

On a record about death, this is oddly the third time Waits directly references his characters’ inability to die and the afterlife’s renunciation of them. Where “Earth Died Screaming” saw the protagonist boasting of his dedicated reprobate status that convinced heaven and hell to reject him, and “Dirt in the Ground” lamented the at-capacity status of those realms, “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me” is a much more vulgar affair. The narrator isn’t bemoaning his failure to end his life. Rather, he seems perplexed and stupefied by it. His tone gives the impression of routine, that he’s been attempting to dissipate among the waves as a regular matter of course. Each time he washes ashore, regurgitated by the sea, he stands up, wrings himself out, and repeats the dance. He repeatedly tries to kill himself by rote, long gone being the time he actually tried it with hope of succeeding. But like he states in the opening couplet, despite the ocean’s disavowal, he is determined and will most assuredly be back tomorrow to play.

Previous Entries

*"Introduction / Earth Died Screaming"

*"Dirt in the Ground"

*"Such a Scream"

*"All Stripped Down"

* "Who Are You"

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