Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "Whistle Down the Wind"

For an album that is effectively a study on the different aspects of death, “Whistle Down the Wind” is probably the most honest and intimate depiction of an individual confronting his own mortality, of examining the life he led and not liking what he’s done.

Tom Waits

Bone Machine

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

Keeping in line with Bone Machine’s trend of songs referencing one another, some picking up where others left off, “Whistle Down the Wind” provides a glimpse into what happens when the advice of “A Little Rain” goes unheeded. The message of “A Little Rain” was to take a risk for what you wanted, rather than stagnating in security only to find years later that your life got away from you. “Whistle Down the Wind” is the late-in-life realization that life did escape you, and you’ve no one to blame but yourself. The fear of taking a gamble and failing kept you in one spot, and, ironically, left you with that dreadful feeling that the true failure was in staying behind and playing it safe.

This sequel quality is made all the more clear by the instrumentation and musicality linking the pair of songs. The antique piano and pedal steel guitar of “A Little Rain” reappear here, and for the first half of the song they serve as the only accompaniment to Tom Waits’ voice, here at its most withered and mournful. David Phillips’ guitar is significantly more maudlin than on “A Little Rain”, however, conveying the wasted decades that separate the perspectives of each track. Rather than consoling optimism, Phillips’ playing sounds like tears rolling down the ancient narrator’s cracked face. Near the midpoint of the cut, David Hidalgo chimes in with some screechy violin and accordion, coloring the backdrop with a bit of playfulness; perhaps it is to represent the protagonist reflecting on his youth, remembering when the world was before him and he’d not yet forsaken his ambitions. “Sometimes the music from a dance / Will carry across the plains”, the character observes, seemingly referring to the accordion and violin, before adding the doleful, “And the places that I’m dreaming of / Do they dream only of me?”

Waits’ lyrics are at their most sentimental here, but such a tactic is necessary to communicate the depths of the narrator’s self-pity. The protagonist is a very different old-man-on-the-porch than the one of “Jesus Gonna Be Here” and “Murder in the Red Barn”. Here, you can all but see a decrepit octogenarian, weeping into his hands on a daily basis, the last of his kind with all his friends dead or gone. Yet he’s conflicted in his feelings toward death. On the one hand, it’s a welcome release from this world of woe. On the other, he’d rather rewind the clock to live his life over again, and he still clings to the idea that he might be able to turn things around and make his existence count in some fashion, even at this late stage in the game.

In recalling his desire to have left his hometown as a youth, dreams that came to naught, he could very much have been one of the characters glimpsed in “A Little Rain”. Unfortunately for him, he never made the plunge into the unknown, and the regret he’s left with is stifling. “I’m not all I thought I’d be / I’ve always stayed around”, he says, “I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand / Frozen to the ground”. It’s a heartrending sentiment, and Waits stretches his vocal cords for all they’re worth to squeeze out every drop of pathos. The saddest lines of the record’s saddest song, though, are simple despite their weight: “I’ve yelled and I’ve cursed / If I stay here I’ll rust / I’m stuck like a shipwreck / Out here in the dust”. What better expression of trepidation and remorse is there?

As the song winds to an end, the speaker appears begrudgingly resigned to his fate, no longer attempting to barter off death. His recitation of the titular phrase, saying he might as well be whistling down the wind, is his way of accepting that it’s his time to shuffle off this mortal coil and, in the process, finally leave the hometown he was too afraid to leave in any other fashion. To this end, he’ll hitch a ride on the Marley Bone Coach, a possible combination of references to the shackled Jacob Marley of A Christmas Carol and a horse-drawn hearse. If nothing else, he seems to say, he’ll depart in style, the vehicle for the dead being his one notable distinction.

For an album that is effectively a study on the different aspects of death, “Whistle Down the Wind” is probably the most honest and intimate depiction of an individual confronting his own mortality, of examining the life he led and not liking what he’s done. It’s fitting that the next song, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, is a complete inversion of this cut, finding a youngster howling against aging into geriatric descent.

Previous Entries

*"Introduction / Earth Died Screaming"

*"Dirt in the Ground"

*"Such a Scream"

*"All Stripped Down"

*"Who Are You"

*"The Ocean Doesn't Want Me"

*"Jesus Gonna be Here"

*"A Little Rain"

*"In the Colosseum"

*"Goin' Out West"

*"Murder in the Red Barn"

*"Black Wings"

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