Death's Head Lullabies: Tom Waits - "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" / "Let Me Get Up on It"
Who is more suited for conveying honesty than a child, uncorrupted and unconcerned with politesse and decorum? It’s that notion Tom Waits runs with here, playing a child who for the first time is wrestling with the concept of aging, and the mortality that inevitably ends it.
It may not seem so on first listen, but “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is arguably the lynchpin of Bone Machine, its effect as emotionally tolling as any of the record’s ruinous ballads. Look at this way — who is more suited for conveying honesty than a child, uncorrupted and unconcerned with politesse and decorum? It’s that notion Tom Waits runs with here, slipping into the role of a child who for the first time is wrestling with the concept of aging, and the mortality that inevitably ends it.
Backed by a chugging guitar awash in feedback and distortion, Waits offers a litany of reasons why the blissful ignorance and innocence of childhood is preferable to the corrupting influence of adulthood. “Seems like folks turn into things / That they’d never want / The only thing to live for is today”, he hollers, defiance and heartbreak reigning in his delivery in equal measure. With childlike insight and simplicity, Waits gives a run-down of the various plights that come hand-in-hand with lurching toward maturity: “I don’t want my hair to fall out / I don’t wanna be filled with doubt / I don’t wanna be a good boy scout / I don’t wanna have to learn to count / I don’t wanna have the biggest amount / I don’t wanna grow up”. As the song progresses, the narrator increasingly heaps his scorn at the vapid trinkets and accomplishments culturally established to serve as comforts for the pain of adulthood. “I don’t wanna put no money down / I don’t wanna get me a big old loan / Work them fingers to the bone”, he yells, directly mocking the shallowness of such materialism.
Waits again conveys the gravity of the song’s message in his juxtaposition of contradictory elements. He hammers on the guitar like a child having a tantrum, a kid raging against the dawning of the light without the refinement to do it in anything but primitive fashion. His voice, again the dominant instrument, is the gasoline-gargling yelp of an ancient, in theory straining the believability that the song is told from a child’s point-of-view. And yet, the battered and bruised quality of Waits’ voice serves to express just how genuine the protagonist’s fears are, that the savage world-weariness defining his vocals is what’s unavoidably lying in wait for him.
The Jim Jarmusch-directed music video visualizes this dichotomy, featuring Waits scrunched under a barroom table that doubles as a miniature performance stage. With a toy-sized guitar in his hands and a tiny microphone before him, Waits becomes a cramped ogre, an image of a child’s nightmare, embodying the terror experienced by the narrator. It’s appropriate that before the song begins, Waits wears the devil costume from Bone Machine’s cover as he rides around on a tricycle, ending up in the bar by himself as he sips a martini, smokes a cigar, and reveals a lady’s high-heeled shoe on one foot. Surreal, yes, but it serves as an icon representing what the child persona dreads.
Getting back to Waits’ vocal delivery, though -- its brutality gives the impression that it’s not a child singing at all, but an old man flashing back, dreaming of his younger days. This interpretation is supported by the punchline that arrives at the song’s end: “I don’t wanna float a broom / Fall in love, get married then boom / How in the hell did it get here so soon?” After railing against the trappings and hand-me-down conventions of "maturity", the singer awakens and admits he did grow up and did sell out as he vowed never to do. As such an undesirable fate has already befallen him, death can’t be far away. In this sense, the song is a more aggressive counterpoint to “Whistle Down the Wind”, as both cuts grapple with the reality of aging and regret.
In a quirky twist of fate, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, with its Ramones-esque title, ended up being covered by the seminal punk band on its final album, 1995’s ¡Adios Amigos!, sounding as though the quartet had penned it themselves. The irony of this cannot be overstated. First off, the cover ended up hitting number 30 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, giving the long-hitless Ramones a genuine hit, one written by an artist who likewise was not known for commercial success. Secondly, the very fact that a song told from the perspective of a child fearful of aging ended up being the swan song of the Ramones, punk’s greatest survivors, is a fact that would seem too contrived to be believable if it were not true. Years later, Waits would return the favor and cover two Ramones songs, namely, “The Return of Jackie & Judy” and “Danny Says”. Waits in 2004 was nominated for a Grammy for the former, which prompted Johnny Ramone to quip, “It took the Ramones 30 years to be eventually nominated for a Grammy. Thanks to Tom Waits for finally getting us there.”
The sudden halt of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” leads to Bone Machine’s lone throwaway track, “Let Me Get Up on It”. Clocking in at just 56 seconds, the piece is hardly a song and more a sonic experiment, featuring Waits’ most distorted and undecipherable vocal yet, using it as a percussion instrument as he bangs around in some abandoned garage. The squawking of seagulls, the straining of metal strings, the frenetic hitting of typewriter keys, and what could be the cranking of some torture device mash against each other to create the aural kaleidoscope. This may be the type of madness-advertising ditty composed by the radiation-soaked survivors of Waits’ apocalypse. While it may seem unnecessary, it does allow for some emotional cooling off after “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, bridging that song with the closing “That Feel”. Curiously, in the music video for “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, “Let Me Get Up on It” prefaces the proper song, rather than following it.
In the end, it’s hard to argue against the conclusions Waits draws in “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, for when you listen to it, you can’t help but think of your own youthful self, naïve and optimistic, yet intimidated by the sprawling future before you. The song compels you to look back and ask yourself some uncomfortable questions. Have you fulfilled the potential you believe you had when you were a child? If you could meet the pre-adolescent version of yourself, would that child loathe what was in store and stagger away in disbelief? If you could swap your current state for that of your seven-year-old self, would you?