Counterbalance No. 114: Tom Waits’ ‘Rain Dogs’

Tom Waits
Rain Dogs

Klinger: Mendelsohn, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be spending the week with Rain Dogs. The last time we talked about Tom Waits, just as we were winding down the Great List’s Top 100, I mentioned that I prefer this LP to Swordfishtrombones—lo and behold, the gods of mathematics have smiled down upon me once again. From start to finish, Rain Dogs is an absolute joy, a musical adventure featuring everything from sea shanties to country weepers to (relatively) straightforward pop songs that could be covered by Rod Stewart. To my way of thinking, it’s a more focused album than Swordfishtrombones, with a more precise ear for a melody and a more immediate impact.

Then again, that could be because I happened upon Rain Dogs first and that joy of discovery is clouding my perception. Waits was (and remains) a favorite guest on David Letterman’s show, and I saw Waits perform “Tango Till They’re Sore” and “Time” back in the day. I’ve been pretty well hooked ever since.

You, however, have come about it from the other direction. What’s your take?

Mendelsohn: I don’t know where I am. I’m listening to this record, picking out little bits and pieces and doing some Google work for a little context and the next thing I know, I’m completely lost in some back alley of the Internet full of weird GIFs and pictures of cats. How I got there is a bit of a round-about story but I think there is a metaphor hiding in it somewhere so please forgive this digression.

I started off with a little research on Kurt Weill, the German composer famous for his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and a heavy pre-rock influence on Waits’ sound. From there I’m listening to Brecht’s rendition of “Mack the Knife”, after which I thought, I might as well listen to Bobby Darin’s version because my German is really rusty. Two seconds into Darin’s version, the nostalgia tumor in the back of my brain starts throbbing and after a few mouse clicks, I’m starring at Mac Tonight, the anthropomorphic crescent moon lounge singer who hawked Big Macs for McDonald’s sometime in the mid-1980s. After watching 20 minutes of old McDonald’s commercials I finally come to my senses and start closing browser tabs. I must have clicked on something inadvertently and then I’m face to face with cats wearing hats (thanks, Tumblr?). And that’s how I got from Weill to Cats, which pretty much sums up my experience with this Waits album, but with dogs, instead of cats for obvious reasons. I guess what I’m getting at is there are a lot of diverse elements in this record and if you start following one, before you know it you’ll be somewhere completely different and I’m still not sure how to feel about that.

Klinger: Well, that’s quite a digression. And although I’m not sure it counts as research, the important thing is that you had a good time. And you’re right to point out the influence of Weill on this album, and indeed much of Waits’ output around the time of his move to Island Records. And I reckon that the drifting from sound to sound is somewhat akin to your cyber-meanderings. Not to mention both feature a colorful cast of characters. Any album where Keith Richards can jam with Larry Taylor (the bassist on the Monkees’ records) and Robert Quine from the Voidoids trades licks with G.E. Smith and Mickey Curry from Hall & Oates is one fertile musical biosphere, my friend.

Rain Dogs also heralds Waits’ move to New York, so it’s not surprising that the mid-’80s Manhattan bohemian contingency is well-represented here with guys (cats?) like Greg Cohen and Lounge Lizard John Lurie. But to my ears, the album’s MVP is guitarist Marc Ribot, a guy who appeared seemingly out of nowhere to give Waits’ sound an extra jolt of snap and punch. Have I dropped enough names yet, Mendelsohn? Because that’s part of what Rain Dogs was for me—a passkey into entirely new realms of music. Maybe it served the same purpose for rock critics, who suddenly realized that the chasm between the Rolling Stones and John Zorn might not be so broad after all.

Mendelsohn: We won’t have to take a quiz after this, will we? There is no way I could commit to memory the lengthy list of famous (and not-so famous) musicians who contributed to this record. But I think that merely lends itself to the overwhelming diversity that Waits shows off on this record. Waits skips and hops from one thing to another, without seeming rhyme or reason, but pulls it together with his strong voice and exuberant love of musical exploration. I also like your notion that this record served as a type of weigh station between highly divergent genres, showing the listener and critics a way to make a connection between straight rock ‘n’ roll, avant jazz, and everything in between. Is that the real strength of this album, Waits’ ability to pull together such diverse stylings? Or was it just Waits’ ambitious undertaking of something completely different from what was being proffered across the airwaves at the time that makes this record, and Swordfishtrombones before it, such a hit with the critics? As much as I like this record, I still find the sounds on Rain Dogs to be a bit of an anomaly. What is it that propelled these records to the heights of the Great List?

Klinger: I think that’s just it—they’re an anomaly. Obviously Waits has his influences, but so few artists have been able to combine them into songs that are as darkly funny as “Cemetery Polka” or as achingly romantic as “Downtown Train” or as skewed as “Tango Till They’re Sore” and still make them seem almost immediately accessible (at least once you can get past Waits’ voice—and not everyone can). And once that sound enters your bloodstream, as it did with so many critics, it never really leaves.

As I’ve been listening to Rain Dogs repeatedly over the last few weeks (after not having dug it out much lately—stupidly figuring I had pretty much internalized the album), I’ve been really amazed at just how great the individual songs on here are. I had a minor epiphany when it hit me just how much “Time”, which I’ve heard on countless occasions, sounds at its core like a lost Leonard Cohen track.

And anyone who had been listening to Waits’ pre-Swordfishtrombones Asylum years might well have been surprised to hear that Keith Richards was the musical soulmate that he turned out to be, most aptly demonstrated on “Big Black Mariah” and “Blind Love”. But then again, Waits has been quoted as saying that when he and Richards collaborate, sometimes they finish the song and sometimes they finish the bottle.

Mendelsohn: With an experienced, consummate player like Richards, I would expect him to finish both the song and the bottle in a timely manner, but I also get the feeling that Waits is easily distracted. There are some really great songs on Rain Dogs. There really isn’t any flow but once the next song really starts going, it doesn’t seem to matter. Two of my favorites are “Clap Hands” and “Midtown”, two songs that couldn’t be any more different. In fact, had you played them to me before I had heard Rain Dogs and told me they were by the same artist, on the same album, I would have called you a liar.

“Clap Hands” features Waits’ signature clatter-trap sound that has been pared down slightly to let the dark, polyrhythmic vibe shine through. As an added bonus, we get some excellent guitar work out of nowhere from Ribot. And then there’s “Midtown”, with its juiced-up jazz and avant horn work.

Klinger: Ah yes, “Midtown”, sounding for all the world like the theme song to a 1970s cop show as played by a mental institution’s house band. When I saw Waits in 1987 (yeah), the band played that as the intro to the second set. Interesting that you’ve selected a song that’s only a minute long there, Mendelsohn. Not to mention that for a lot of people, it’s Waits’ way with a lyric, by turns deeply moving (“Time”), darkly humorous (“9th and Hennepin”), or just beautifully, evocatively strange (“Jockey Full of Bourbon”), that initially draws people in.

Mendelsohn: Well, that manic minute of music would later be lifted wholesale and re-imagined by the Japanese composer and band leader Yoko Kanno for use on the soundtrack for the animated series Cowboy Bebop. I spent the last hour listening to

Kanno and her band the Seatbelts roll through horn-driven funk, country weepers, harmonica driven clatter trap, and everything in between and it finally hit me how much of an influence Waits must have had on her work. And again, I’m completely off-topic, having wandered away from Rain Dogs after Waits lead me down a crazy musical back alley. I think that may be the real joy of this record, Klinger—never being completely sure of where it might take you.

Klinger: Yep, that’s a big part of the fun of Rain Dogs. And once your ears become attuned to the discord and the beauty of the songwriting starts to shine through the clutter, whole new worlds open up.

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