When it comes to the rather expansive catalog of Tom Waits, there tend to be two flagship albums in the running for the title of the idiosyncratic songwriter’s best work. There’s Rain Dogs from 1985, a record close to the hearts of fans and critics alike, and then there is 1992’s Bone Machine, a different beast altogether, the one you don’t dare trifle with until you’re good and ready. Rain Dogs is the one longtime fans use to introduce Waits to the uninitiated. It’s a sampler of sorts showcasing every one of his various personas and being experimental but not too jarring. Bone Machine, though, is the one fans keep hidden amongst themselves, a secret treasure only the devout are privy to, and the seasoned are worthy of.
Simply put, Bone Machine is not for the faint of heart. Even by Waits‘ standards, it’s a difficult listen, with its lyrical fixation on the macabre and its unhinged sonic palette. Yet because of this, it’s one that many see as Waits’ most fully realized work, one that if you as the listener overcome the challenge of confronting the album and in the process absorb all it has to offer, you come out the other side all the more grateful for having made the journey.
Released in 1992, the record arrived on the heels of Waits’s reinvention trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years. As drastic a left turn as those records were in relation to Waits’ previous seven albums, Bone Machine likewise heralded a new change for the esoteric songsmith. Despite the conscious craziness of the preceding three albums, it’s hard to imagine even the most ardent Waits fans being prepared for what Bone Machine had in store. Where those records were quirky, Bone Machine is outright terrifying. The mischievous imp and sympathetic storyteller Waits occupied in the Swordfish stretch of records is replaced here by an ogre with vengeance on his mind and a demented prophet with plague in his hand.
Waits’ netherworld was previously peopled by sentimental hookers, circus freaks, forgotten soldiers, abandoned Australian bars, lovelorn drunkards, bitters, and blue ruin. Bone Machine offered a realm occupied by brimstone-spewing demons, withering bluesmen, lynch mob justice, politicians gorging on blood and rapine, suicidal seafarers, and small-town murder. Just take a look at the striking cover art, and you’ll get an idea of what you’re in for — a blurry, devil-horned, and goggle-eyed Waits howling into the abyss consuming him in turn.
The work is essentially a concept album, its running theme a meditation on death. Despite its prodigious 16-song tracklist, nearly every cut touches on various aspects of mortality. The end of the world, the futility of life itself, the role of religion in deceiving followers into thinking life has an innate purpose, the dread of aging into a wasted existence, wanton murder, botched suicide — they’re all here. And supporting such life-affirming lyrical concerns is Waits’ merging of primitive blues with the avant-garde. Come to think of it, the title itself seems to reflect the inherent dichotomy prevalent throughout the work, that of the organic reduced to its bare essentials and colliding with the utilitarian and artificial.
Minimalistic guitar strumming alternates with the hammering clang of trashcan drums, blaring saxophones trade-off with dusty piano chords. Then there are such odds-and-ends like a Chamberlin — an ancestor of the synthesizer — and some instrument Waits designed himself and appropriately dubbed “the conundrum”. The album’s apocalyptic atmosphere is cemented by its distinctive production, recorded in a studio’s storage room, thereby imbuing the songs with the sound aura their lyrics demand.
(Oddly enough, ever since Swordfishtrombones, Waits has crafted his albums in trilogy formats. Bone Machine is the first installment in what I consider his “apocalypse trilogy”, as the record depicts the violent collapse of society. Its 1999’s successor Mule Variations had the scattered folk songs of the post-apocalypse. The finale, 2004’s Real Gone, served as the final dispatches of those left behind, fighting tooth and nail for survival in a harsh world that no longer has use for them. This trilogy overlapped with the release of Waits’s trio of soundtracks for German plays — The Black Rider, Blood Money, and Alice.)
Anyway, enough with this preamble ramble. Onto the songs.
1. “Earth Died Screaming”
Waits sets the tone for the album’s tour through hell right off the bat with the opener “Earth Died Screaming”. The song is an omen, a road sign cautioning listeners that this is their last chance to turn back. Hyperbole be damned, the song is the soundtrack to Armageddon, the visions of John the Revelator put to tape.
From the outset, the click-clack rattle of hollow bones — actually sticks whacked against things, but we’ll maintain the illusion — establishes a queasy rhythm and erects the scaffolding the song is built upon. Like a seasick soothsayer, Waits chimes in with his doomsday poetry — “The monkey’s on the ladder / The devil shovels coal / With crows as big as airplanes / The lion has three heads / And someone will eat / The skin that he sheds”. Without warning, his strangled whisper erupts into a booming mantra of the title, Primus’ Les Claypool coming in with a bass that undulates from the muck like Leviathan’s tail.
And yet, there is a touch of dark romance in the lyrics, the narrator ending his blustering chorus with the caveat that while the earth was screaming to its death, he was too busy dreaming of his love to notice. Or, could it be, the planetary death is the price to be paid for the narrator’s unrequited love? Is this narrator, forsaken by heaven and banned from hell, the one causing the end of days? One could perceive the song as a touching love song, the sentiment being that despite the death that rains down in droves, the speaker’s only concern is his significant other (touching, right?).
The more interesting — and seemingly more legitimate — interpretation based on Waits’ delivery of the lyrics is that the narrator is indeed the one sounding the trumpets and signaling the final curtain call. “The great day of wrath has come / And here’s mud in your big red eye / The poker’s in the fire / And the locusts take the sky,” Waits intones in the final verse before switching from a brimstone-spewing preacher to the unchained devil in the chorus: “And the earth died screaming / While I lay dreaming / Dreaming of yooooouuu,” he holds out in a screeching falsetto. The Chamberlin arrives from the grime as the bone clatter and Waits’ voice sink into it, its notes composing a funeral dirge serving to send off the world in its dying whimper.
Biblical imagery, a call-and-response nature to the verse-chorus dialogue, simple percussion — the song is essentially the ugly twin of field hollers prevalent among Southern slaves. The field holler itself was an evolved version of African songs, thereby borne of the oldest forms of music in the human lexicon. With this in mind, the song serves to transplant the listener to a whole different place and time. You can practically see the slaves, or maybe a prison chain gang on work detail, singing this in unison as they toil, the unforgiving Alabama sun beating down on their brows, the smell of sweat filling the air.
There is a crucial difference between the traditional field holler and “Earth Died Screaming”, though. Whereas the historical hollers were intended to inspire hope and salvation in the slaves and console them with the idea that divine justice would one day be meted out to their oppressors, there is no glimmer of optimism in “Earth Died Screaming”. The message here is entirely inverted. The entity bringing about the end of the world here is not discriminating, is not saving any of the devout; there is no justice to speak of, just destruction. By so directly referencing such a historical musical form, Waits sets the paradigm of bastardized blues and folk music that runs throughout the entire album.
2. “Dirt in the Ground”
Bone Machine‘s second song stands as a mirror image of its predecessor. Where “Earth Died Screaming” was all bluster and chaos, the soundtrack to the world breaking apart at its seams and its fissures opening to claim saints and sinners alike, “Dirt in the Ground” is the whimpering microcosm of the individual’s irrelevance. It is the maudlin acceptance of inevitable decay, a funeral dirge for the sadly dead.
As the tune itself is more subdued, so too does Tom Waits’ voice do a 180-degree turn, from serrated bark to raspy falsetto. Rather than snarling like a hellhound, he howls mournfully with all the pathos of a coyote alone on the ridge. Waits has characterized this vocal turn as his take on Prince — not the most obvious influence one would associate with the man, but nevertheless, one Waits has gone on record as praising. (For Waits singing the ditty in his more familiar guttural rasp, check out the version on 2009’s Glitter and Doom Live, which is surprisingly no less affecting.)
Gospel blues is the most obvious musical touchstone, though as Waits did with the field holler on “Earth Died Screaming”, the paradigm here is again flipped inside-out. The stripped-to-the-bone manner in which Waits delivers the gospel chant chorus sums up the broken sentiment the narrator is espousing, swapping that genre’s typical message of hope with an attempt to spread the truth of there being no other side to death. Death here is not a sacred passage into some bright-lighted tunnel; it’s the epitome of the profane, a reversion into nothingness.
The nihilism is potent —all your hopes, dreams, aspirations, and memories are nothing but fool’s errands, as you’re just walking dirt biding your time until you fall back into the ground. “What does it matter / A dream of love or a dream of lies? / We’re all gonna be the same place when we die”, runs the epigram Waits opens the song with. “Your spirit don’t leave knowing / Your face or your name / And the wind through your bones / Is all that remains”. The narrator is not reveling in this meaninglessness of life, but neither is he raging against it. He’s a figure who previously fought against the grain of this truth but is now going out with a moan of resignation. He sought to find purpose in life, struggled with faith to believe in something more, but lost his footing along the way. The cognitive dissonance that results has not granted him freedom or release, but despair.
Waits would revisit this idea of life having no innate meaning on Blood Money‘s “Everything Goes to Hell”, though that song offers a diametrically opposing perspective. The narrator of that tune, far from being left a quivering bowl of jelly over life having no intrinsic value, sees it as justification to indulge in moral anarchy. Why worry about tomorrow’s consequences when life is so short and pointless? Everyone is just going to go to hell in the end, so let’s take that as a license to run hedonism to the nth degree.
Getting back to “Dirt in the Ground”, gospel and the blues aren’t the only musical forms touched on here. Despite the earthy title, the song owes much to the traditional sea shanty structure. It ebbs and bobs like a ghost ship adrift in a harbor, the occasional bells tolling like a buoy signaling the vessel’s overdue return. There is a work-song-like manner in which the refrain is delivered, the repeated “yeah-yeahs” between “We’re all gonna be” and “Just dirt in the ground”, delivered with a sleepwalker’s lethargy, calling to mind a chant of boatmen hoisting the sails.
Waits, in his plaintive desperation, is the last sailor among the doomed seamen, the final bone of the skeleton crew, perpetuating a work song of one. The alto and tenor saxophones provide the swelling and breaking waves upon which the plague ship sways, their dialogue of sustained notes serving as the most emotionally evocative component of the piece. Coupled with the sparse piano notes, the splintering masts and tattered sails are painted in the forefront of the listener’s mind.
The song has a direct lyrical link to “Earth Died Screaming”, echoing the current state of the afterlife’s two halls as initially addressed in that song: “Hell is boiling over / And heaven is full”. Right from the get-go, Waits wants to make it clear this album is a unified work, that the songs will reference one another while offering distinct perspectives on the central theme of mortality. Man’s inhumanity to man, a recurring theme in itself, is first referenced here in the third verse’s description of a killer with nerves of stone mounting the gallows to the lapping horde of spectators, but will come up again more directly on “In the Colosseum”.
The Biblical allusions likewise reappear in the song’s final verse with the retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, the world’s first murder, if you believe in that kind of thing. “Now Cain slew Abel / Killed him with a stone / The sky cracked open / And the thunder groaned”, Waits describes, merging a Genesis parable with imagery straight from Revelations. From the inception of humanity, death has been the connecting vein, the only thing more assured than taxes. It’s not hard to imagine such a literary songwriter as Waits building this song around a quote from Flannery O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, spoken by the work’s deranged religious zealot Mason Tarwater: “The world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are. There’s a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive.”
Waits wraps the cut with the most succinct summation of its prophecy of existential dread — “Along a river of flesh / Can these dry bones live? / Take a king or a beggar / And the answer they’ll give / Is we’re all gonna be / Dirt in the ground”. Waits’ wife and songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, has said her husband composes two types of songs — grim reapers and grand weepers. “Dirt in the Ground”, though, is both forms in one. The Grim Reaper himself may be the song’s narrator lamenting his own looming demise in a world on the cusp of oblivion. As Ely, the blind scavenger in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road says, “When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but Death and his days will be numbered too.”
3. “Such a Scream”
The piano fade-out of “Dirt in the Ground” suitably lowers the listener’s guard for the primal assault of “Such a Scream”, one of Bone Machine‘s most savage songs. Feral and clangy, it is one of the finest examples of Tom Waits’ ability to hone his workspace and use it as an instrument for imbuing his tunes with atmosphere. The piece is pure boiler room cacophony, the ragged percussion sounding as though Waits and his cohorts are banging on the walls of some abandoned garage. Minimalist-industrial might be the aptest description.
At just over two minutes long, the frenzy does not let up for an instant. Bleating alto and tenor saxophones lay down the song’s foundation, a muddy electric guitar playing over it. Breaking up any guise of a consistent rhythm is the scattershot drum patterns, the chaos of construction workers taking crowbars and hammers to garbage pails and oil drums. A maraca rattles throughout, alternately like a bokor shaking his asson or the fluttering of insect wings.
It’s no coincidence that the maraca elicits a comparison to an instrument of the Vodou religion, the song so obviously influenced by the infamous rock ‘n’ roll houngan Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Truly, the song could be a conjureman’s chant, a dispatch recited in some sweat-soaked ceremony in a backwoods peristyle. One can picture Waits as a Vodou leader spitting out his lyrics, trying to get the Lwa to mount him as his congregation keeps up the furious pounding behind him.
The influence of Vodou is an often overlooked, or downplayed, component in blues music. For early bluesmen, the two went hand-in-hand. With Vodou being the syncretism of West and Central African beliefs and Catholicism, it served as a vessel by which slaves and their descendants kept traditional African music, culture, and lore alive in the New World. In turn, many of those traditions found their way into early blues music. As Bone Machine is essentially Waits seizing and testing the limits of the blues, it was all but essential he tackle Vodou so directly.
Facilitating the evocation of such an aura is Waits’ lyrical imagery harmonizing seamlessly with the rattle and stomp percussion. Grotesque as they are, the lyrics come across as an experiment in using moribund metaphors to communicate love, for Waits has said: “Such a Scream” is, through all the mire and ugliness, a romantic ode to his longtime wife and co-songwriter Kathleen Brennan (notably, she does not share a writing credit on “Such a Scream”). “She just goes clank and boom and steam / A halo, wings, horns, and a tail / Shoveling coal inside my dreams”, Waits brays in the first verse, pushing the boundaries of expressing an endearing sentiment, following in the second verse with, “The plow is red / The well is full / Inside the dollhouse of her skull”. The way in which Waits howls and barks also draw a comparison to a Southern Baptist preacher, testifying from the pulpit about yearning for that good ol’ time religion, the focal point in Waits’ faith being Brennan.
A trace of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique is also evident here. Waits has said the creative process of Bone Machine involved components of separate songs being Frankensteined together, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine lyrics being thrown together in favor of a vivid aesthetic than a practical or literal one. Being a scholar of Beat literature and a collaborator of Burroughs on his subsequent album, The Black Rider, it seems Waits would have no problem trying his hand at Burroughs’ method of slicing up words and phrases and stringing them together. “A milk train so clean / Machine gun haste / You’ll ride the only wall of shame / And drag that chain across the state”, Waits sings, the lyrics nonsensical yet evocative of some indecipherable menace. (Also of note, the song marks the first appearance of the Eyeball Kid, who garners nothing but a cameo here but would come to have an entire narrative and a song bearing his name on Waits’ 1999 album, Mule Variations.)
As one of the album’s briefest songs, “Such a Scream” veritably bleeds into its follow-up, another ghastly take on gospel blues and brimstone devotion, “All Stripped Down”, but we’ll delve into that next week.
4. “All Stripped Down”
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 a 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.
5. “Who Are You”
With “Who Are You”, Tom Waits scales back the world-reckoning themes of Bone Machine‘s previous tracks, internalizing the despair to make one of the album’s most emotionally devastating songs. The End of Days is still raging, but here it’s doing so inside the narrator, the engine of his destruction being the woman who has left him behind.
Sounding as though it was recorded in a mausoleum, the song is built around an outlaw country guitar line that weaves back and forth with a Southern blues bass part. Amid this sparse arrangement, Waits arrives with the persona of an insomniac unable to sleep since his world crumbled. His gruff delivery is without formal structure, lacking a chorus or defined rhythm, but that only serves to amplify his torment, rendering the effect of a man so genuinely dismayed that he’s out of step with the world around him. The lone recurring lyric in the piece, stitching it together in threadbare fashion, finds Waits randomly addressing his object of (des)ire with the simple, yet acerbic, inquiry of “Who are you / Who are you this time?”
Sustained only by the piss and vinegar of his righteous wrath, Waits directs a litany of cryptic insults to the woman who left him in shambles. The majority of his grievances are ambiguous, or so esoteric to the parties involved as to be left vague to outsiders, perhaps amounting to the nonsensical ravings of a mind no longer capable of making sense. “How do your pistol and your Bible / And your sleeping pills go?” Waits asks, a line so simultaneously evocative and abstruse that it compels the listener to fill in the gaps of the relationship to formulate a context wherein it has significance.
However, Waits does drop a few direct nuggets, possibly just to ensure the song’s message (if not every line) is clear. What connects the obscure with the overt is the trenchant tone. Insults to a former lover don’t come more biting than “Are you pretending to love? / Well, I hear that it pays well”, while the apparent criticism of the woman’s materialism and greed is boiled down with “Are you still jumping out of windows / In expensive clothes?” The overwrought fashion in which Waits sings such acrimony speaks to his vacillating emotions. You can visualize his character sitting with fists clenched, unable to move on or to let go, stagnating as the swaying music behind him attempts to shuffle him along. Of course, this concept of the songsmith wrecked in the wake of his no-good woman’s callousness is one of the oldest and most frequently recurring blues tropes, so once again Waits hits on that connecting vein of blues exploration.
Bob Dylan’s influence looms heavily, both in the narrator’s accusatory, vitriolic manner of putting down the recipient of his scorn and in the surrealistic lyrics conveying his rancor. Unlike the finest of Dylan’s put-down songs, though, “Who Are You” finds a protagonist who isn’t so smug in his superiority; for all of his mean-spirited slandering of his departed woman, he is clearly using such cruelty as solace for himself, a balm he hopes will get him through his turmoil. Waits may be listing the woman’s offenses, but it is a means of distancing himself from his own complicity in the relationship’s downfall and to convince himself he is better off without her (in this sense, “Who Are You” is more akin to the confliction of Dylan’s “Most of the Time” or “Love Sick” than the vitriolic “Positively 4th Street”).
It’s a sentiment anyone who has been through a bitter break-up can empathize with, despite the ambiguous lyrics. And those same people can tell you that when you spend time trying to convince yourself your ex is a vile person, you’re doing it because you’re hoping such disavowal will override how much you still care for that other person. The catch-22 is you’re trying to loathe this other person, but if you do, then the other person by definition is still dominating your thoughts. It’s that element of immersing yourself in your darkest emotions in order to inoculate your psyche of their ravages that “Who Are You” encapsulates so authentically.
6. “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”
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 like 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 the hope of succeeding. But as he states in the opening couplet, despite the ocean’s disavowal, he is determined and will most assuredly be back tomorrow to play.
7. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”
On an album overflowing with avant-garde blues, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” stands as the centerpiece or reference point from which every other song stems. It is at once Bone Machine‘s most straight-forward take on the blues and its most warped. By simultaneously being the record’s purest distillation of the genre, a veritable tribute to its traditions and motifs, and a conscious caricature of the form, it serves to continue the record’s trend of playing up dichotomies, of welding contradictory aspects to each other and giving listeners an open piece to interpret.
Forsaking the industrial leanings and abrasive percussion found throughout most of Bone Machine, the song is a stripped-down experiment in bare necessities. Tom Waits delivers his howling devotion to his Lord in nearly a capella fashion, his warbling falsetto a testament to the storied life his character has endured with the hope that Jesus would make it all right in the end. His vocal pattern is what carries the 12-bar blues template, the instrumentation backing him so sparse that it serves to craft mood more than melody. Floorboard-stomping, the creaking of a rocking chair, and an open-tuned bass delivering two notes at six-second intervals are all that support Waits as he sings with the fervor of the blindly devout, hankering for his faith to be rewarded. He repeats the titular phrase, “Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”, as a mantra, a vocal talisman for warding off the devil’s temptation or doubt.
The record’s standard atmospheric production holds true here, the level of intimacy making you feel like you’re part of the jug band sitting on the porch of the clapboard shack from which Waits delivers his hymn. Such a focus on creating an aura for the song adds to its authenticity, making Waits sound as though he’s been mounted by the ghost of Blind Willie Johnson, carrying on his style of spiritual blues. One can’t help but envision a bucolic setting: Waits as an ailing old man, his skin leathery and wrinkled as a catcher’s mitt, arthritic hands barely able to strum the guitar on his lap. The humidity is stifling, but the old-timer keeps his eye on the horizon, waiting for his Jesus to roll up and take him from this vale of tears.
Life’s been painful, but relief is just around the corner, coming any minute now: “With a promise and a vow / And a lullaby for my brow / Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”. It’s a song delivered from a deathbed, yet the protagonist is hopeful, looking forward to death for it means his union with Jesus. “I’m just gonna wait here / I don’t have to shout / I got no reason / And I got no doubt”, he sings with absolute conviction, “I’m gonna get myself unfurled / From this mortal, coiled-up world / ‘Cause Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”.
For all the surface-level optimism and assurance of the narrator, there is — of course — a darker interpretation wedged between the lines. One could see this singer as the victim of a con, his religion being the scam that victimized him. There is a sense that despite his steadfast adherence to his faith, it’s all for naught, that as the light increasingly fades from his cataract eyes, there is no Jesus getting any closer to save or redeem him. It’s not the tale of a life spent worshipping a deity that ends with that god rewarding devotion with eternal life and endless riches in heaven, but of a life wasted in distraction. What makes it all the more tragic is the idea that the speaker himself never, not even in his final moments, realizes he’s been so duped.
“I’ve been faithful / And I’ve been so good / Except for drinking / But He knew that I would”, he states toward the end as if maybe a little doubt is starting to creep in, that Jesus might be taking longer to arrive than he expected, but he immediately catches himself and remains determined to see the face of his Lord with “I’m gonna leave this place better / Than the way I found that it was / And Jesus gonna be here / He gonna be here soon”. In this context, Jesus is the carrot, the narrator is the donkey desperately reaching toward it, and life itself, with all its torment and hardships, is the cart being dragged along. (Waits even gets in a little dig at the materialism of the modern-day church, mentioning Jesus as rolling up in a brand new Ford, Hollywood being His name.)
With this interpretation, an innate blues trope is once again turned on its head. In the traditional blues of the American South, spirituals were conceived and delivered with the utmost sincerity. They were honest declarations of faith and testimonials of a love for Jesus, free from any irony. This Christian faith in the South’s African-American population — and the music by which such allegiance is displayed — evolved over the centuries from the religions of their ancestors. Polytheistic or animistic religions were a crucial factor of life for indigenous African tribes, as their worldview didn’t distinguish between the natural and supernatural realms in the way most Western monotheisms do.
When members of Africa’s Wolof, Fon, Yoruba, and Bantu tribes were taken to the New World as slaves, their religious devotion remained largely intact (though there was cognitive dissonance among the Africans regarding how and why their gods would allow them to be enslaved). As slave owners aggressively campaigned to stamp out the religious life of their subjects (even making it a point that religious elders not be brought to the Americas), the Africans disguised their beliefs by essentially covering them with Christianity.
In the same way, they maintained their musical traditions, passing them down generationally, they too ensured their religious beliefs survived in a syncretic form as their native religions increasingly merged with Christianity. Throughout the generations, a genuine devotion to Jesus replaced the worship of tribal deities like Damballah, Olorun, or Bondye in certain locations of the American South. However, the slaves and their descendants retained their methods of praise, in which music played a key role. In those smaller religions that were more steeped in African traditionalism and took Christian elements without the belief that Jesus is the literal son of God — Vodou, Santeria, Candomble — the relevance of music is even more pronounced than in their more Christ-centered counterparts. Thus, blues music is a natural descendant of that religious background.
“Jesus Gonna Be Here” is a sardonic take on that loyalty to an unseen, omnipotent entity. And yet, Waits’ criticism is conveyed in such a manner that it is not overt or indicative of a superior attitude. It is an homage to history with a slight, meta-level jab at the beliefs inherent to them.
8. “A Little Rain”
In the midst of all the dread and horror that is Bone Machine, it might seem odd to close out the first side with “A Little Rain”, the record’s most tender moment. And yet, the placement of the song is no accident. On repeated listens, it becomes clear that it affords some relief, soothing the audience without forsaking the macabre theme of the album; it serves as the piece’s oasis among the desert of despair.
To a degree, “A Little Rain” is a by-numbers Tom Waits piano ballad, augmented by a redolent pedal steel guitar played by David Phillips, which lends it a heavy country-western feel. Waits plays an antique store piano and with the intimate production, he once again elicits the imagery of a character and setting, in this case, a drunken troubadour playing in a cobweb-strewn saloon in some forgotten ghost town. The boozy way in which Waits slurs the lyrics, waxing nostalgic, drives this perception home; his character rocking on his bench, barely steadying himself as his fingers grace the keys. It’s a persona Waits spent years (and seven albums) with, yet ironically, it is on this throwback to his years with the Asylum label that he truly perfects it, giving it a sense of authenticity without melodrama.
The lyrics themselves are firmly grounded in this inebriated bard role. As Waits offers vignettes on a series of characters, you get the impression these are lives the singer has personally observed from his perch in the bar. A German dwarf, a fingerless guitarist, a homeless gravedigger, and other motley personages pass through this observer’s purview in cameos. Waits doesn’t recount their stories in a linear fashion, but offers snapshots of moments in time, bleeding their experiences together like a man flipping through a photo album, the images becoming blurred.
The sentimentality and at times saccharine emotion (by Bone Machine standards) again draw comparisons to Waits’ earlier work, most overtly 1976’s Small Change and the following year’s Foreign Affairs. While the drunken balladeer template ceased being so singular an identity for Waits with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, it did rear its head more sparingly on the trio of records sandwiched between Heartattack and Bone Machine, most notably on “Time” from Rain Dogs (1985). Hell, one could even argue that “Time” is a precursor of sorts to “A Little Rain”, both songs of barstool wisdom offered up by the same character at different stages in his life.
The central question this song faces is how does it fit in with the album’s theme of mortality? After all, the song is largely comforting in its repetition that “A little rain / Never hurt no one”. The answer is that it swims against the current of the rest of the record, but by default acknowledges it in the process. The message in “A Little Rain” is to not sit idly by and let death seize you unaware, but to live and take chances. “You must risk something that matters”, Waits plainly states, “If it’s worth the going / It’s worth the ride”. The reason such a course of action isn’t taken more often is for the obvious fact that breaking out on your own is a damn scary endeavor.
The song references that fear in its emotional climax, the closing stanza about a teenage runaway: “She was 15 years old / And she’d never seen the ocean / She climbed into a van / With a vagabond / And the last thing she said / Was, ‘I love you, mom'”. It’s a theme of resilience, of being willing to gamble for something better rather than settling for the security of the mundane. There will be adversities, sure, but in the end, a little rain never hurt “no one”. It’s an entirely appropriate outlook to wrap the first half of Bone Machine, a lullaby to soothe you before the nightmares return.
9. “In the Colosseum”
Whereas “Earth Died Screaming” opened the first half Bone Machine with the soundtrack to the end of the world, “In the Colosseum” begins the flip side with the panicked howls of society reacting to the destruction of all it knew. “Earth Died Screaming” offered a glimpse of the world fissuring; “In the Colosseum” details the dog-eat-dog entropy that results, how those left on the planet’s shell fight and clamor over the heaps of stacked bodies to survive just a while longer. It is the sound of anarchy rising.
If Bone Machine is any indicator, Tom Waits doesn’t foster a particularly favorable view of humanity (just look to the axiom he’d offer on Blood Money‘s “Misery is the River of the World”–“If there’s one thing you can say about mankind / There’s nothing kind about man”). The theme of man’s cruelty to man is just as prevalent throughout the album as the central concept of death, and “In the Colosseum” depicts this in a grandiose fashion. When it comes down to it or when given the proper prodding, humanity’s bloodlust — the urge that made fight-to-the-death spectacles and public executions so popular, and which has been sublimated through fictional violence a la horror movies — will boil to the surface and break through the guise of civility. The desire to watch wholesale slaughter still exists in individuals, Waits seems to be saying, it’s just been repressed for the sake of maintaining order and decency, the societal ruse being that we have evolved beyond such profane wants. In true sausage effect fashion, though, when an impulse has been stifled so long, it inevitably flares up in a proportionate surge, and that is what is happening in “In the Colosseum”.
Using politics as the vehicle for communicating this perspective, Waits compares the Senate floor to the sanguinary tableaus that once filled the Roman Coliseum (why it’s misspelled in the title is anyone’s guess; possibly it is to signal that in the decay of civilization, conventions of written language are among the first casualties). The case could be made that the song is meant as a literal snapshot of the Roman Empire at the height of its debauchery, but that is far too simplistic for a songwriter with as much depth as Waits.
The references to Rome are clearly allegorical, using the Empire as a case-in-point to show the depravity that has endured as a mainstay throughout civilization. Maybe there is a level of satire in a world where “bald-headed senators decapitate presidential whores” then splash in blood puddles, feeding the scraps of their kills to street dogs, but satire is often the realm where the purest truth lies. The idea that such butchery is ingrained in the collective unconscious and will continue unabated is repeated throughout: “Their families cry blue murder / But tomorrow it’s the same”, Waits states with unflinching honesty.
That political infighting is likened to gladiatorial combat offers a rich avenue for further exploration, crafting a Rorschach quality for discerning the factions at work in the narrative. Is it the tale of gluttonous and decadent rulers feeding their subjects to the lions’ den for their own entertainment? Or is it depicting a revolution, wherein the usurpers are storming the halls of the old order and meting out kangaroo court justice, relishing in their bloodletting? The fact two such opposing conclusions can be drawn is itself proof of how indistinguishable the ends of each camp are, underlying the truth that revolutions have a knack for leading to tyranny and oppression equal to (if not worse than) that exhibited by the previous rule they overthrew. “No justice here, no liberty / No reason, no blame / No cause here to taint the sweetest taste of blood”, Waits spits out, offering the mirror image binding the revolutionaries to the focus of their scorn, or the despots to their underlings.
Yet for all his cynical misanthropy, the song’s narrator is not a curmudgeon. Rather than being bitter in his assessment of humanity, he is reveling in the carnage, or, at least just calling ’em as he sees ’em. He stands at the entry to the grand amphitheater, a carnival barker luring passersby in for the show they can’t resist. Waits’ clenched vocal cords make his character sinister in his showmanship and profiteering. As far as he sees it, to rebel against human nature is a fool’s errand, for who can fight against thousands of years of impulse? “Greetings from the nation / As we shake the hands of time / They’re taking their ovations / The vultures stay behind”, he growls without a trace of shame before launching into the chorus, astute in its simplicity: “In the Colosseum / We call ’em as we see ’em / In the Colosseum tonight”.
What makes the song’s message all the more convincing is that the bedlam is adroitly represented in the music. At the time of Bone Machine‘s release, “In the Colosseum” stood as the most ramshackle and rabid song in Waits’ oeuvre, though his experiments in noise and clatter would reach their zenith on 2004’s Real Gone and in “Hell Broke Luce” from 2011’s Bad As Me. This is largely due to the presence of the conundrum in “In the Colosseum”, the epitome of a junkyard instrument. A large iron cross with pieces of old farm equipment hanging from it which are then whacked with a mallet, Waits designed it himself and had neighbor and sculptor Serge Etienne weld it together. It has the appearance of a torture device at home in some medieval dungeon, and the noises it generates certainly sound as though they’re resonating from such a dire setting.
Its din is akin to the slamming of a prison cell door or the latching of an iron maiden, the dragging of steel shackles or the tossing of a body down a flight of stairs, and that — mixed with the garbled voice of an auctioneer in the background seemingly cataloging livestock for the butcher mill — makes for a melody that unravels within your ears. Waits has always been good at creating soundscapes that replicate the emotional impact he’s driving at, but he outdid himself on “In the Colosseum”, the result being one helluva nauseating listen.
10. “Goin’ Out West”
Ah, the hit of the record or at least a hit by Tom Waits’ measures. While it’s no radio staple, “Goin’ Out West” is the Bone Machine song that’s unfurled its wings the furthest. It’s appeared in the film Fight Club, been covered by Queens of the Stone Age, Gomez, and Widespread Panic, and is even available for karaoke in certain hip bars. That the song has become among the most popular in Waits’ canon is one of the many ironies surrounding the man, considering that it is the Bone Machine number least connected to its unifying theme of death. While its harsh music fits snugly into the mix, lyrically it sticks out against the overall concept. Well, that might be unfair; let’s say it’s the one that requires the most attention to its lyrics to decipher its place among the whole.
The music has quite a bit of disparate components swirling together, the heavy-hitting drumming being the most dominant element. Pounding with unbridled ferocity, it seems to emanate from the belly of an industrial factory, some disgruntled worker pounding on the heavy machinery. Offsetting the brutal clamor is a sidewinding guitar part that would fit in with a film noir from the 1930s, itself trading off with some fuzzed-out distortion. What results is a surging rhythm that flat-out rawks harder than anything else on Bone Machine. From the moment the drums kick in at the 15-second mark, the tune throbs and pulsates without relent. Sparks flare up from it like two pieces of steel grinding against one another. A sensation of anxiety or jitteriness is stirred in the listener, one which all but compels you to get behind the wheel of a jalopy and floor it down the highway ’til the wheels roll off.
Then there is the persona Waits dons — an amphetamine-fuelled narcissist charging westward as a force of nature, a sandstorm sweeping across the desert as lightning crackles from the thunderheads above. The answer to the question of where death fits into this song is that it resides in the psyche of the protagonist. His ravings are pure caveman braggadocio, presented most directly in the cocksure chorus: “I know karate, Voodoo too / I’m gonna make myself available to you / I don’t need no makeup / I got real scars / I got hair on my chest / I look good without a shirt”. A menacing ex-con with delusions of grandeur, heading west for an unspecified reason, he could be following the spree-killer archetype established by such figures as Charles Starkweather. Murder is never outright stated, but the very avoidance of it conversely serves to imply its presence, especially when considering death’s oppressive specter on the rest of the album. That such a topic seems deliberately avoided in turn draws the conclusion that wanton killing is no big deal to the song’s speaker.
The promotional video that accompanied the song effectively bolsters the image of the maniacal madman. Shot in grainy black-and-white, the video features an unkempt and bushy-topped Waits bucking and braying, playing a dwarfed guitar as gusts of steam billow about him. The grime and heat radiate from the austere footage and steampunk concept. Waits recalls the record’s cover photo with his welder’s goggles and horned headgear, looking every bit the leading man who is badass enough to wrangle the devil on a leash. He truly looks the part of a man who could get away with a moniker such as Rex or Hannibal.
Interestingly, Waits has drastically tinkered with “Goin’ Out West” for live renditions (check it out on 2009’s Glitter and Doom Live album). Instead of the assaultive percussion of the album’s version, the song in a live setting shifts to more of a country-blues shuffle. It chugs on slow and steady like a locomotive, maracas, harmonica, and some jazzy keys rising to the forefront of the instrumentation. Rather than simply being a tweaked arrangement, it comes across as an update on the tune’s narrator several decades down the line. He’s still as defiant and full of piss and vinegar as ever, still not beaten, imprisoned, or dead. As he declares in a tag attached to the end, he’s stronger than dirt. He’s still got that masculine face and keeps looking good without a shirt.
11. “Murder in the Red Barn”
Small town murder is an enduring plot device in the annals of the Southern Gothic, and it’s easy to understand way. The scenario provides a rich mine for master storytellers to pull from, allowing for the examination of interpersonal relationships in times of stress, differing perspectives of morality in a land where many share the same mindset, the motivations of those affected, and how citizens’ reactions reflect a larger issue in humanity as a whole. Considering these factors, “Murder in the Red Barn” is the type of song that would do William Faulkner proud.
The track is loosely based on — or at least takes its title from — the factual Red Barn Murder that occurred in Suffolk, England in 1827. In that incident, a man named William Corder was to meet with his pregnant lover, Maria Marten, at a red barn, then the pair were to run off together and get married. Instead, Corder killed Marten and hid her body in the building. A year or so later, so the story goes, Marten’s stepmother had a dream of the crime, prompting investigators to look in the barn and find Marten’s concealed corpse. Corder was later tried, convicted, and executed for the slaying.
In the song, however, Tom Waits transplants the incident to America’s Deep South, seemingly in the early or mid 20th Century. In impressionistic style, Waits relates vague details of a slaying in a town with a seedy underbelly on the verge of rolling to the surface. Who was murdered, by whom, and for what reasons are not declared. As the listener, you take on the role of a townie, catching glimpses and rumors of what happened. The suspicion and paranoia that arise when an unidentified killer is in your midst are palpable. There’s a fear that collusion between the murderer and others is occurring, that no one can be trusted and, as a result, the small town you’ve called home could blow like a powder keg.
Like “Jesus Gonna Be Here”, “Murder in the Red Barn” is a song you see as much as you hear. Here we have the reappearance of an aged raconteur spinning a yarn from his shack’s front porch, banjo in his gnarled hands. The rusty hinge of the screen door behind him supplies the rhythm, squeaking as it’s repeatedly opened and closed, the accompanying percussion sounding like stones being dropped into a hollow oil well. An autumnal atmosphere pervades the number, the rustling of leaves and bending of trees firmly planted in your mind. The vacillations of nature are in tune with the dealings of the townsfolk, some casting suspicious glances at everyone they encounter, others exchanging knowing winks. It’s a spooky mood piece that makes you shudder as you listen to it.
One of Waits’ strongest talents is being able to paint a visual with very few words. Take the characters he references in “Murder in the Red Barn” — Reba the Loon, Blind Bob the Raccoon, Slam the Crank from Wheezer, drifters who sleep inside discarded fridges. They pop up with just a name, but their names are so vivid, they give you all you need to have an impression of their appearance while piquing your imagination to fill in the gaps of their history. Waits also contributes some of his finest and most disturbing lyrics here, dropping several quotable epigrams: “Roadkill has its seasons just like anything / It’s possums in the autumn and it’s farm cats in the spring”; “There’s nothing strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn / There’s always some killin’ you got to do around the farm”; “For some / Murder is the only door through which they enter life”. Each of those couplets, even taken out of context, tells you precisely what kind of world you’re stepping into when you put on “Murder in the Red Barn”.
The scariest element of the song lies in its subtext of no community being free of horror, that innocence does not exist, and that the efforts undertaken to mask those unpleasant truths can themselves manifest in abominable ways. At some point, a lynch mob organizes and takes off a suspect in chains, only to have the weather turn sour and inundate the town with “months of heavy rain”. Meanwhile, “no one’s asking Cal about that scar upon his face” and, as mentioned above, no one is giving too much weight to the bloody axe in his barn. Then there is the woman drinking alone in her room; what’s her role in this sordid mess? Is she a witness, the killer, or the motivating element for the murderer?
And let’s not forget the biggest question — the role of the common townsfolk. Are they complicit in covering up the murder? Do they know the identity of the killer, but are too afraid to punish him? Are they just indifferent? Did they lynch the wrong suspect? The weather’s reaction seems an omen that they erred in their judgment. But did they kill the man knowing he was innocent, perhaps as a show, a means of making the matter seem resolved to any outsiders that might be prying in? These are questions left to the listener to answer, but whatever resolution you go with, none offers much reassurance in small-town conduct, and by extension, society overall.
(For further listening, if you’re one who likes to envision narrative songs as occurring in a shared universe, check out “Don’t Go Into That Barn” from Waits’ 2004 release, Real Gone. It’s another portrait of a town in the heart of the American South, wracked with paranoia over an escaped convict and the vengeance he’s coming to wreak for the community’s past sins. With the chorus-chant of the title and imagery skeletal trees, loose hellhounds, and abandoned plantations built on slaves’ bones, it’s not hard to imagine the song being a sequel to “Murder in the Red Barn”, wherein the same town and incident are being described, just from a different vantage point.)
12. “Black Wings”
With “Black Wings”, the Deep South setting that dominates most of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine is replaced by the scorched earth landscape of the American Southwest. The work of Ennio Morricone is a clear touchstone, the spaghetti-western guitar line weaving like a snake through the sand as maraca rattles on the tip of its tail. The percussion is sparse and downtempo; Larry Taylor’s upright bass sonorous in its twang. One can imagine this tune playing in the background as the ghostly image of the poncho-laden Man With No Name of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” rides across the sun-baked orange and red desert. The song’s lyrical content also bolsters such imagery, depicting a drifter who trades in mysteries and murder.
Waits relays the narrative in impressionistic form, like an old yarn-spinner offering glimpses of rumor and innuendo about this roaming desperado. Nothing is known for certain; the figure here is a legend, and the fact that there is no definitive information related serves to cement his mythological status. Does he exist at all? Who can say? After all, “He can turn himself in a stranger” and with just “one look in his eye / Everyone denies / Ever having met him”. Some says he’s rubbed elbows with royalty, others that he has broken out of every prison he’s ever been confined in (though the reasons for his incarceration are unknown). He follows the rules of the Bible, but only to justify his eye-for-an-eye style of justice. An air of the supernatural hangs about him, but perhaps that is just further speculation by the gossipers to make sense of his senselessness.
If one takes the rumors as truth, the question arises as to whether this figure is a saint or an archon of Hell. Based on the conflicting stories surrounding him, it would seem a bit of both. As he is a personified mystery to all he encounters, his origins and purpose may be unknown even to himself. He passes throughout the centuries and nations without a grand design; he’s merely a walking battery radiating an anarchic influence on those he passes. A quick comparison could be made to the Randall Flagg character from Stephen King’s The Stand, though this figure has no grand tyrannical ambitions. Rather than being good or evil, he is the embodiment of humanity’s chaos. He can garrote a man with a guitar string one moment, then save a baby from drowning the next. True anarchy of the soul would not be evil but would be just as unpredictable and prone to either end of the moral spectrum, committing acts of malevolence or benevolence at random. Such a truth is exemplified by this character’s conduct.
The aura of unease and menace this antihero exudes is, once again, largely the result of Waits using his voice as an instrument. A sandpaper whisper is all he needs to get his point across, hissing his s‘s and rumbling low beneath the surface. While Waits may be far from a technically gifted singer, he is an absurdly talented vocalist. The different guises he steps into from song to song would not be so convincing were this not the case. Whisper, bark, falsetto — they’re all arrows in his quiver, and his ability to use them to imbue his characters with sympathy, dread, and every emotional response in-between is an often overlooked aptitude of Waits.
On a side note, “Black Wings” shares quite a few similarities with the work of Nick Cave. Granted, Cave and Waits are often linked, compared, and contrasted, but in this writer’s opinion, no other Waits song has a more overt Cave sound to it. The moral ambiguity of the protagonist, the palpable anxiety he elicits in those he runs across, the warped Biblical interpretations, the focus on atmosphere — the song would have been at home on Cave’s 1986 record Your Funeral…My Trial or 1988’s Tender Prey. Was Waits deliberately tipping his hat to Cave? Who knows? In a possible reciprocal homage, Cave’s 1994 record, Let Love In, featured one of his best-known songs, “Red Right Hand”, which could be describing the same character that features in “Black Wings”. Furthering the connection, Waits in 2009 issued 5,000 copies of a booklet titled True Confessions, wherein he interviewed himself. To the question of which songs have served as beacons for him, Waits placed Cave’s “Red Right Hand” among the list.
13. “Whistle Down the Wind”
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.
14 .”I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”
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.
15. “Let Me Get Up on It”
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?
16. “That Feel”
The morning after: waking up in the same clothes you slept in, your aching head on the pillow of some foreign bed, self-awareness dawning on you and the clarity that comes with those first few moments of consciousness. Your brain feels like a sick oyster shrinking in the shell of your skull; you know you’ve been in this position far too many times and you’re genuinely baffled as to why you persist on winding up in it. This scenario is the sound captured by “That Feel”, the hangover rising up from within and you being resigned to claim it almost as a badge of honor.
As far as album closers go, they don’t come more effective (and affecting) than “That Feel”. Opening with a languid guitar sounding like a drunkard rolling out of bed and a dirge-like drum rattle, the song breaks in the way of sunlight creeping through the slots of a boarded up window. The ramshackle ferocity dominating Bone Machine is largely absent here, Tom Waits toning it down and creating the sensation of one awakening from the night terrors of the previous songs. You might be lucid, but the impact of that ordeal is not going to leave you; the feeling that the woes of life have imparted on you will remain, and will define you for the time you have left. “There’s one thing you can’t lose / It’s that feel”, Waits sings, sluggishly trying to assert some sobriety, “Your pants, your shirt, your shoes / But not that feel”. He doesn’t define what “that feel” is, for there’s no need to do so; you either have that feel or you don’t, and those that don’t, well, they will eventually.
Those who get it, though, recognize “that feel” is the pain innate to the human condition, the “absurdity of being human”, as Charles Bukowski would refer to it. As individual identities are effectively composed of their memories and their reactions to experiences, the resulting feeling only grows with age, and it’s something that cannot be shaken. Everything else, every tangible object, amounts to decorations that can be forfeited or lost, but that feel isn’t leaving you, for it, in essence, is you. Waits communicates this fatalism with more fantastically evocative imagery, making the existential visual, tangible even: “You can pawn your watch and chain / But not that feel / It always comes and finds you / It will always hear you cry / I cross my wooden leg / And I swear on my glass eye / It will never leave you high and dry / Never leave you loose / It’s harder to get rid of than tattoos”.
As the song builds momentum, it ceases to be the lone ruminations of an old wayfaring stranger. With each verse, the instrumentation increases, the sound becoming grander and fuller with more guitars and additional percussion. Come the third verse, the original rock ‘n’ roll survivor, Keith Richards, joins the fray, backing Waits’ voice with his own high crone’s wail. Richards’ presence shifts the song from one man’s reflections to a bonfire sing-along, layers of other voices becoming a hobo’s choir. In the context of the album’s apocalyptic theme, this could be a new folk song recited by a group of survivors, cooking some cockroaches for supper over an open trashcan flame, lauding their own resilience in the arid desert that surrounds them.
This notion of holding onto the sorrow that makes you and defying death’s desire to take it, coupled with the more subdued music, may make “That Feel” seem an odd choice as the closer. In point of fact, though, such a sentiment is the perfect way to wrap Bone Machine. Death is all around and will take you eventually, but until that moment arrives, savor what feeling you have, for it is the mark of existence. Lament the pain of being if you want, but keep in mind, one day you’ll likely be wishing for just five more minutes of life. That feel doesn’t stain or mar life; it is life, so embrace it. What better way is there to end an album about death than with a song that spits in Death’s face, letting him know he’ll have his day, but until then, you’re going to tease him by pushing every boundary and taxing every limit?