Tom Waits: Preacher on a Pale Horse
A guide to nine songs for the faithful, the faithless, and the searchers.
Since his 1973 recording debut with the classic album Closing Time, California native Tom Waits has proven himself a prototypical singer-songwriter whose musical goals seem to have existed in two stages. The first ten years of his musical output featured heartbreaking and beautiful odes to vagrants, beatniks, and assorted dispossessed lost souls. Songs like "Ol' '55", "Grapefruit Moon", "Heart of Saturday Night", "Tom Traubert's Blues [Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen]", and "Invitation to the Blues", within the first three years, were gorgeous evocations of lost opportunities and lovers drifting into oblivion, secure only under the dark of night. Producer Bones Howe, who'd worked with the 5th Dimension and Elvis Presley, smothered everything in a string section that accentuated the darkness with moody shades of grey. That early Waits persona, a beatnik saloon singer at the piano, owed more to Maynard G. Krebs than Billy Joel, but this Waits was a pure romantic.
By 1983, with his landmark Swordfishtrombones album, the beatnik romantic became the industrial machine. His voice growled, his musical arrangements were more spare, and stranger characters came into the songs. Waits became a fim composer and on-screen character actor in Francis Ford Coppola films ( 982's One From the Heart and 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula), Robert Altman's 1993 Short Cuts, and Terry Gilliam's 2009 The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) among many. His wife and musical collaborator Kathleen Brennan brought rougher edges to his art, and the romance and longing only seemed to grow. The string section was gone, the melodious crooning was not even attempted, but somehow the sandpaper roughness of his voice became even more emotional, more intense.
What is there to make of Waits' musical output after nearly 50 years? Has he simply managed to make a living culturally appropriating sentiments that were better suited for growling vocalists (Louis Armstrong), late night pianists (Thelonious Monk) and literary scribes (early Jack Kerouac), or is there something much deeper than what can be initially perceived? Assuming that the greatest singer- songwriters of the mid-to late '60s who came of age on the '70s were determined to elevate a "journey" (external or internal) as their primary theme, then the canon of Tom Waits is among the best. For those who may not understand the Tom Waits catalog since the mid-'80s, the spiritual quest in his songs may prove equally surprising and inspiring.
Songs of Faith
One of the interesting truths we can gleam from the music of Tom Waits is the strain of faith that's run through all his work. In the early days it might have been faith in the strengths of inebriation ("The Piano Has Been Drinking") or the saving graces of a good working woman ("Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis.") By the mid-'80s, the faith in a Waits song was something deeper. Indeed, the deeper one dives into the songs, the easier it is to see how profoundly Old Testament Waits has always been in his perspective on life:
"His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair…"
Waits sets up variations on this unforgiving world, and welcomes a form of "God" best understood within the context of all that is doomed and inevitable:
"God appears not as a supreme being who calmly 'completes' and 'perfects' nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic nature of grace." - Faith-Theology.com
"Take Care of All of My Children", (1984, from the documentary film Streetwise) is a quiet ballad that soars on the knowledge that some being, some higher force, will take care of the lost vagrants and innocent children abandoned to street life.
You can put all my possessions here in Jesus' name/
Nail a sign on the door/
Bright and early Sunday morning/
With my walking cane/
I'm going up to see my lord.
This is a "God" who makes house calls, a "God" who wanders among us, a "God" who's not afraid to get dirty.
"Jesus Gonna Be Here" (1992, from the album Bone Machine), features a basic blues progression where the singer admits to his transgressions (drinking) and assures us (though we really never seemed in doubt) that all will be good once Jesus comes back. This is a song about senses, where Jesus will cover us in leaves and wrap us in a blanket from the moon. We live in "His" house, and salvation can come in the most humble of forms.
In "Come on up to the House" (1999, from the album Mule Variations), everything is broken in the outside world. Everything is corrupt. The moon is broken, the sky is cracked, and the tunnel is dark. There are lines of concise humor ("You're singin' lead soprano in a junkman's choir"), reminders that we shouldn't take ourselves so seriously, ("Come down off the cross we can use the wood") and even an allusion to Hobbesian philosophy ("Life is nasty, brutish and short"). Waits bathes it in a thick arrangement of horns and blues harp and we can't help but think that redemption is only a few steps away:
Songs of Disbelief, Indifference, and Faithlessness
These examples can get a little murky and jumbled. Any ode to loss is sure to come off as self-serving when it seems we're not allowed to share in the grief. To sing about faithlessness is to expose the raw nerves of betrayal, and to record them does not always make for a tolerable listening experience. "Everything goes to Hell", "Misery Is the River of the World", and "God's Away On Business", all from the 2002 album Blood Money, don't have messages deeper than what's conveyed in their titles. "Why be sweet? Why be careful? Why be kind?" he asks in the first. "I don't believe you go to Heaven when you're good." In the second, Waits has completely surrendered to the doom. We're all on a sinking ship, so everybody row. It doesn't matter where we're going.
It's the third song that gives us reason to think. Here, the singer is the moral judge. He looks at those who have suffered ("The poor, the lame, the blind") and asks incredulously about the ones we've left in charge ("Killers, thieves, and lawyers"). It's clear where his moral compass rests:
Songs of Mystery and Revelation
Let's assume that the primary mission of a writer like Tom Waits has been to draw on the expected role of a pilgrim, a searcher. If we have all been corrupted by original sin, and we find some sort of faith, it doesn't always work. That's when we surrender to the inevitability of mystery and the comfort of revelation. We impose extraordinary meaning to the most mundane concrete images: a cross, a Star of David, a veil to cover our faces as a sign of submission. In the song "Down There by the Train", released in 2006 on the triple album Orphans and heard here as rendered by Johnny Cash in 2002, Waits takes the great American folk music tradition of trains as the last refuge and common denominator for all saints and sinners:
There's a place I know/
Where the train goes slow/
Where the sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb/
…If you live in darkness/
If you live in shame/
all of the passengers will be treated the same
It's the rare "theological" song of Waits where judgement is not based strictly an "eye-for-an-eye" perspective. Life is broken, but on the train bound for somewhere, a promised land or just another stop on the road to the end, there is common ground:
Another Orphans track, "Never Let Go", first released on the soundtrack of the 1992 film American Heart, built on the mysterious strength of organic undying faith and fidelity, with no obligation to an ethereal higher power. It reveals itself in the unbound limitless wonders of love.
"Black Wings", from the 1992 album Bone Machine, is arguably the most wondrous of these songs, a dark meditation on a mysterious stranger who drifts into town. The "eye for an eye" image is quoted at the beginning, but then Waits adds a contemporary twist:
Never leave a trace or forget a face/
of any man at the table.
The mood builds, spare and dark. Who is this guy that once killed a man with a guitar string? This character is built on a series of myths: "There are those who say beneath his coat there are wings". By the end of the song we learn that everybody denies ever having seen him, but early in the song (the end of the second verse) there's no mistaking who this character might be:
"He's not there for he has risen."
The era of great singer-songwriters who came of age in the early '70s is riddled with creative and mortal casualties. Those who slipped this mortal coil (Harry Chapin, Jim Croce) are allowed to rest on laurels earned solely by reputation of their work at the time. Don Mclean burst on the scene with "American Pie" (1971) and has had to live with that legacy forever. Tom Waits perfectly embodied the beatnik persona for the first ten years of his career and has radically reconfigured his means of delivery for the past 45 years. His work has been beautifully covered by chanteuses like Holly Cole, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and (most recently) Joan Baez. His catalog is filled with songs of longing, desire, warm life, death, and a remarkable career-spanning meditation on variations of faith. His originals are sometimes grueling, often impenetrable, and always brilliant.