The Over/Under: Tom Waits

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Let’s just assume that the very notion of a Tom Waits Over/Under is going to split us into two camps: those who’ll be affronted that we’d even consider calling any Waits cut overrated, and those who think the whole of Waits’ career describes an overly hyped trajectory of avant-garde noodling. And, oh yeah, his fans are tiresome sycophants. Let’s accept that and skip the usual self-justifying intro. Just so you know where this particular writer falls, though, be advised that musically speaking, Waits’ 1983 giant step, Swordfishtrombones, changed my life, and that’s no exaggeration. As with most unregenerate Waits fans, my first exposure to his music felt like a smack on the side of the head. I’d been seeking out strange sounds for most of my young life to that point, but I hadn’t heard anything like Waits’ game-changing mission statement for where his muse was about to take him—away from the barrelhouse-piano-player/dive-bar-poet persona (which had become shtick by the early ’80s) and deep into much stranger, sterner territory, the clangorous midnight cabaret where he’s set up shop for almost 30 years now. And it changed my listening habits, too—led me down exploratory paths I might not have been curious about if I hadn’t heard Swordfishtrombones at age 15. (An older cousin slipped the album to me. My mom, a stone Connie Francis fan, never forgave him.) The guy’s a warhorse, a legend, an icon by now. That’s inarguable. And yet, lest we fashion Waits into post-rock’s sacred cow or divine mule or whatever, let’s slip under the fence and into the old fella’s junkyard and examine the trash and treasure there to be found.

:: The Five Most Overrated Tom Waits Songs
1. “Chocolate Jesus” (1999)

“Chocolate Jesus” is the closest thing to a smash hit in all of Waits’ second-act career. He’s played it repeatedly on live television and in special appearances, gradually building a whole intro riff around the song’s conceit, and when you listen to the live recordings—this one’s from the “Glitter And Doom” tour’s stop in Atlanta in 2008—you’ll hear the audience go fuggin’ nuts every time he brings it. People just seem to love the almighty hell out of “Chocolate Jesus.” And it’s not a bad song. But it’s not all that great, either. It’s just an innocuous little joke about wrappin’ your savior up in cellophane and packaging religion for mass consumption. Waits’ long ramble to David Letterman about how he and his father-in-law were going to get rich distributing “Testamints”—the candy with scripture printed on the wrapper—was actually a lot funnier. “Chocolate Jesus” seems to be becoming Waits’ “Magic Bus,” the one-off ditty that unexpectedly becomes a crowd-pleasing chestnut. Look for Waits to whip it out for his 2020 Super Bowl halftime show.

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2. “Jersey Girl” (1980)
Heartattack And Vine, Waits’ dirty, electrified-blooze record, was the last wheeze of his ’70s boho character. There are some excellent songs on it, but “Jersey Girl,” among the album’s most rote numbers, is the one that’s entered into the popular consciousness. Waits has been saddled by it, to some degree; several other artists, including an earnestly somber Bruce Springsteen (heard here dueting with our Jitterbug Boy), have covered it. And though only a heartless prick would deny that the song’s attempt to sex up Jersey over Noo Yawk displays a right-on-hometown spirit, in truth, the song is little more than a location-scouted retake on “Under The Boardwalk,” complete with carnival rides and sha-la-la chorus.

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3. “Ol’ 55” (1973)
Waits once said that the only good thing about an Eagles record is it keeps the dust off your turntable. The Eagles famously covered “Ol’ 55.” I think this tells us all we need to know about this number, on which Waits channels his inner James Taylor. When the Mellow Mafia turns an eye on your songs, it’s time to pay your tab and get the hell out of the Tropicana.

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4. “Eyeball Kid” (1999)
Like “Chocolate Jesus,” this song has taken on a strange life of its own and has become a live standard. It appeared first on Mule Variations, but the Eyeball Kid and his disturbing history also turns up in songs from the Alice demos, seemingly haunting his maker’s dreams like a shade. Actually, I always thought the song works better if you hear it as a sidelong nod to the Residents, but maybe that’s just me wishing for more drama than is offered in this gone-over story of the vagaries of fame, a topic Waits has explored to much stronger effect on songs like “I’ll Take New York” and “Straight To The Top.” I have a friend who yells “More bullhorn!” in exactly the same tone as Christopher Walken’s “More cowbell!” every time he hears this song. It’s a cheap shot, but I have to say I see the point.

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5. “Innocent When You Dream” (1987)
When Frank’s Wild Years broke, sort of, this bar-room sing-along became a set piece in the subsequent tour, with an accompanying video released separate from the excellent live film, Big Time. At the time, it seemed—and still does, if you don’t listen too closely—a handy example of Waits’ romantic bent. But the more you hear it, and considered apart from the sets and staging of the live show, the less it reveals. “Innocent When You Dream,” simple as it is, works much better as a deconstructed old Victrola recording than a sappy hearts-and-flowers croon, so here are both versions.
Bar-Room Version:

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Victrola Version:

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:: The Five Most Underrated Tom Waits Songs
1. “Buzz Fledderjohn” (1999)

This song appeared as a bonus track on Japanese pressings of Mule Variations, but it got a second life when John Hammond recorded it on his estimable album of Waits covers, Wicked Grin. “Buzz Fledderjohn” has precisely one chord and a rhythmic pattern so simple it’s banal, but on the lyrical level, it’s among the most deeply strange and unsettling songs Waits has ever recorded. It’s mostly a list of the bizarre things to be found in the Fledderjohns’ yard—dogs, carp in a bathtub, weather vanes—but it’s also about the little kid who’s peeking over the fence to stare at all of those things because he just can’t help himself: “Paper’s full of stabbings, and the sky’s full of crows/She’s singing in Italian, while she’s hanging out her clothes.” This is a kid who’s figuring out how big the world is and is about to get himself into a whole bag of trouble.

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2. “Kentucky Avenue” (1978)
Toward the end of his tenure on Asylum Records, Waits had a tendency to indulge his sentimental side. Blue Valentines is among his most capital-R Romantic records, and it occasionally gets a little syrupy. But “Kentucky Avenue” is a perfect storm of heartbreak and earnestness, a lush, verbose, sometimes Jabberwockish story that nonetheless comes off like the narrator is willing to risk everything he’s got just to run away with someone who may or may not need convincing: “I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings/And I’ll tie them to your shoulders and your feet.” And it’s not romantic love that’s got the singer wound up; it’s friendship, which somehow makes the stakes higher than they’d normally be. This is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard—maybe the only truly accurate one—about knowing you’ll have to leave a familiar place and wanting to take everyone you love with you, then finally accepting that that would only end in disaster. Maybe that’s what you call growing up.

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3. “Trouble’s Braids” (1983)
Swordfishtrombones tracks the progression of a fellow who, to steal a line from Hunter Thompson, has fucked up once too often and is now relegated to the outskirts of human society. Among the shortest, sparest songs on the record, “Trouble’s Braids” is the last of Waits’ voice we hear—exquisite instrumental “Rainbirds” rings down the curtain—and it sews up the repercussions of everything that’s happened on the record up to that point. “Trouble’s Braids” has always sounded to me like the inner soundtrack of a man who has to skip town in a hurry, with a single bag. Waits had written about such characters before, but Swordfishtrombones was the first time he’d gotten completely free from the stereotypical furniture of dead-end tales and just let the sounds do the talking. Listen to the crazed percussion and tell me it doesn’t sound like the frantic snapping of suitcase latches and deadbolts.

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4. “Union Square” (1985)
“Union Square,” from Rain Dogs, is one of Waits’ purest overviews of how good times turn bad—and get even better as a result. Every character in the song, from Sacco drinking in church to the transvestite hooker who passes even if you “go all the way,” is trying their damndest to get kicks even as the world falls down around them. And the song’s downtown smartass dialogue is pitch-perfect, blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys until all we have is a crew of hardcases: “And your baby is handcuffed on the front seat/Sit right there, boy, and you relax.” One of Waits’ greatest gifts has always been the ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character in the first four lines of a song; “Union Square” paints on a much broader canvas, but considered as a snapshot of urban con artists and bustouts, it’s one of Waits’ most cinematic moments.

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5. “Barcarolle” (2002)
Here we have, I’ll suggest, the centerpiece of Alice, Waits’ collection of songs written for stage director Robert Wilson’s adaptation of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Other songs from the project may be more startling, more experimental, more bizarre, more arresting. But “Barcarolle” is simply one of the loveliest melodies Waits has ever written, and its lyrics echo the weirdest images from Lewis Carroll’s book while creating a completely different world, one in which the kids have run off, but you and I are left here with the detritus and oddments of our lovers’ history. Even in its earliest incarnation (both the demo and final versions are below), “Barcarolle” is a song with the force of years of aching and happiness behind it. Songs like this can’t be written until you’ve lived through all of that pain and joy. And Waits, who spent decades writing about loss and now seems to be writing about the stuff that outlasts loss, writes them better than anyone I can think of. Whether you’re a fan or a nonbeliever, you’ve got to recognize the rarity of that achievement.
Final Version:

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Demo Version:

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—Eric Waggoner

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9 Comments

  1. Spencer
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Kentucky Avenue is finally given it’s due. Why Tom Waits has not been given a Kennedy Center Honor I have no idea. The most underappreciated American treasure ever.

  2. adamedwin
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    nice overrated list, I’ve always felt let down by Mule Variations as a whole, seems too easy for the normal level of Tom. Main reason for this comment though is the thanks for kentucky avenue and troubles braids, two passed-overs i completely forgot about and never invested in

  3. glenzo
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    …and I’m writing mainly to confirm how well Eric’s opening paragraph captures the impact of Swordfishtrombones. I was a college DJ at the time, a reasonable admirer of Waits’ earlier work but not a true fan. I literally recall the moment the LP arrived in the studio- “smack on the side of the head” is right. Sounded like nothing else out there at the time, and Waits’ prior catalog offered few hints to such an abrupt shift. In today’s world there would certainly have been a Net-fueled heads up, but in 1983 it arrived wholly unexpected.

  4. Posted February 9, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Who is doing the “overrating” and “underrating”? I’ve never quite figured this feature out. I guess, retroactively, I will overrate “Innocent When You Dream”. And protest: how is this song ‘romantic’? It’s wistful, regretful. The narrator has broken a girl’s heart and likely also lost all his old friends, and can only find refuge in dreams. I love it.

  5. Russ
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Your opening paragraph speaks volumes, Eric. Tom seldom has his musical output considered in terms of some sort of rating system, as the man himself pretty much transcends the music, at least in terms of mainstream coverage. I’ve admittedly fallen for this criticism of Waits, as it can get irritating to see the porkpie hat and hipster/vagrant pose carted out for each photoshoot.

    There were two Waits albums I’ve obsessed over, one which has stuck with me and even gathered relevance. Swordfishtrombones is a work of ridiculous brilliance, and specifically Shore Leave is a lesson for any artist in terms of painting a masterpiece with words and atmosphere. The other album that lived in my player for ages (as a young dude), but I can’t seem to stomach now is Nighthawks at the Diner. The lounge lizard Waits is in full form on this record, and now it just feels to me like a comedy album where I know all the punchlines, not an enduring musical statement.

  6. Jon C
    Posted February 9, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    What, no “Pasties and a G String”? One of his finest gin-addled moments, I think. 😉

  7. Posted February 10, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    My compliments to Mr. Waggoner who once again shows us how a thing like this is done, and done well. Somehow you have managed to dissect the sacred cow that is Tom Waits without spilling a drop of blood (or generating the threats of violence that have appeared in the comments of other over/unders)

    One of the things I love about Waits’ music is his willingness to reach beyond his grasp, to risk sentimentality and mawkishness from time to time in order to discover gems like “Trouble’s Braids” (long a favorite of mine and a piece that could easily have turned to hipster posing in less-skilled hands). What I admire about the features that you write for Magnet is that you actually engage in criticism, looking at the work and the artists with an evaluative eye and then offering some sort of informed conclusion that we as readers can either take or leave. I look forward to the next one.

    (for the record, I would put “Emotional Weather Report” in the over category and “World Keeps Turning” from the Pollock soundtrack in the under)

  8. reconsterverbal
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I think that barcarolle should have been higher in the list, it’s the most beautiful song i’ve ever heard.

  9. martin
    Posted September 21, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    You hit the nail on the head with Chocolate Jesus. Nothing more than a ditty and hardly super-acute social observation. No emotion in it either. Throwaway.

    But Kentucky Avenue comes up time and again in fave lists and I can’t understand it. Always thought it was gauche and maudlin to an extreme and clumsy too. GIve me Ruby’s arms for overblown emotion that doesn’t slip into the absurd.