Sunday, 3 March 2013

Chicken Skin 2: Tom Waits: Kentucky Avenue

Note: There is a great classical twist on my, not very original, idea compiled by New York Times art critic Anthony Tommasini over on the ArtsBeat blog here.

There was a bit of weird serendipity in the air with this one.
Seamus over at Vapour Trails had kick started my idea for 'Chicken Skins', pinpointing magic moments from songs, and then responded to my first post in the series (Sinatra) suggesting this song.
He did that as I was preparing my next 'Chicken Skin' which was the self same song.
What are the chances of that?
Anyway, Waits always had a talent for emotive balladry and has never been more potent than with this heart wrenching tale of vagabond childhood from 'Blue Valentines'.
According to Barney Hoskin's excellent biography, it's a true story, although you can never really trust Waits when it comes to his elusive past; the truth for Tom is apparently over rated; he still swears that he was born in the back of a New York cab, even though his mother was no where near the city at the time...
'Kentucky Avenue' nails me, always reduces me to a blubberer, particularly when Waits gets to the 'I'll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie's wings' and the strings swell at around 3.20.
Please listen to the whole thing though, especially if you're new to the song.
I've followed the album track with a sublime, ramshackle solo performance from way back.
Who needs those beautiful swelling strings?
Devastating stuff...

Well Eddie Grace's Buick got four bullet holes in the side
And Charlie DeLisle is sittin at the top of an avocado tree
Mrs. Storm will stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn
I got a half a pack of Lucky Strikes man so come along with me
And let's fill our pockets with macadamia nuts
And go over to Bobby Goodmanson's and jump off the roof

Well Hilda plays strip poker when her mamas cross the street
Joey Navinski says she put her tongue in his mouth
And Dicky Faulkner's got a switchblade and some gooseneck risers
That eucalyptus is a hunchback there's a wind down from the south
So let me tie you up with kite string and I'll show you the scabs on my knee
Watch out for the broken glass put your shoes and socks on
And come along with me

Let's follow that fire truck I think your house is burnin down
Then go down to the hobo jungle and kill some rattlesnakes with a trowel
And we'll break all the windows in the old Anderson place
We'll steal a bunch of boysenberries and I'll smear em on your face
I'll get a dollar from my mama's purse, buy that skull and crossbones ring
You can wear it round your neck on an old piece of string

Then we'll spit on Ronnie Arnold and flip him the bird
Slash the tires on the school bus now don't say a word
I'll take a rusty nail and scratch your initials in my arm
I'll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore
I'll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie's wings
And I'll tie em to your shoulders and your feet
I'll steal a hacksaw from my dad, cut the braces off your legs
We'll bury them tonight out in the cornfield
Just put a church key in your pocket, we'll hop that freight train in the hall
We'll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall


  1. Great live version, Trevor. I love the way he just seems to stumble into song. I'll consult the Tarot before plucking my next chicken from the coop.

  2. Please do.
    Now Seamus, I'm peeling a root vegetable.
    Parsnip, beetroot or carrot?

  3. I was playing St James Infirmary when I thought of Blind Willie McTell and then the scent of magnolia took me back to Strange Fruit, one of the most chilling and haunting songs ever recorded.
    For some reason its the moment when Billie first sings 'poplar trees' that sends that shiver down my spine and turns flesh to goose.
    Here's a great live clip of Lady Day singing it -

  4. "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging... the BULGING eyes and the twisted mouth... the sudden smell of burning flesh... here is a fruit for the crows to pluck..."
    Jeez, that's raw, visceral... I know what you mean about that 'poplar tree' line; the lifting melody says 'relief' the meaning quite the opposite.

  5. Wonderful subject! Took me a few minutes to figure out what you were going on about. Reminded me of a Ry Cooder album. We call it "goose bumps", but 'chicken skin' apparently a Hawaiian colloquialism so now I know...

    What can you say about the imagery in Kentucky Ave? The bit that breaks me...

    I'll steal a hacksaw from my dad
    And cut the braces off your legs
    And we'll bury them tonight in the cornfield...

    (And don't get me started on Ruby's Arms!)
    First 'chicken skin' moment that comes to my mind would have to be be @ 4.00 min mark of this familiar tune. Swelling strings... then PB rips your heart out with a series of simple but absolutely staggering "yeah, yeahs"...

    Jesus, you
    Wipe the tears from her face
    And the sound of his voice
    Family life

    Yeah, yeah
    Yeah, yeah

    Jesus, I go to sleep and I pray
    For my kids
    For my wife
    Family life

  6. I give up! You and Seamus are freaking me out!!!!!!!!!
    No word of a lie, on my children's eyes etc...
    This is/was to be 'Chicken Skin 3'.
    It's here, look, written already...
    And I was specific, it wasn't just the section, it was the 'yeah's'...
    So, now TT: I'm peeling a root vegetable...

  7. The entire song/performance gives me goose bumps & leaves me in a puddle. It was only last night that I realized that those "yeahs, yeah's" might be the most emotionally affecting words/vocals I've ever experienced in a song.

    I found a couple of very low-key live clips of recent PB doing old BN. I wanted to kick the crowd's ass when they had the chance to participate in the "choir" portion of Happiness, and didn't!

    Family Life:


    PS: I've given up the Frankie Howerd quips. Not touching "I'm peeling a root vegetable"...

  8. Are you paying more than $5 per pack of cigs? I buy my cigarettes over at Duty Free Depot and I save over 60% on cigs.

  9. VaporFi is the best electronic cigarettes provider out there.