Monday, 13 May 2013

Albums for Life: 6: Tom Waits: Asylum Years

"They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with... like it's a bad thing... I've never met anyone who made it with a chick because they owned a Tom Waits album. I've got all three, and it's never helped me."
Tom Waits

I know, I know, it's a compilation but... let me explain: 
'The obsession's in the chasing, and not the apprehending'
Tom taught me that many years back. 1979 to be exact. I've thought long and hard about which is my favourite Waits album. It's been a joy trying to sort that one out. Excuse the ramble that will surely follow but... I'm a little disheveled this morning.

Christ, what a night!
There's a half empty/full bottle of 16 year old Aberlour rattling around my ankles.
Yesterday I worked my way through most of Tom Waits' back catalogue in chronological order.
Di's away so I had the time and space for the indulgence. It was a strange soundtrack to the excellent FA Cup final; which saw the cup working its usual magic for the underdog. Underdogs seem to loom large in Waits' work: misfits abound in Tom's world, particularly in his later work for 'Island' records; from Swordfishtrombones onwards the theatrical elements of his work has been to the fore, with the increasing influence of his wife, screenwriter Katherine Brennan who is now always listed as co-writer and co-producer. 
In the earlier 'Asylum' days lovable losers abounded, invariably in a romantic half light, lurching from seedy bars to strip joints to dingy diners. Story telling has always been Waits' forte; he loves words and the willful mis use of them. He forces his characters onto us with such wit, enthusiasm and flinty eyed conviction that we can't help but believe in them, invest in them, indeed care for them. Anyone who's seen the actor in action can only agree that, whether he's wearing an Hawaiian shirt or snakeskin boots, there's only one Tom Waits. It's that strength of character that convinces us to buy into any given version of his own questionable  history. According to various sleeve notes he was born (at a very young age) in a storm in the back of a yellow NY cab; he has a pet chinchilla, he once washed Mario Lanza's car and is purported to have six fingers on his left hand... oh, and his fridge contains a claw hammer, a small jar of artichoke hearts, an old parking ticket and a can of roof cement. His first known quote was at 13, "I can't wait to be an old man." Yup, with Mr Waits you need to suspend belief and disbelief when you enter his world. The air is rarified; it is a less comfortable experience. Remember, you're innocent when you dream, but there'll be no drifting off to dreamland in his enigmatic presence. Tom's got a lot to tell you.  He may lie about his past but the pay off is that he'll tell you all his secrets; some you really don't want to hear. There's a lot of shouting...

Waits comes from a golden age of songwriting excellence. What sets him apart from his then peers (Joni/Randy/Jackson) is that eccentric strength of personality. His debut 'Closing Time' came fully formed. There was no sense of a fledgeling artist; he had no history of playing rhythm guitar with some 60s beat band. Here was 'the poet of the crack of dawn' writing about loners and their loneliness. Their quest? To get to the heart of saturday night... 
To accompany these early folk/jazz ruminations the initial palette was a traditional one; brushed drums, upright bass, guitar, but mainly piano. The occasional syrupy strings gave romantic resonance; a gush and glimmer to the guttural goings on. 

With Swordfish... onwards things turned down a darker street. There would be no easy relief, but whether we regarded Tom as mad professor or magician, we all waited at his door with baited breath, wondering: what's he building in there? And it was rough magic. He raps, he rasps, he bawls, he brawls, he barks. This intense new music was described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car." There's a Brechtian noir to the experimental muse that's as impressive and ambitious as it was unpredictable and, oftentimes, impenetrable. Kurt Weill haunts the proceedings. To accompany the visionary vaudeville the musical template was deliberately rendered unconventional and all the more innovative. Beyond the rasping delivery, a clatter of percussion was accompanied by off kilter woodwind, spiky guitars (stand down Marc Ribot), wheezing organs, accordions and... bagpipes. 
Waits himself explained the change:

"Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone."

These otherworldly, under worldly sounds often seemed haphazardly thrown together, but ultimately, with a little work from the listener, made some kind of sense. It wasn't always easy. Tom sometimes seemed (literally) barking mad; Beefheart mad. 
Primal blues, cabaret, rumba, tango and tin pan alley are tethered, tamed and turned inside out.
Rolling Stone magazine attempted to sum up the musical menagerie:

"Everything from sleazy strip-show blues to cheesy waltzes to supercilious lounge lizardry is given spare, jarring arrangements using various combinations of squawking horns, bashed drums, plucked banjo, snaky double bass, carnival organ and jaunty accordion."

His misfit characters are still adrift and downtrodden; he continues to articulate their confusions and despairs with a poet's keen eye. Their moments of redemption are few, but all the more beautiful when they rise above the cacophonous chaos... 
Tom still looks them (and you) in the eye...

So... there I was last night. I'd worked my way through the bittersweet conventions of the early albums, and got as far as the brilliant (if over long) 'Rain Dogs'
As things started to fade I still had the wherewithal to recognize the fabulous lyrics of 'Time':

And they all pretend they're Orphans
And their memory's like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can't remember
Tell the things you can't forget that
History puts a saint in every dream

I turned the TV on, sound turned down and discovered that the perfect visual to this period of Waits' work is The Coen Brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There'. That nightmarish black and white vision of 50s American paranoia seemed a perfect fit last night. 
Try it! 
I'd done the single malt thing a little too enthusiastically; things got a little blurry and... noisy, so I put on 'Alice', Waits' beautiful musical imaging of the Alice in Wonderland story. 
That calmed me down, put me to sleep in fact. 
There weren't many saints in my dreams...

Anyway... this morning I went back to the source: 
The first time I ever heard Tom's music was in a basement bar on the Greek island of Ios. 
Must have been 1979. 
The retsina was burning as much as the day's sun damage but I remember the salve of the balmy music that initially came from the speakers. In the early hours, post disco, the DJ put on some vinyl. The orchestral intro to 'Somewhere' was just beautiful; then came the jarring intrusion of a voice that could have stripped the brass veneer from Louis Armstrong's tin trumpet. That comedy moment soon turned into a musical epiphany... by the time we got to 'Kentucky Avenue' I knew that this was the beginning of a lifetime's love affair. 
So, this morning I played that album, 'Blue Valentines' expecting the same trill thrill. 
Nope, the high points are still exquisite, but some of the raps and r 'n' b work outs are just 'fine'
So... I then reached for the first album that I ever brought of his. 
I'm not going to apologize for breaking the rules. 
I know it's a compilation but... sometimes you just cannot deny your affections.
Maybe I'm taken with the enigma that is Tom Waits, rather than any specific period of his work...
Whatever, no apologies because... I can truly call this 'love'.
'The Asylum Years' it is. 

The CD version is missing a few tracks that were on the (double?) cassette that I initially invested in. 'On the Nickel' being the most notable omission. I'm now used to the new order; this has nearly all of my favourite early Waits songs on. Heartbreak's spoken here. In my defense I'll offer up 'Kentucky Avenue' 'Ruby's Arms' and 'Tom Traubert's Blues' and let you do the rest. 
Wait's later recordings are testament to his maverick genius as he squeezes your heart and pokes you in the eye at the same time. Ah, but those early 'Asylum' years... every song was one from the heart.
'Ruby's Arms' is the album version, as is Tom Traubert's Blues' but I've followed it by a live version. Same with 'Kentucky Avenue'. 
Let's start with that; probably my favourite Tom Waits song. 
If you can get through it with a dry eye, I reckon that you need the other half of the bottle that sits by my feet. 
If you are Mr Aberlour it's got your name on it...

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
asnd 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
and 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 and buy that skull and crossbones ring
and 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
and 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
and 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 and cut the braces off your legs
and 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. Sounds like a day well spent, Trevor, and a well argued compromise on the rules (from someone who hasn't stuck to them). Might even take out my old vinyl copy.
    Been doing a lot of similar dithering on my No 6 too. I'll choose soon. I will.

  2. A bit of a cop out I know but what a dilemma. If I'd have chosen Swordfish... over Rain Dogs it would have felt like an infidelity. I was even mounting a defense for 'Alice' which is heartstopping... One From the Heart would have broken the 'no soundtracks' rule that I've already broken with Once Upon a Time. I'm surely hell bound... 'Everything's going to Hell'! Tom's just told me so. I'm on 'Blood Money' now. There's relief, although after finishing the other half of the bottle last night I have to agree that 'All the World's Green'. Excuse me...

  3. I think it just needs the addition of Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis to make it the perfect comp.
    We've just had Jonathan as Seamus' No 7. Here he is with a joyful uptempo version of the Heart of Saturday Night:

  4. I wonder if he could reduce 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to a 3 minute special?
    Thanks, but not for me Brendan. I fear I would throw fruit...

  5. Good call re Christmas Card btw Brendan... oft overlooked.

  6. You are forgiven. Asylum Years is a pretty awesome collection; just about all I need. A few omissions: On The Nickel, Shiver Me Timbers, Foreign Affair & San Diego Serenade would make it perect. I've always had to cherry-pick my way through Tom's albums, especially everything after Heartattack & Vine. So many of his ballads are absolutely stunning, but I just don't have the tolerance or the patience for all the dissonant stuff. I really don't know what to make of old Tom, and I'm not sure that he does either. I do like this story he tells...

    “My kids are starting to notice I'm a little different from the other dads. "Why don't you have a straight job like everyone else?" they asked me the other day.
    I told them this story:

    In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, "Look at me...I'm tall, and I'm straight, and I'm handsome. Look at're all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you." And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, "Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest." So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.” (Tom Waits)

  7. Great story.
    There are some interesting shots of him up an 'ugly' tree.
    Wonder if he had that tale in mind?
    If you want to give the later stuff a go I'd state the bleeding obvious: work from Swordfish onwards in order; you can see the development; interesting in itself. The raps and scats are punctuated by enough beauties as to make their revelation worth the wait, almost better for the relief. On Swordfish I'd cite: 'Johnsburg, Illinois, 'A Soldier's Things' and 'In the Neighbourhood' and the sweet instrumental that closes the album, 'Rainbirds'.

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