Confession time: I first listened to Tom Waits after my Russian TA told me he was very popular in Russia my freshman year of college. Total poseur that I am, I immediately set out to learn as much about him as I could, hoping a) to figure out what so endeared him to my fellow Slavs and b) that I too would fall madly in love. As quintessentially American as Tom is, I don't think it's hard to see what about his gutter ballads and striking imagery appeals to the Slavic psyche, and luckily for me I didn't have to work to enjoy his music. I remember sitting in the Comp Sci building watching a video for "Army Ants", listening to him literally recite a lecture about grotesque habits of various insects, and feeling like I was having the time of my life:
"And as we discussed last semester, the army ants will leave nothing but your bones."
Despite his huge discography, I immediately wanted more. I felt like I'd stumbled into a new universe and was eager to know more of its populace. After a bit of research I was disappointed, but largely unsurprised, to find that Tom really was sui generis.
Four years later what started as an exercise in cultural exploration has metastasized into incurable obsession, and while his lyrics are slowly becoming proverbs in my vernacular ("I don't have a drinkin' problem 'cept when I can't get a drink!") and my voice takes on more gravel and rasp every time I sing, I've learned that he's not quite as alone as I first thought.
For your edification I present:
EIGHT ACTS THAT AREN'T AS GOOD AS WAITS BUT EVOKE ENOUGH OF HIS QUALITIES TO MERIT A LISTEN
1. Captain Beefheart
Too obvious, I know, but given his recent passing I can't resist plugging his music.
Weird voice, funky instrumentation, seemingly acid-inspired lyrics-- it's all here, man. Looking at his live performances, a lot of his showmanship has clearly rubbed off as well. Here's one of my all time favorites, "Nowadays A Woman's Got to Hit a Man". Be sure to check out "Bat Chain Puller" and of course "Ice Cream for Crow" as well, which are a bit more on the absurdist side than this fairly straightforward (for Beefheart) blues-rock.
"Men you been lookin' all around for the women
But they always been right there
Nowadays a woman has to haul off and hit a man
T' make him know she's there."
2. Man Man
Sleek Waitsian gypsies. Here's "Banana Ghost":
"I don't even have the strength to begin to imitate the dying little bird you've saved."
They will be performing in DC on June 3rd. You know you want to come with me. End of story.
Carnivale! Fast, light, occasionally ska, but not too much, I promise. Here's "The Man on the Burning Tightrope", which, while far and away their best song (in my humble opinion), isn't incredibly representative-- but if you like indie-klezmer type stuff, you'll have fun with them.
"Well once upon a time
there was a happy ever after to this story
but you won't hear one today."
4. Howlin' Wolf
Moving away from the Roma and back to the Delta! His wailing here in "Smokestack Lightin'" and Waits's own "Don't Go Into That Barn" define hauntings so thoroughly in my brain that I don't understand the point of horror movies set outside the deep south.
5. Jolie Holland
Frankly it wouldn't be hard to list bluesmen, prog rockers, accordion outfits and whatnot til the sun comes up-- so long as they're all male. What does a female equivalent of Tom even mean? Try to conceptualize it-- Joni Mitchell? Thalia Zedek? Finally I settled on Jolie Holland, whose "Old Fashioned Morphine" was a staple in the immediate days after my surgery.
Speaking of which... "Thursday":
7. Peggy Lee
But back to the womenfolk. Tragic cabaret jazz with cold piano and the occasional monologue. "Tango":
"A medieval tapestry hangs like a warning
A needlepoint forest of dark green and brown
The scene is the hunt, you will notice the hunter
He takes careful aim as your eye travels down
And finally rests upon the real victim
Lying quite still in a silk dressing gown
Lying quite still at the edge of the carpet
One arm flung out for the peacocks to peck
Blending in well with the blue and green background
Except for the bright scarlet sash round the neck."
8. William Elliott Whitmore
I may have saved the best for last. Whitmore: the only good thing ever to come outta Iowa. Happens to share a label with Tom (ANTI-)! Most of my favorite songs about death are his.
"One Man's Shame":
"One Man's Shame":
He might be my second favorite songwriter ever-- his melodies are simple but beautiful and eminently singable (an oft-ignored quality!), his poetry memorable, and his themes endlessly compelling to an occasionally fatalist romantic like myself.
"Don't alter my altar
don't desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don't underestimate the spine in a poor man's back
when it's against the wall and his future's black
One man's story is another man's shame
I ain't bound for glory, I'm bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don't look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother's heart and soul
when she knows her child has strayed from the foal
The parish will perish
by death's cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that's just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin' but his end is close
Ain't no hell below and ain't no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love."