In 1983, Tom Waits released Swordfishtrombones, which (an appreciative) Tony Bennett described as “a guy in an ashcan sending messages.” In retrospect, and by comparison to everything he’s produced since, that album now sounds fairly tame and conventional, loaded with classicist chestnuts such as “Down, Down, Down” on the upside and the crushing “A Soldier’s Things” on the ballad side. One wonders what Bennett would have made of “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today” from Bone Machine or “What’s He Building in There?” from Mule Variations, either of which might have really tested the plasticity of the old crooner’s hip. But Swordfishtrombones was in fact the turning point, the warning shot, in one of the great two-act careers in American music.
Before the scruffy torch singer Tom Waits (d)evolved into the post-Beatnik junkyard apocalypse rider, he was already no stranger to the “critical favorite, commercial mediocrity” bin of the music biz. His bold move was to embrace that place and to go forth unabashedly with some of the most alienating and estranged rock ‘n roll music ever made. He found a future in the past, channeling equal parts Kurt Weill, Captain Beefheart, and Howlin’ Wolf and doing it with an eye for resonant myth and an ear for archaic language that is his alone.
When Randy Sutter gave me a cassette of Rain Dogs in 1986, I listened and knew that A) this was really important stuff, but that B) I wasn’t quite ready for it. And indeed, I rapproched about two years later and now number Rain Dogs among my five favorite albums of always. Usually more thought lagger than thought leader, I was a bit ahead of the general populace on this particular tip. It wasn’t until the brilliant Bone Machine (1992) caught the fancy of the grunge ear (for which the darker and the more harrowing, the better) that the Waits thing exploded and explodes on into the present: an institution, an immensity.
The friction in those great albums (Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Mule Variations and more) comes from the secret truth that the old Waits, the lounge-pop and tin pan classicist, didn’t really go away at all. He went stone crazy, it is true, but he never compromised his craft in doing so. It is that organic fusion of pop and roots traditionalism and mad, avant-garde hysteria that makes Waits so beloved and so inimitable.
Or is it imitable? That will be the question on Saturday, August 3 when Market Market’s insanely popular Tributon series takes on the great Tom Waits. Local performers from the most seasoned and esteemed to the most naïve will offer their best Waits covers. I can’t be there. Please go for me and tell me who did what and how it all went down, but break it to me gently. Thanks.
Tom Waits Tributon, Saturday, August 3, 10:00 PM, Market Market, 1 Madeline Lane (right off Rt. 32), Rosendale, NY., (845) 658-3164, www,marketmarketcafe.com.