The THUNDER and the ROAR
Tom Waits has figured so prominently into my music-listening life, you can expect me to be nothing more than a cheerleader for every one of the man’s releases. Before I get into the details of his latest, Bad As Me, here are a few real-life highlights of my own intersections with his music:
1979 or so: I was in high school, the legal drinking age was 18, and I was two years under that. My friends and I used to come up from Kenosha to Milwaukee to visit my friend’s older brothers in college and see how long we could go undetected in taverns around the city. One fabulous Friday night, we were driving slowly along on a people-packed Brady Street, hanging out the windows, talking to girls, when some crazy, jazzy number came on the car radio…
Me: “OHMYGODYOUGUYS WHATTHEFUCKISTHISWEARELISTENINGTO?”
One of the older brothers: “This is, ahhh… the Milwaukee School Of Engineering. They have their own radio station…”
Me: “NONONONOIMEANWHO? WHO? WHO? IS THIS PLAYING RIGHT NOW?
One of the older brothers: “Dunno. Guy sounds great tho, eh?”
So everybody went back to yakking, but I sat back for a minute to shut up and listen, hoping for a backsell, and got one. It was Tom Waits doing “Step Right Up,” and since that night, I’ve had a new favorite artist.
1992: I had befriended a promocreature at Island Records. As often as I could, I programmed “Goin’ Out West” and “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” into a music video show I was working on. The promocreature sent me a copy of Bone Machine with signed personal message from Tom Waits. He has horrible handwriting. It is a prized possession.
Late 90s: I met a girl from San Francisco named Valerie Reyes in a music-related chat room. We were discussing Tom Waits. Soon afterward, we were married high atop Coit Tower. Tom Waits presided over the ceremony.
(Ok, that’s not really true. Val and I did marry, but it was in a Kenosha courtroom and Tom Waits wasn’t there.)
Last Saturday night: I crossed Michigan Avenue on Balbo in Chicago while listening to Tom Waits’ opening track “Chicago,” which was surreal, to say the least.
The times have finally caught up to Tom Waits, methinks. Waits has been pushing his style of rock and roll back into a mashup with Depression-era jazz for a long time now, creating a genre all his own, and now his music resonates as clearly as ever. “Chicago” musically reflects the bizzy bustle of its namesake, a hybrid of jazz, blues and Appalachia, with horns that belch in short notes at the surface, creating the feeling of traffic and congestion. Lyrically, Waits is bringing us back to the Great Migration, when so many poor and disenfranchised Southerners took the bold step of leaving their homes in search of new hope and new life in the Midwest’s largest city. As I crossed Michigan Avenue in the midst of this track, passing between the Hilton and Blackstone hotels while police and OWS protestors were spilled out into the streets at the moment the Grant Park evictions were happening, Waits’ message was clear: Bad times are here again.
“Well we bailed out all the millionaires
They’ve got the fruit
We’ve got the rind
And everybody’s talking at the same time…”
It ain’t all pain and misery, of course. In what could have easily been a song written in preparation for the aforementioned leave-it-all-behind trip to Chicago, “Get Lost” swaggers, trading in the apprehension of leaving home for the exhilaration of road-tripping adventure, as Waits hiccups his way through a joyous, straight-up rockabilly clinic.
I could go on and on. Bad As Me ranks with Waits’ best, and that’s saying something. He really doesn’t make bad records. The fact that he can make music that cuts so closely to the core of our times after some 40 years is an audacious and ridiculous feat that precious few others have managed. As he bellows out in the title track:
“I’m the blood on the floor
The thunder and the roar
The boat that won’t sink
I just won’t sleep a wink
You’re the same kind of bad as me…”