I Might Have To Rethink Tom Waits

My brother: “You ever heard of Tom Waits?”

Me: “Yeah, he’s a good song writer, but I just can’t get past that voice.”

Brother: “I know, it is like a sick hippopotamus gurgling Castor oil. A friend of mine swears by him, but I just can’t take it. I’d rather listen to a three-headed cat fight with the odd head.”

My brother and I have had this conversation at least twice. Which is odd because we usually converse about movies and steer clear of music, since our tastes in music are far and wide and different. It isn’t like Mr. Waits comes on the radio or anything either. But there it is, us talking about him.

For my part, I am not as adamant as my brother and I mean what I said. When I hear his songs I typically think the songcraft is really interesting, but his voice just tears out my lungs. I have several of his albums and try as I might to get through them I usually stop short somewhere just before the end.

Sitting here in the library, scanning documents for my wife so that she can take some things with her to China in the digital medium of her choice, rather than bulky books, I plugged into some live Waits from 1977 (a year that looms large in the live bootleg world, at least for me anyway.) I suppose you could ask why I downloaded a show from a man of whom I can’t make it through a single album.

It would be a good question, were you to ask it. But since I am alone, writing a wee blog post and you shall not read it until I answer, I shall answer. The critics love Tom Waits, and more importantly, my musical friends love Tom Waits. As I already said (twice now I think) I find Tom Waits to be a good writer with a miserable voice. As such, I keep wanting to fall in love with him. Like a spouse who overlooks his lover’s strange birthmark in the shape of Jesse Jackson, or a third nipple, I keep hoping I will be able to overlook and even enjoy Wait’s voice. Ok, maybe enjoy is a little much, but I keep thinking I can get used to it.

Also, downloading bootlegs is what I do. The more obscure the better. The fewer times I’ve seen bootlegs by an artist, the better. The less I have in my collection the more I want it.

But yeah, listening to this bootleg I began to see why he was so praised by so many. Here I began to see him as not so much a singer, but as a carnival barker. As the old, perverted drunk of an uncle that no longer gets invited for Christmas dinner.

There were times when he was talking to the audience when I couldn’t tell if it was part of a song, or just him talking. That voice isn’t there for the singing, but as something larger, something deeper, something less understandable. I once listened to an interview with Waits where he talked about how he had intentionally strained his voice early on to creat that distinct growl. His songs aren’t meant to be pretty, and neither is his voice.

I get that now.

Even so, I still must admit that I struggled to get through the entire show. After an hour or so, I was ready for it to end. I was ready for something more readily understood as much. I was ready for a couple of chords and a guitar solo.

No, I wouldn’t put myself strongly into that corner labeled “fan” just yet, but I’ve moved a lot closer to understanding the sideshow that is Tom Wait.

I think I like it.

22 thoughts on “I Might Have To Rethink Tom Waits

  1. i’m right there w/ you, i’ve tried, oh how i’ve tried. and while i love a handful of songs by him, i can’t fall in love w/ him completely, nor can i fall in love w/ a whole album by him.

  2. A lot of the people I know who really like Waits also like really obscure jazz and other difficult musical moments. I’ll never say anything really bad about him, but I’m not sure I have enough patience to really get him.

  3. I saw Tom Waits in concert last summer. He had not performed in Atlanta for something like 35 years, so I knew this was a not-miss show. One of the best damn live shows I’ve ever seen. While his voice used to occasionally irritate the ol’ spine, now I can listen to him sing anything.

  4. You could also try his earliest stuff. “Closing Time” and Volumes one and two of “The Early Years”, his voice is a lot smoother.

  5. As the nick suggests, I am a Tom devotee. My favourite piece of work would have to be “Closing Time”… a smoother voice as mentioned, melodic, fabulous phrasing… an absolute gem. Reminds me of this long, low, smokey bar below street level in Amsterdam (Jazz Cafe Alto). This album inspired me to mess around with piano (I am a guitarist).
    I recently discovered “The Early Years” CD’s, and was pleasantly surprised by the different takes on some old favourites.
    “Raindogs” and “Heartattack & Vine” rate highly for me… tasty guitars, delicious B3 organs, Tom half talking, half singing, half growling colourful dioramas of people and places and feelings that seem so foreign, but so darn familiar! The primal, the base, the triumphant and the pathetic.
    Then along came the “weird stuff” from “Bone Machine” and onwards, that I find sits on my shelf for months and then I pick it out as the mood gets me. That being said, I ABSOLUTELY adore “Alice”… Tom brings his “Carnivale” people to town, and I can’t help but pull back the curtain to peek at his ‘Ripley’s’ oddities.

    Thank God for the likes of Tom Waits to splash a little colour across a way too monochromatic aural landscape.

  6. I used to have the same opinion about Tom Waits that you seem have. Then about ten years ago I realised that he was one of the two greatest living American songwriters. The other of couse is, well you know who.

  7. I must say that I`m absolutly inloved with his voice……
    You can`t get that.You must be a woman:D
    You simply need to have a womans heart to understand that!

  8. you’ve nailed it here; it’s the voice. Love or hate, you can’t think of him as “except that voice”, no matter what, it IS the voice.
    Tom waits for me is wallowing in the mud, I think music that is genuinely dirty is the most honest. A lot of people want to pop it into their CD players, or headphones, and dig it, but it just doesn’t work like that. I like to drink rotgut whisky alone and listen to his tunes, maybe stare at the wall or work on some art. When you have no one but yourself around, he is good soul company.

  9. I first heard one of Tom’s albums when I was sixteen and falling in love with the man who turned out to be my husband. I’m thirty-five now, and there’s no musician in the world who can catch my heart up and make me feel more of the greatness of humanity like him.

    I don’t care which album it is: Tom’s grown and changed and lived, like everyone can. But his music makes my life more real, and lets the crap and worries that swirl around my brain just quiet down. Yeah, good for the soul.

  10. Let’s agree that Waits is the greatest songwriter on the planet. The voice. I’ll admit, is an acquirred taste.From Rain Dogs on, It took a while for me to get it.
    But you know what? After a few years of revisiting the newer material, I have realized that his singing is really an extention of the whole package. He WANTS to challenge us, and therein lies the genius.

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  12. You’re right on the voice, but for me it measures perfect with the songs he and his wife have written. Missing new ones for such a long time.

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  14. celtishorts, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I definitely have to be in the mood for that voice but it fits perfectly with the types of songs he usually writes and sings.

    tomethreidge57: I’ve never heard him mock the blues singers. I feel like he has great affection for them, or did I miss something?

    • Fair point. Bob’s voice may be rough, but it has a certain kind of magic to it. Also I’d argue Tom’s songs are often rough and rowdy where Dylan’s are poetic.

      But really I like Tom quite a bit. I’ve come to like him a lot more than I did when I wrote this piece many years ago.

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