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.