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Nashville Scene Dispatches from America's Underbelly

Tom Waits returns

By Randall Roberts

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Tom Waits talks in gutter slang, describing events with the eye and ear of a bullshit artist. You know the kind: guys who pepper their stories with "I shit you not." Every break in the conversation gives them the opportunity to inject, "That reminds me of the time I was hiding in a closet wearing nothin' but a pair of red panties and a top hat," or something equally preposterous. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether you believe them, because what they lack in honesty they make up for in imagination.

Most people know Waits from his two signature songs: "Jersey Girl," which Bruce Springsteen covered, and "Downtown Train," which Rod Stewart deflated. His persona is as familiar as his music: a rambling, stumbling, drunk hipster barfly sitting behind a piano, growling his songs in a cigarette-damaged voice. It's dark, and you can barely make out his silhouette holding a highball, but you can hear him--and he's singing "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)."

At least, that was Waits early in his career, before the '80s. Contrast that with the 1998 version on the Fishing With John television show, on which he and host John Lurie traveled to Jamaica to fish for red snapper. The two hop aboard a dilapidated, rusty tugboat that couldn't possibly tug anything. Like catching Dracula at the Laundromat at noon, it's a shock to see Waits in the beautiful outdoors, let alone in the morning.

Fishing in choppy waters just off the coast of Jamaica, he disappears from the camera's eye for a couple minutes. Lurie yells out Tom's name, and a hand-held camera walks around the cabin, where Waits is curled up in the fetal position, all gray and seasick. This isn't the swashbuckler you imagine when listening to Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones; this is a damned landlubber, and he ain't talkin' the talk anymore--just a guy without sea legs with an upset stomach.

Waits recently released Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years, a retrospective of his work from 1983 to 1996--which represents some of the most original and visionary American music of the last 25 years. The collection follows the transformation of a cocky, Beat-influenced lounge singer into an extraordinary composer who occasionally curls up in a ball to examine his own mortality. Waits' broad masterworks have gradually moved away from corner bars and into a miraculous underground netherworld filled with mumbles and grumbles and scratchy 78s. Part Raymond Chandler, part Kurt Weill, part Bowery, part Hollywood and Vine, Waits created in this 13-year time span a unified group of records that occupy a musical carnival world all their own, filled with yarns, memories, dreams, and visions.

After denting the music world with a number of exceptional records on Asylum and Elektra in the '70s, Waits signed with Chris Blackwell's Island Records, known more for its reggae and world music releases. His first record for the label, 1983's Swordfishtrombones, started with the words, "Rattle Big Black Bones/in the Danger Zone./There's a rumblin' groan/down below." Waits began his career at Island taking an elevator ride to hell, and over the course of three thematically related albums--Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank's Wild Years--he came up for air only a few times. When he did, his observations were filled with sorrow and regret.

Swordfishtrombones, though stuck in a subterranean milieu, is a soft and at times delicate work. It contains Waits' most generous love song, "Jonesburg, Ill.," but follows that with the raucous "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six." Throughout the rest of the album, he staggers the emotions and stutters their effects. Most importantly, the record introduces Frank, the recurring antagonist of Waits' trilogy. The song "Frank's Wild Years" is a story of middle-class stagnancy: Frank owns a house with his wife, sells used office furniture for a living, has a self-cleaning oven--the whole bit. Then Frank snaps, burns his house, and drives away.

Like the best artists, Waits in his Island years created his own plot of land--more like an entire underworld--and proceeded to populate it. Best described as song cycles, each of his five studio albums on Island is part opera, part short-story collection. Each has its own parameters, each its own feel. Waits' characters are often sad sacks who decide to vanish before they decay; most of them drink like sailors--in fact, many are sailors. Blind firemen, lame conductors, slaughterhouse big shots, German dwarves, and crumbling beauties hang out in bars, desperate, alone, and getting restless. Crows fly through the songs, occasionally getting snatched and held in cages.

Think of Norman Rockwell's America flip-flopped--Waits tells us the stories we'd never learn from looking at those idealized images of happy families and tight-knit communities. His coarse musical textures provide the perfect musical narration: clanks and clinks, marimbas and Farfisas, trombones, accordions, banjos, bowed saws, and lots of plucky guitars (often courtesy of Marc Ribot). Waits doesn't so much create thick arrangements as spread layers so that the many ingredients have breathing room. Sometimes his songs gather momentum, but just as often they seem stuck in one place, carrying a rhythm over and over on a relentless treadmill.

Rain Dogs was released in 1985 and advances that feel one step further, with more texture, percussion, and delicate touches than Swordfishtrombones. The record wanders freely around America--Chandler's L.A., Ben Hecht's New York, occasionally cruising through East St. Louis. Again, it reads like a short-story collection, perhaps most closely resembling the spirit of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love--different characters and settings, but all kindreds.

Waits moves from the docks en route to the Far East in "Singapore" to the "Cemetery Polka," in which he describes aunts and uncles--cheapskates, tightwads, nutcases, bookies, and pill freaks--all on the verge of death. "Hang Down Your Head," one of Waits' most beautiful songs, is tender, almost helpless. "Hush a wild violet," he sings. "Hush a band of gold/Hush, you're in a story/I heard somebody told."

Released in 1987, Frank's Wild Years is the third album in Waits' trilogy. It's the most accomplished of the three, and it begins like a drag race: We're in a car, presumably with Frank--perhaps as he's racing away from his house on fire. St. Christopher, the patron saint of driving, is on the passenger's side, and Frank is desperately trying to keep the devil at bay.

Originally performed as a theatrical production by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company, Frank's Wild Years is filled with hope and dreams, plagued with regret and fear. It inhabits a world where both extremes coexist uneasily: "I made a golden promise/that we would never part./I gave my love a locket/and then I broke her heart."

After Frank's Wild Years, it took Waits five years to release another record. During that time, he established himself as a remarkable character actor, appearing in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, costarring with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed, and showing up as a taxi driver in Robert Altman's Short Cuts.

Waits' next album, Bone Machine, was perfect, one of the great records of the past decade. In this remarkable, apocalyptic end-of-the-century document, Waits takes us both to heaven--which is full--and to hell, observing people as they make their way to the underworld from Earth. Occasionally, he zeroes in on a particular story--a teenager running away; a suicide note; a vengeful indictment.

The warm production weaves Waits' musical fabric into a dense, dripping recording, with one song flowing smoothly and languorously to the next like syrup. His wife, Kathleen Brennan, shows up as a collaborator and is credited as cowriter on many of the songs. The album closes with a tune Waits penned with Keith Richards, who has also appeared on a number of the singer's Island recordings. "That Feel," more than any song in Waits' repertoire, perfectly encapsulates his vision--it's an acknowledgment of constant existential dread, of the relentless struggle between hope and fear. "But there's one thing you can't lose," he sings. "It's that feel."

The final work represented on Beautiful Maladies is a collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson and writer William S. Burroughs. The Black Rider premiered in Hamburg, Germany, in 1990, but it wasn't released as an album until 1993. It's the most cohesive of Waits' collections, adapting the folk tale of the Fatal Marksman, a tragic love story involving a deal with the devil, magic bullets, and the forest. Waits, along with collaborator Greg Cohen (who has worked with him for nearly 20 years), propels the story along with Russian dances, spooky theremin dirges, carnival rides, and sad folk songs. The Black Rider is the most musically diverse and lush work of Waits' catalogue, drawing its inspiration from all parts of the globe; it's the least "American" sounding album he has ever created.

Beautiful Maladies draws on all of these records, but it jumps from one to another at will. There's no obvious chronology, and Waits, who selected and sequenced the anthology, offers no personal overview--just the printed lyrics in a booklet, along with a listing of the musicians who participated. You almost want more. You want closure in the form of a benediction, because Waits' years at Island were like one long, secular sermon that simultaneously glorified and vilified the world, restlessly examining its inhabitants, their actions, and emotions.

Beautiful Maladies may lack the thematic unity of the works it surveys, but it nonetheless gives the listener an eye-opening look at Waits' world. Indeed, the only constant in these tales of drunk and wayward souls is their chronicler, who spent his years at Island looking for clues into his characters' existence. Each time he surfaced with another album, he'd pasted together another collection of gripping stories--a handful of concrete dreams.

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