I was in high school when I decided I had been missing out on the genius that is Tom Waits. His name came up in music discussions often enough – and I just so happened to see him in theatres playing the devil in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – that I said: “I should give this man a chance.” So I downloaded his 1992 album Bone Machine.
And I hated it.
The first track, “Earth Died Screaming,” was a warbling Waits overtop that sounded like your neighbour’s awful, wooden wind chimes. I heard he was strange, but I was completely unprepared to handle what some called Waits’ “most harrowing album ever.”
Not only did I quickly lose interest in listening to the album, but I was unable to even look at the cover photo. Taken by Bob Dylan’s son, Jesse, the photo shows Waits wearing a skull cap and goggles, looking eerily like a donkey laughing at me. Not with me – at me.
Though we had a rough beginning, Waits made a triumphant return in my life a year later. And lately, I’ve had him on repeat.
It’s not a story of maturation or growth. I didn’t all of a sudden start drinking Matcha tea while listening to 1985’s Rain Dogs, contemplating the mysteries of the universe. A friend recommended I listen to Waits’ “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” so I humoured him and gave it a whirl.
Its beauty blew my teenaged mind. After that, I was hooked.
I was given Waits’ 2002 album Alice on vinyl as a birthday gift in January. I’ve recently been on a rap and electronic music kick, so Alice collected dust while I downloaded Gucci Mane mixtapes and continued to be a skinny white girl. But on a recent sunny day I took the album out of its plastic and listened to it the whole way through.
I discovered Waits is exactly what I had been told years ago – a genius. Though I didn’t recognize it then, I sure as hell do now. He’s a master of the simple song.
The 12th track on Alice, “I’m Still Here,” is Waits’ one-of-a-kind voice and the piano. There are no frills, no crazy guitar riffs and no neighbour’s wind chimes. The song is two four-line stanzas and an ending couplet.
“You haven’t looked at me that way in years,” Waits croons. “But I’m still here.”
How beautiful is that?
“I’m Still Here” sounds like Waits himself strolls into your living room, sits down at your piano and tells you the Coles Notes version of his experience being neglected by his lover.
These days, people are quick to say the golden age of music is dead. They compare Justin Bieber songs with those of Tupac Shakur and mourn the loss of good lyrical content. They cry on each other’s shoulders remembering the days before auto-tune. And after unfortunate performances on Saturday Night Live by Ashlee Simpson and Lana Del Rey, I’m tempted to join in the funeral procession. Tempted, but not convinced.
Only 10 years ago, Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan wrote a simple, minute-and-50-second-long song about being in love yet being forgotten. In 75 words, they capture a beautiful and tragic narrative.
Don McLean’s “American Pie,” released on the album of the same name in 1971, has 872 words.
There’s no formula to make the perfect song or recipe for success in the industry – that is, unless your name is Taylor Swift and you literally defecate Billboard top 100 music chart gold. Waits reminds me that while everyone loves David Guetta and Flo Rida now, there are still musicians out there who can convey strong emotions through their art.
But it’s not about labelling music good or bad. When I hear Duck Sauce’s “Barbara Streisand,” my dancing shoes might as well be duct-taped to my feet for the remainder of the song. Do I think my life will be better after listening to it? Not particularly. But does it make me happy? Absolutely.
What we need to focus on isn’t whether a song can be neatly categorized into “good” and “bad.” We need to find that artist or group that stops us in our tracks when we listen to them. That person who, even for just a few minutes at a time, can hold our complete attention.
For me, that person is Waits.
He can say things simply and elegantly, and he challenges himself to convey a message of heartbreak in less than a hundred words. And he’s still writing.
Though music tends to be more convoluted lately, I doubt the idea that we’ve totally left the so-called “golden age” behind.
We’ve still got Tom.