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Tom Waits: Ringmaster Of The Elegant Riot

Photo credit: Anton Corbijn

Mick Raubenheimer By

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In Tom Waits' world the sun is always suspended behind some perimeter of gloom or drunken memory—is always clouded by night or the whiskey-stain on the soul.
[For Tammi Tam.]

Somewhere change is jingling, there is an accordion moaning softly in some corner somewhere, a barstool is creaking—somewhere foul glasses are being grimly emptied...

The dark eerie carnival is rising once more—hurry your children into safe dreams, lock the wine cabinet; tuck your long-lost sweethearts into forgettance. Tom Waits is here, those sub-human genius features are sizing you up, asking you how your night's been; he's pouring himself a drink (he doesn't ask). The drunk aesthetic is looming ominously, weighing down your air...

Is Tom Waits a demon commissioned by God to do a millennial report—is he scribbling arcane codes in some labyrinth, analyzing man's blood, defining the damage in secret charts for God's perusal? "You were right, Sir— man is sick and lonely, it's growing worse."

Tom Waits has got it covered, his musical territory—there is only one ringmaster. For the sake of brevity this ink will focus on the year 2002, when Maestro Waits released a twin masterpiece, uncaging two albums simultaneously, their respectful titles like coinages for his two sub-structures of music, his two decks of cards: Alice—for the incredibly sad, the incredibly drunk deep blues (his American blood); Blood Money—for the dark carnival, the tongue-in-the-dark with its wayward wit and intelligence (his European blood). They're good, of course. As the hours pass they become brilliant, they seep into your consciousness like bad dreams—sad lonely dreams populated by lost souls hailing lost taxi's in the city-scape.

In Tom Waits' world the sun is always suspended behind some perimeter of gloom or drunken memory—is always clouded by night or the whiskey-stain on the soul. His is a peculiarly perverted city—part New York midnight with its lonely shivering bars and their quietly howling patrons circa 1975-1985; part hangover-surrealist European underdark. A city whose set is populated in equal contingents by down-and-out American husbands and bachelors (tears stained by rejection and displaced lust, halo'd with drink); dangerous shadow-wreathed gypsies; and jazz musicians trapped in bitter and lonely melodies, sneering at the drunks—aching into trumpet and strings.. God is elsewhere.. the women forever purring and coying and leaving in the corners of the eyes; eternally and gracefully poised between out-of-reach and the artificial, obsessive embrace of memory and loss. And a river runs through it.*

Like all great American artists Tom Waits' muse is the tensions and contradictions behind the American Dream (read: its waking state..); the painful poignancy of man's Achilles' soul. Tom Waits could give a toss about the false dichotomy between left and right (and The Left vs The Right), sneers knowingly at the current trends in popular music's trend-athon—these mirages have always been there, they don't enter into his concerns. He's still baying the blues and snarling the satire of what it's really all about in the strange hearts of males: It's about God and women and booze. It's about failing to look the mirror in the eye. And so he's still writing the same script; dialing up the same actors and actresses, the same extras . Trying to get the message across.

Tom Waits' piano has always been tuned to irony, has always acknowledged its human element, the ugliness and insecurities hidden behind the pretty melody... He tosses the illusion— douses his prettiest phrases in ample drink, in ample off-notes and slurs.

Waits has always been that most dangerous and sly of storytellers—the satirist; here veiled in that fitting cloak, that fitting overcoat riddled with its November rain and LA tears, the Blues: For what better page than music? His piano (the sheet in question), involves, brings into immediate effect, the audience and its naivety, the author and its ambiguities; wraps it all into the now telling melody—for now it sings of you.

Tom Waits makes you hurt: His art bleeds and weeps... but he also makes you laugh. He confides to you that everything's really ok— that the birds are still singing their songs; that you've just had one-too-many and it's time to sober up—to take responsibility for your soul and brave the morning air.

He winks at you, slides the empty glass over the counter. Stands up to smile into the night air...

His cab is waiting, there are reports to be sent off.

*see opening track to Blood Money, and gather your oars...

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