The Rattle of Bones and Chuckle from Ear to Ear: A Tribute to Tom Waits

Editor’s Note: My old blog Late Empire Ruminations is coming down soon, so I’m curating pieces from there that are not so topical. This post comes from September 2010.

Independence is for the very few; it is a privilege for the strong. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The phrase that gives this blog its name – ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin – comes from the Tom Waits song “9th and Hennipen” where

All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes

And the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.

Tom Waits, the man, I think, could be Frederick Nietzsche’s poster boy for Beyond Good and Evil.  TW is a man who has created and recreated himself, always pushing into the future, ignoring the insect buzz of the masses to remain absolutely true to himself.  Although not quite [cue Dusty Springfield] the son of a preacher man (like Nietzsche himself, Jung, and Hesse), Waits is pretty damned close, the son of two California school teachers, who by profession had to preach the status quo, part of what Yeats dismissed as “the noisy set/Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergyman/The martyrs call the world.”

This pigeonholing may be unfair to Waits’ parents who perhaps on the first day of school each year refused to hold their hands to their hearts and pledge alliance to the flag of the United States of America, but I kind of doubt it.  After his parents divorced, Waits lived with his mother in Richard Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California.  Once he had a record contract in hand, TW moved to the Tropicana Motel in LA.  Living the nightmare you might say.

Waits Lounging in his room at the Tropicana c. 1976

More and more it seems to me that the philosopher, being of necessity a man of tomorrow, has always found himself, and had to find himself, in contradiction to his today: his enemy was always the ideal of today.” Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

What went right here?  How did this middle class product come to eschew 1) the comforts and security of carpeted dens for seedy decadence 2) the prevalent hippie zeitgeist of the 60’s for the retro Beatnikism of Cassidy and Kerouac 3) rock-n-roll for jazz, later jazz for polka?  

Always restless, TW has never settled on one groove, no matter how lucrative.  Only perhaps the German language is equipped to produce a label for his music: Volktingedbluejazzindustrocabaretmusick.

In the course of the 38 years since TW signed his first recording contract, he has produced a body of high quality popular music that deserves inclusion in the pantheon that houses Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer.  As the Wall Street Journal’s (the very mouthpiece of hipdom) pop critic Jim Fusilli raves: 

Interestingly enough, in later years, TW’s has shifted from the streets of New Orleans and piano jazz eastward to the cabarets of Weimar Berlin and accordion-laced rumbas.  Among the many influences on Waits’s body of work – Stephen Foster, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael – stand Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, late practitioners of German Expressionism, working their dark magic in the black shadows of Nietzsche’s colossal influence.  How appropriate that Wait’s first musical Frank’s Lost Years debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater and that his collaboration with William S. Burrows, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bulletsopened in 1991 in Hamburg.  In his most recent incarnations, he seems German, a sort of Chaplinesque figure, part Kafka, part Brecht, a sort of skid row ubermensch who by heroically forsaking the comforts of mediocrity descended into an underworld of gothic grotesqueries and emerged triumphant, the master of his own fate, a hero armed with the secret knowledge of suffering.

She has that razor sadness that only gets worse

With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by

And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet

til you’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin

And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…

And I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all

Through the window of the evening train.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s