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.

On Arrogance, Therapists, and Overweening Parents

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Over the years some have accused me of being arrogant, and when it comes to a some things, I guess it might be true, especially if you’re talking about my exquisite taste in the arts or the immense love I have of the sound of my own voice.*

And, yes, especially when it comes to choosing therapists, I’ll admit I’m as arrogant as hell.

For example, a couple of decades ago, my synapses went on the fritz. I lost about twenty pounds in three weeks, and it wasn’t the type of weight loss where people complimented you on your svelteness but wondered if you had shared a needle with the wrong Haitian. “You okay?” they’d ask.

Each afternoon, I’d come straight home from school, climb the stairs to my study where I’d lie on the floor, weep like Niobe, and listen to Peter Gabriel’s Us or the Counting Crow’s August and Everything After.

After all, if you were undergoing a dark night of the soul, what would make a better soundtrack than this:

 

Anyway, one evening after prying me out of fetal position with a tire iron, my wife Judy insisted I see a therapist. The thing is, because of my arrogance, I didn’t want to deal with a therapist who wasn’t extremely erudite. I didn’t care how empathetic, how many Ivy League degrees she had hanging on her office walls, if she and I couldn’t talk about the Compsons of Yoknapatawpha County or the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neil’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night or Yeats’s interest in the occult, I wanted nothing to do with her.

After all, characters from literature offer a mother lode of archetypal experience in understanding the human psyche, and by my reckoning someone interested in how the psyche works should necessarily be interested in literature. No, I wanted someone like Jung, someone older than I, someone who spoke High German, not someone who rattled off stock phrases like “I think I hear you saying” in a flat Midwestern monotone.

I longed to administer tests to prospective therapists before I chose one, something quick for them to take and me to assess, like 50 multiple choice questions.

Which of the following Faulkner characters has the mind of a three year old?

A. Vardamen Burden
B. Joe Christmas
C. Homer Barron
D. Benjie Compson
E. No clue

The first therapist I tried didn’t hack it at all. Recommended by my physician, this fellow had a mere masters in social work, which meant he couldn’t prescribe meds, so instead of shoveling serotonin jump-starters my way, he’d have me close my eyes and imagine I was flying like Peter Pan from his office to my childhood home in Summerville. The idea was I could re-experience in a new light some of the unpleasant incidents from my childhood that he considered responsible for the harrowing nightmares that visited me about 3 a.m every fucking morning.

So up and off I’d go with my bad sense of direction, flying straight over the Cooper River Bridge, then just above the steeples of the peninsula, taking 61 instead of 26, checking out the plantations on the Ashley River, noting the traffic, wondering if the cars should be an earlier model since I was ostensibly going back in time — all this while the therapist’s meter was ticking, so to speak, at $75 a half-hour.

Then he’d say it’s time to fly back before I had a chance to go get inside my childhood house, before I’d had a chance to relive some wretched Christmas Eve or stumbled-across suicide note. The house didn’t have a chimney to slide in through a la Santa, nor was I, strictly speaking, a ghost who could walk through walls, etc.  I’d be on the roof trying to figure out how to get in when he’d tell me it was time to go.  So I’d take off and head back, and like in real life, the trip back was always quicker than the trip there.

Once again, Judy to the rescue. I told the therapist that my wife was displeased at my lack of progress, and he immediately referred me to the Medical University where I was triaged by a woman whom I wouldn’t have minded being my therapist because she was much older than I, a bone fide psychiatrist with a pleasantly patrician foreign accent; however, she had recently moved to Charleston from Johannesburg and couldn’t practice in the US.

Anyway, I passed the triage, got assigned with a fellow who put me on Zoloft and Klonopin, and even though he and I didn’t talk about Wittgenstein or, for that matter, Raymond Chandler, we did have interesting conversations, mostly about his life, how it felt like to tell someone he had a month to live, etc., and I started sleeping through nights and feeling like my old self again, i.e, like a somewhat angry and pessimistic middle-aged man who held most of the bourgeoise in contempt.

flight

Well, that was 21 years ago, so imagine my arrogance level now, especially when these whippersnapper parents-of-students young enough for me to have taught commence to instruct me about how I should be conducting my classes.

For example, at lunch, the other day, one of my colleagues started bitching about a parent who actually texted her after a 9th grade weekend retreat to complain that little Bartholomew or Bianca had declared the retreat was the worst trip the sweet darling had ever been on ever. My colleague texted her back photos of beaming kids looking as if they’d were being filmed in a soda pop ad.

I told her I thought that was great but added that I would have handled it somewhat differently, would have engaged in some dialogue before sending the photos.

Mom: . . . the worst trip my sweet darling has ever been on ever!

Me: You are, Mrs. X, familiar with the philosophical school of existentialism, aren’t you?

Mom: Huh?

Me: You know, the movement started by Kierkegaard, embraced by Nietzsche, espoused by Sartre and Camus.

Mom: What does this have to do with anything?

Me: Well, it has a lot to do with everything. Existentialists posit that each individual perceives the world through her own unique perspective and therefore ‘reality’ is relative. Because your Portuguese water dog lacks the optical cones and rods to perceive your sweater is red, to him the sweater is gray, but your reality is no more legitimate than his, and let’s not forget you can’t hear the high frequencies that he perceives, but that doesn’t mean his reality is more legitimate than yours.

In other words, although this may have been the worst trip ever from B’s perspective, it might have been the greatest trip C has ever been on — or as Hamlet puts it, “There’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

Therefore, I suggest you and B bond together by reading Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus. “ And in the mean time please enjoy these photos from the retreat.

Have a nice day!

Like, I say, I can be arrogant when it comes to some things, but I’d arrogantly like to think my arrogance is better than that mother’s arrogance.


* But, hey. I’m not arrogant about the things I suck at, like my inability to find my car in a parking garage or remembering the person’s name I was introduced to 30 seconds ago.