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.

God’s in Hospice, and I Ain’t Feeling So Hot Myself

god

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? 

~ Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann 1882

Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

~   Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet 2.2   c. 1600

Despite the scrumptious, about-to be-devoured meals I see on my hedonistic Facebook feed[1] (accompanied by their self-congratulatory “not-to-shabby” captions), within the concrete walls of my work world, I’m much more likely to hear “Happy Friday” than “Life is Good.”

It could be I’m merely projecting my late life dissatisfaction onto the rest of my American brethren; however, the contemporary novels I read tend to support my thesis that a majority of our citizens are unhappy with their lot. The novelistic worlds of Jonathan Franzen, Jenny Offill, or Colum McCann are worlds of woe, of fragmentation, of fractured families where spouses spit spleen at one another and disaffected children fail to prosper. And certainly, the recent US election suggests that 46% of voters would rather cast their lots with a ranting, inarticulate prevaricator who promises change than suffer through four more years of a considerably less corrupt status quo.

Ch-ch-ch-change.

The reasons for our unhappiness are no doubt manifold, but I’m going to suggest that the decline in religious belief and observation must play a significant role in our Great Dissatisfaction.   Now, I don’t want to get into the barren argument of whether there is or isn’t a deity, of whether belief is an illusion or disbelief a delusion, but rather, how the absence of religious observation – and by observation I mean not only attending services but also following precepts – might lead to malaise.

A recent Pew Research Center study of Religion in Everyday Life supports this contention:

“Highly religious people are distinctive in their day-to-day behaviors in several key ways: They are more engaged with their families, more involved in their communities and more likely to report being happy with the way things are going in their lives.”

The scoop, though, is that in the US Protestant Christianity and non-Orthodox Judaism are in decline.

religiosity-graph1-1170x780

 

The population of Orthodox Jews is growing by 5,000 per year, but the more liberal, non-Orthodox Jew population is shrinking by 10,000 per year. Liberal politicians used to count on strong support from the Jewish community, and while the more secular leaning Jews still vote mostly Democrat, the growing Orthodox sect identifies much more with a conservative mindset, which further divides its dwindling numbers. from World Religion News

As far as the US is concerned, it seems as if Nietzsche was a bit premature in declaring God dead, but when it comes to not merely believing but also adhering to the precepts of American religion, God has entered hospice care.

It seems to me that observation — what Buddhists and Jews call “practicing” –makes a significant difference in achieving some sort of happiness, that it’s not merely enough to call yourself a Christian or Buddhist or Jew to achieve the peace that passeth understanding.

I’ll use myself as an example. For years – almost thirty to be non-exact – I dabbled in Buddhism, in fact, declared myself to be a Buddhist. I read books, meditated, served ever so briefly on the board of a Tibetan Society, could rattle off the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Golden Path, plus chant the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” with the best of them.

the blogger talking Dharma back in the day

the blogger talking Dharma back in the day

Although Buddhism didn’t offer the promise of eternal bliss, it did provide a regimen of meditative exercises to help me come to grips with life’s slings and arrows. When I was a practicing Buddhist, I had at least embraced a system of belief, but here’s the rub, you can’t merely be a Buddhist, you have to practice Buddhism, you have to meditate, you must also do. Therefore, I no longer consider myself a Buddhist but a Dharma Dilettante.

Why did I give it up, you ask. It’s very, very, very hard work, which, as the Bodhisattvas say, may take lifetimes to achieve.

Should I mention distractions like the Internet and the unhappy fact that I enjoy mockery?

Am I happier as a non-Buddhist?

No.

As far as Christianity is concerned, I don’t think you need “to practice” to consider yourself a Christian but you can merely be one. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity does offer the prospect of eternal life, and it seems to me that even if God clings to life, that his adversary Satan is as dead as a doornail when it comes to personal belief (see Hamlet above), so I suspect that most non-practicing Christians don’t see the afterlife as binary, that they’re all going to heaven if they mutter some sort of prayer in what Lucinda Williams has called “those long last moments.”

However, what ultimately makes people happy is the extinction of ego, and if that’s the case, it’s no wonder people in the Age of Social Media are dissatisfied, despite their magical powers of conjuring movies and music instantaneously; it’s no wonder that our   novels depressive, our sci-fi dystopian.

blade-runner-blues-saul-espinosa

 

[1] I know, given the context, an unfortunate choice of words.

Undergraduate Existentialism Circa 1973

Rick Borstelman 2003

Rick Borstelman 2003

Existentialism was all the rage in the 60’s and ‘70’s when I intermittently attended classes in high school and college. The philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus must have hit its peak then, because the authorities allowed students to smoke — in high school in certain outdoor designated areas, and in college, right there in class. If existentialism is about anything, it’s about the rights of the individual, as we shall see.

kierkSøren Kierkegaard

Where I went to college each desk in the Humanities Building had a disposable cardboard ashtray. Students bogarted their Marlboros as they took notes, scrawling as best they could the professor’s explanation of Kierkegaard’s exegesis of the Abraham and Isaac story, scrawling (in my case, illegibly) observations like

Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but superior—yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought. And yet faith is this paradox…

The fact that you couldn’t follow the argument, that you couldn’t figure out what the fuck the subject of the third “is” was wasn’t* important because professors didn’t test you on the material; they had you write essays just as unintelligible as the texts you couldn’t understand, which represented a triumph of subjectivity over objectivity because who has the authority to tell an individual that his reading of the text is incorrect. That would have been so fascistic.

For example, here might be my undergraduate explanation of the passage I quoted above:

See, the individual smoker who is superior to the rest of the class who doesn’t smoke gets to smoke because the smoker’s subjective universe is paradoxically the only universe because if it weren’t for him, the individual smoker, there would be no universe, the way there was no universe as far as he was concerned in 1492 because he was not as yet a sentient being who possessed the autonomy to light up a Marlboro, despite that the individual who sits behind him, who, once again, would not exist for him if not for his being able to perceive her, or, in this case not perceive her, as she suffers an asthma attack because of the smoke that would not exist except for him.

You got A’s for this type of shit — at least I did.

Meanwhile, next door, in the poetry class you might have students reading this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Now, this poem, despite its implicit criticism of the All Mighty, poses dangers for the existentialist because it doesn’t exactly offer a multitude of defensible readings. The poem rather obviously suggests that Abraham agreed to kill his beloved son Isaac because Abraham was afraid God was going to sic a big ferocious dog on his ass.

These were the types of classes existentialists should avoid because the professors tended to dismiss the right of the individual to spell words whichever way he wanted. These fascist bastards took off points when you spelled “p-a-i-d” “p-a-y-ed.”

*Verbs of being rule in existentialism; the fact that I strung three in a row suggests I get it.

new-nietzscheFredrich Nietzsche

In the progression of existential philosophers, Nietzsche comes next chronologically, and back in 1973, he was a lot easier and more fun to read than Kierkegaard. Plus, Nietzsche was quotable, the king of the aphorism. You’d even heard of some of his sayings before, like

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

All things are subject to interpretation.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

God is dead.

The problem with Nietzsche, though, is that these killer quotable quotes are imbedded in long, rambling essays that lack structure and sometimes seem to contradict themselves, so by the time you get to the end, you’re not sure what his main point is.

Once you got to Nietzsche in your 1973 existential survey, all that was necessary is that you kept your mouth shut if you were a Christian and not try to exercise your first amendment freedom-of-speech right because chances are your professor was an atheist who would rip you to shreds because, after all, the universe would not exist except for him.

In other words, he’d sic his rhetorical Mastiff on you.

Jean Paul Sartre

sartre-jp-728x485Although Sartre’s masterpiece On Being and Nothingness makes Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling read like a Hemingway story in comparison, the ideas themselves are not that hard to understand.

What you got is a consciousness and whatever the consciousness is perceiving, and because this consciousness has a negative power of nothingness that can create a lack of self-identity, you, the individual, need to exercise your freedom by bringing into being and acting upon your individual spontaneous choices, and if you fail to do so, if, say, you decide not to run off to Best Buy and purchase a TV monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen and instead grade those sophomore essays, you have committed “bad faith,” which leads to “nausea,” which is really stupid of you because life is meaningless, and you’ll be dead in no time and therefore kiss good-bye the universe that only exists because you perceive it be.

On on that happy note, it’s DVD time.

Why I Ain’t Inviting Jesus to My Fantasy Dinner

Image

Once upon the time, our local paper published a Thursday supplement that targeted local geographical communities like “West Ashley,” “East Cooper,” “Summerville,” etc. In those supplements a column called “Do You Know?” featured interviews with faux celebrities like the heads of recreation departments, popular bartenders, and other notable citizens that help make life more bearable for us First World sufferers. We’d learn the towns and cities of their births, their idea of a fun weekend, their favorite dishes, and inevitably, their chosen guests at a “fantasy dinner.”

Without a doubt, the most popular fantasy dinner invite of all time was Jesus. Not Jesus Alou, mind you, but the Jesus, the one from Nazareth. I’ll get into why choosing accompanying guests is problematic with Jesus at the table, but first, let’s address a gargantuan challenge involved with entertaining Joseph and Mary’s first born.

He speaks Aramaic!

If you’re thinking, yeah, but he’s the Son of God, a miracle worker, let me remind you he was also Mary’s son, i.e., half human and sometimes plagued with doubts (cf., Gethsemane). From my reading of the Gospels, it’s not as if he had a clear pipeline to God through which the latter would walkie-talkie-like tell him what to do. Turning water into wine, casting out demons, walking on water seem like veritable pieces of cake compared to mastering a language that didn’t even exist when you were alive.

No, if I had the chance to meet Jesus in the flesh I’d want him all to myself, to be able to look him in the eye, perhaps to pantomime messages back and forth, to have the focus to be only on him. In other words, I don’t want Leonardo or Nietzsche, or Lady Gaga distracting me with Jesus in the house.

C’mon folks, invite fun folk who speak the same language to your fantasy dinners: Groucho, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, or if you wanna get shit-faced with the dead, Richard Burton or Christopher Hitchens.

Oops, this just in from my superego: “It’s a fantasy, jackass, make believe. You can have Jesus speak English if you want.”

Okay, then. What about dress? Nice casual? A clean robe for Jesus, a diaphanous jumpsuit for Lady Gaga? And what to serve? Loaves and fishes? Wiener schnitzel?

Like, I said Richard Burton and Christopher Hitchens . . .