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.

Cruel and Unusual Punishments

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[H]owever unlimited the power of the court may seem, it is far from being wholly arbitrary; but its discretion is regulated by law. For the bill of rights has particularly declared, that excessive fines ought not to be imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted . . .

from the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution

I have always loved the sound of the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment.” Sonically, you get all four of the basic metrical feet in four words, a trochee, an anapest, an iamb, and a dactyl, in that order. Plus the delicious elongation of the long U sounds of cruel and unusual, not mention the internal rhyme of “un” and “pun.”

Mr. Tom Waits, would you please indulge us with a recitation?

 

Something so horrid shouldn’t sound so enticing.

chair

To me, it’s amazing that some state approved punishments aren’t considered cruel and unusual. Take death by the electric chair, for example.

 

For execution by the electric chair, the person is usually shaved and strapped to a chair with belts that cross his chest, groin, legs, and arms. A metal skullcap-shaped electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with saline. The sponge must not be too wet or the saline short-circuits the electric current, and not too dry, as it would then have a very high resistance. An additional electrode is moistened with conductive jelly (Electro-Creme) and attached to a portion of the prisoner’s leg that has been shaved to reduce resistance to electricity. The prisoner is then blindfolded. (Hillman, 1992 and Weisberg, 1991) After the execution team has withdrawn to the observation room, the warden signals the executioner, who pulls a handle to connect the power supply. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts, which lasts for about 30 seconds, is given. The current surges and is then turned off, at which time the body is seen to relax. The doctors wait a few seconds for the body to cool down and then check to see if the inmate’s heart is still beating. If it is, another jolt is applied. This process continues until the prisoner is dead.  (Wikipedia).

Here’s a link to a more thorough explanation via video.

Although only 9 of the 45 executed in the US in the last 15 years have gone to the electric chair, it is still used, and, therefore, not all that “unusual.” The rest of the state-sponsored offings were rendered via lethal injection, but now that drug companies are balking at providing lethal drugs, the good ol’ electric chair might make a comeback.

To me a truly cruel and unusual punishment would be something like this, not lethal, more like an “enhanced timeout.”

Let’s say some miscreant has mocked someone with a physical disability.

You strap him into an electric chair, inject him with an amphetamine, and force him to watch ten consecutive episodes of Little House on the Prairie.

I guarantee you he’ll never do it again. In fact, he might prefer the actual electric chair and its 2000 volts.

living-room-modern-brown-living-room-theater-wall-unit-with-tv-entertainment-center-set-in-modern-living-room-entertainment-centers

 

Just Can’t Cut That Juice a Loose: KILLER ROCK LYRICS ABOUT SUBSTANCE ABUSE!!!

Foreign_Affairs_Tom_WaitsI-and-I, that’s right, Mr. Hoodoo Man he-self, boon companion and devoted supporter of Mr. John Jameson, lover of hoppy craft beer concoctions, not to mention spicy Sunday morning bloody marys, has voluntarily climbed aboard that proverbial wagon that refuses to stop at taverns, bodegas, juke joints, and roof top bars.

Or to put it more succinctly, he’s quit drinking alcohol.

Why, you ask? Has Mr. Moore been stumbling in at 3 a.m. and slapping around his beloved consort Judy Birdsong?

Of course not.

Has he found that drinking has adversely affected his social life?

To the contrary.

Okay, is he chronically late, a no-show sometimes? Does he hire barmates to grade his essays? Does he put himself in risky situations? Is he a frequent visitor to emergency rooms?   Has he gotten a DUI? Recently made a complete and utter ass out of himself?

No, no, no, no, no, and “not that he is aware of.”

Why then?

The answer is vanity. Recently, he saw photographs of himself at his son’s wedding and realized that his once David-Niven-like svelteness had ballooned into a girth approaching Hitchcockian proportions. And even though he now possesses a Falstaffian paunch, his arms and legs have maintained the emaciation of his 97-pound-weakling adolescence.

John Falstaff by Eduard Von Grutzner

John Falstaff by Eduard Von Grutzner

He’s too vain to post a photograph, but picture a four-month pregnant Mick Jagger and you get the picture.

Why not cut out those empty calories? Why not give it a try?

So how has he been spending those hours not spent in drinking establishments?

Listening to songs about substance abuse, that’s how, and he’s come up with a list a few killer song lyrics devoted to over-indulgence, like this classic from Willie Nelson:

The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.

Not only that, he’s going to provide sound samples to go along with a few of his favs. So sit back and enjoy

THESE KILLER ROCK LYRICS ABOUT SUBSTANCE ABUSE!!!

(I know it lacks that Buzzfeed allure of botched plastic surgeries).

Okay, we’re going to start with John Hiatt’s “Paper Thin,” whose first sentence has the panache of the opening of a well-crafted short story. Listen.

Here’s how the song ends:

(Saw John about a year ago in concert.  Here’s the REVIEW).

Okay, for our next lyric on substance abuse, let’s go way back to my tenth grade year of 1968 and the Butterfield Blues Band’s “Drunk Again.”  The song’s by Elvin Bishop and features the domestic trauma drinking can cause.  Here’s a snippet:

Of course, as Bob Dylan famously tells us in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” — “I started off on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff” — alcohol is the ultimate gateway drug.  I betcha ain’t nobody ever shot up heroin who hadn’t started out on the road to perdition with wine or beer. You start off seemingly innocuously with a PBR and the next thing you know your rolling up bills and snorting cocaine or worse.  Here’s John Hammond, Jr’s superb cover of the Tom Wait’s classic “Heart Attack and Vine”:

That’s right:

Boney’s high on china white;

Shorty’s found a punk

You know there ain’t no devil;

that’s just god when he’s drunk.

Well, this stuff will probably kill you;

let’s do another line.

What you say you meet me

down on Heart Attack and Vine.

Love can be a drug, they say.  Wasn’t Robert Palmer “addicted to love?”  Here’s the great Lucinda Williams making the analogy:

C’mon, Lucinda.  You know what Willie B Yeats sez:  “Never give all the heart for love . . .

Okay, let’s end this thing on a positive note.  The resurrection of Tim Finnegan via Irish whiskey.  Here, the Clancy Brothers describe how dead Tim’s corpse is brought back to life during a drunken brawl at his wake, which is the song that gave rise to James Joyce’s last novel.

:

Mickey Maloney ducked his head
when a bucket of whiskey flew at him
It missed, and falling on the bed,
the liquor scattered over Tim
Now the spirits new life gave the corpse, my joy!
Tim jumped like a Trojan from the bed
Cryin will ye walup each girl and boy,
t’underin’ Jaysus, do ye think I’m dead?”

Come to think of it, quitting drinking altogether seems anti-Buddhist.  Maybe the middle way would be better.  Lose weight by exercising, eating healthily, and limiting one’s intake to a couple a day?

Sounds like a plan.