And some of you know, I love me some Tom Waits. He’s my current favorite musician. I love his craziness, I love his bad jokes, I love the sorrow in his voice, I love that he seems to have been birthed whole in a junkyard wearing a tattered fedora, and I love that he’s weird.
I also love that he’s been in love with a woman for a very long time, and has written some of the best love songs about her, with her. (And she is his song writing partner.)
Here is a list, then, along with my annotations, of all the Tom Waits albums I can think of, from Tom, erm top, to bottom. You may have different favorites. That’s cool. There’s plenty of Waits to go around. But sometimes it’s fun to discuss art we like, and what we love, and why we love it so.
1. Mule Variations- This is the first Tom Waits album I ever bought, back in 2003. I don’t even know how or why I bought it- I don’t think I ever heard a song of his on the radio or read about him. As near as I can tell, it just appeared one day in my possession in 2003.
And, oh, what an album. It is weird and lovely. It starts out with Tom…rapping about being big in Japan, and clambers on from there into clanking songs. There’s a lovely ballad called Hold On, and a sad song about having an empty house without love. There’s the goofy and eerie spoken word piece, and the first 10 songs of the album are a good to great Waits album.
And then it gets to the last 6 songs, and the album goes sad, wild and wonderful. There’s the lovely little ballad about being separated from the one you love called “Picture in a Frame.” I’ve hummed this song when I was lovesick, and when I’ve been in love. Next up is the weird and wonderful song about delicious idolatry, Chocolate Jesus.
And then the of three lights out amazing songs, “Georgia Lee.” It’s an impossibly sad song about a girl being found dead in the woods, and the silence and impotence of God.
I once did a trapeze act to it. I went to be the saddest act that I could be in a show I was hosting in my usual goofy childish act. I wanted it to be shocking that I was doing something so damn sad, to a song whose chorus is “Why wasn’t God listening, why wasn’t God there, for Georgia Lee.”
I don’t know if I entirely succeeded, but it was something to put together. Here! Watch!
Oh boy, that was sad.
The next song is a grindhouse, junkyard song. I don’t know what a Filepino Box Spring Hog, and I don’t want to know.
But the last two songs, they are something special. “Take it with me when I go” is just…it’s what love is. It touches your soul, and it doesn’t go away. You carry them with you, and they give you strength. It sustains you in the darkest hours. It is a song about True Love, which can not be beaten, in this life or the next.
And the final song. Oh, my words. Oh my many words. “Come on up to the House” is its name, and I think that it’s the most amazing song I’ve ever heard. It’s a Gospel song, at it’s heart, about adversary, about overcoming your own weaknesses, the cruelty of the world, and so on. It even quotes Thomas Hobbes, for goodness sakes. It is a song of power and wonder, that could only be sung with the burden of experience and woe that lives in his voice.
It’s astonishing. Have a listen. Listen listen listen and behold it’s wonders:
My word. I have always wanted to do a circus act to that song, and have always been unable to make something worthy of it.
One day, Scottie P., one day.
Standout tracks: Come on out to the House, Georgia Lee, House Where Nobody lives.
That’s why it’s my favorite of his albums, among many. But come, I have said too many words on this album. Let us turn to another wonder.
2. Swordfishtrombones- Oh, this is a corker of an album. It’s famous for being the first really weird album from Mr. Waits. His label passed on it, and it is the breaking point between drunken singer songwriter and his madman of the junkyard phase that’s still going on.
It’s got weird and short instrumentals. It’s got lovely little love songs. It’s got jazzy little spoke word interludes like Frank’s Wild Years, and the groovy and mysterious title track. It takes you into this weird little world that Waits have lived in ever sense.
He ascended on this album. It’s nutty and wonderful. And it’s full of love and explorations. He’s figuring himself out, and he’s doing it with the new love of his life. I hope I can make something this beautiful with Lisa. I’ve read a whole book about this album, and I still don’t know what a swordfishtrombone is. It’s nuts and wonderfl and perfect. Have a listen!
Standout tracks: swordfishtrombones, down down down, Johnsburg Illinois
3. Heart of Saturday night- This is maybe the most consistent and solid of Tom Waits’s early albums. It’s got that nightclub feel to it, and songs drenched in vodka sodas and hanging out too late. To me, it starts out at the beginning of a night out, with New Coat of Paint, and slowly winds down. It’s got two weird and wonderful songs in the middle of it- Fumblin’ With the Blues and Diamonds of my Windshield.
Save yourself the cost of a night out, and put this album on with a drink in your hand. Start out strong, looking all dapper in new suit, and wind down till you’re conversing with the ghosts of old hangouts. I love it. And Shiver me Timbers is a wonderfully sad song that I use to listen to a lot more when I was sadder. Now I’m happy, and it’s just a little wistful about old times.
4. Small Change- This is another older Tom Waits Album. I think it’s less consistent that Heart of Saturday Night, but it’s high points are lights out. The first two tracks…they are amazing. Tom Traubert’s Blues might be the saddest song I’ve ever heard. Again, a song I loved more when I was sadder.
The second track is something out of another world, too cool for me to live in. Listen:
That baseline! Holy shit! That never ending baseline that just keeps going as he goes on a kamekazi run against advertising. In the liner notes for the album, it suggests that you send 10 dollars to a hotel in California is you want the lyrics to the song. I remember that this song came on late one night after a late night dodgeball game, and it got me hooked. Just completely. It sank itself into my lip, and has been dragging me along in the water ever since. Is there a cooler song ever written? I DON’T KNOW, AND I DON’T WANT TO FIND OUT.
There are other songs on this album, song really good. But they pale compared to the white hot brilliance of those first two tracks. Bad Liver and a broke heart has got a bunch of great lines, and some folks swear by invitation to the blues but…ah, hell, go listen to step right up again. HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT THAT SONG IS AMAZING.
Standout tracks: STEP RIGHT UP, Tom Traubert’s Blues, the piano has been drinking.
4. Rain Dogs- Howlll! Howllll! I once saw a commercial for the album. Mr. Waits was explaining how a rain dog is a dog who has been out in the rain so long that it’s lost its smell of where it came from.
There are so many great songs on this album. Maybe it’s better than Small Change. (But then again, STEP RIGHT UP!). Singapore is my wife’s favorite song, and with good cause. Yo ho! Let’s go off on a pirate adventure, with the three eyes Tom Waits!
Let’s get drunk together, Tango till We’re Sore! Let’s go…and have some Time to remember all the memories.
I love the lyrics of that song. Here’s my favorite part:
“And they all pretend they’re Orphans
And their memory’s like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can’t remember
Tell the things you can’t forget that
History puts a saint in every dream”
It’s a lovely little ballad.
The album culminates in the deep howl of a song, a Grand Weeper called Anywhere I lay my head. I didn’t know humans could make those kinds of sounds and not be dying.
Jesus, what a fucking song. And that New Orleans play out is just the perfect ending to the song. Man, that guy can do it sometimes.
Standout tracks: Time, Anywhere I lay my head, Singapore
5. Orphans, Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards- This is a 3 cd collection of his unreleased songs. Not every track is a winner, but considering how many there are, most are. The first two cds are my favorites- the third one goes a little too far down the rabbit hole for my taste, but it can be fun.
The last time I got dumped- a decade ago- I used to listen to a song on here called Goodnight Irene. My girlfriend’s name was Eileen, so I’d sing it with her name instead.
You should not sing this song with the name of a recent ex. Trust me. I had to stop singing it eventually, just to keep myself together.
But it’s a lovely collection of songs, particularly the Grand Weepers Second Cd. It even has the most optimistic song that I know to sing in the darkest times- You can Never Hold Back Spring! In these admittedly Dark Times, it’s important to hold out hope for better times. Things can and will get better. Even in the coldest winter, spring, and everything it means, are headed our way.
It’s a song that keeps the light going, that helps you hold onto the things that matter the most to you.
Have a listen:
There is love, and there is happiness in this world. There are puppies, and there beautiful, wonderful people in this world. More common than we think. There is still wonder, and even in the dead of Chicago winter, with a monster in charge of the free world, Spring is still coming.
Ain’t no holding it back. Hold onto that feeling. There’s a quote form the most recent Twin Peaks book that I love, from the letter the log lad wrote to be read at her funeral. It’s a lot like this song:
“So may I offer a suggestion: When a dark age comes, just as you would at night, hold the light inside of you. Others, I can tell you, have already learned to do the same. In time, you will learn to recognize the light, in yourself and others. In this way, you will find each other. Together, you will make the light stronger.
The truth I know as sure as the dawn: Darkness will always yield to light, when the light is strong.”
There are few things darker than a dark Tom Waits songs. But there is hope, too, and love, so much love in them. They struggle, the fight, and you don’t know what’s going to come out on top most albums.
One more song from this album. There’s a straight up love song on this second CD, “Never let Go.” But it’s coming from that deep, true place that Mr. Waits can tap into. It’s not a sappy, stupid love. It’s true. It is dense and powerful that makes Tom stronger and makes Tom Tom. He’s struggling, but he’s going to be all right. He’s got and is in love. Lovely.
There are plenty of songs about Heartache on this collection- World Keeps Turning is almost impossibly sad about lost anniversaries, but I like when he is singing about his True Love.
Standout Tracks: You can never hold back spring, Never Let go, Goodnight Irene, World Keeps Turning.
Obviously, I love Tom Waits music. And these are my five favorite albums of his. What are yours? I’d love to hear from you.
I’m going to..sooner or later, do the next five. Which are also great. (I basically at least like every album he’s ever made except one, and even that his a few songs I like.)
Until later, my dear Constant Reader.