Young Tom Waits
Can you do a music review before listening to the music? Let’s see.
Yesterday I received through the post the new CD by Tom Waits, though I have not had the nerve to play it yet. I am not sure I even want to. I do not know quite how I feel about Mr Waits. There is an element of the showman about him that I don’t quite trust.
Unlike Mr Dylan, who can get away with the line “Me, I’m just a song and dance man” because he is so evidently much more, with Waits one might be forgiven for suspecting that such a self-diagnosis would be spot on. The talent is undeniable, and so is the musical range, the technical understanding and the skilful use of genre. The intense and earthy songs of heartbreak and loss on the album Heart attack and Vine once provided me with the perfect music to get miserably drunk to, alone and gloriously despairing, and there have been hundreds of versions of the same songs since. He does slow and sad and he does loud and fast. Both are good, though with the latter he does tend to shout.
I am willing to accept, perhaps, that my difficulty with Tom Waits is that I over-identified with his music for too long, and the problem lies with me rather than with him. And of course I cannot forgive the fact that he was never the real down-and-out he sang about (although he did sing about the lifestyle well). He is linked forever with Bukowski in the mythology I spun about myself in the 1980s (when I was in my twenties) and I cannot read a single line of Bukowski these days, I just find it laughable. Quite apart from his having a face like a jam doughnut. Waits and Bukowski, the dream team (though oddly, Bukowski’s favourite singer-songwriter was Randy Newman, who I liked in my teens but afterwards found rather tame). All these blokes, trying to prove how close to the edge they lived. Maybe I never took either Waits or Bukowski that seriously, they just summed up a lifestyle, but failed to go much deeper.
Shane MacGowan of course, he was another. Maybe he still is. Someone props him up every now and then and he stumbles onto a stage and sings a few songs in an increasingly incomprehensible and strangulated voice, but Christ he had a gift, as a songwriter if nothing else. I met him once, in a bar in Camden. I was always bumping into famous people when I was a drunk. He seemed a decent enough bloke, just fed up with the attention, enjoying a bit of quiet time, I could respect that. His songs with The Pogues became the anthems of my treks on foot across Spain towards the end of the eighties, just as Waits and Dylan had provided the lyrics of my hikes earlier in the decade, across Greece and Italy and France. Roberto Bolaño loved The Pogues too.
And what about Lennie? Leonard Cohen, I mean. I listened to him ardently when I was fourteen, fifteen, then went right off him until I rediscovered his music in my forties. I found out that his best songs can survive multiple replays in ways that Waits’ can never stand up to. And his concert at the Cardiff Arena a few years ago was one of the three best concerts (along with Lila Downs at Peralada and Mariza at Palafrugell) that I have seen in well, the last decade (and that includes two concerts by Dylan himself). I might have a Leonard Cohen song playing at my funeral – yes, I’ve thought about that, such is the dreadful urge towards oblivion, guided by Cohen singing, now which was it, ‘Dance me to the end of love’ or ‘Take this waltz’? I can never decide. Not that I’ll be listening.
But Tommo? He seems very together. Something that you could hardly claim for Cohen, whose biography I read a few years ago and who came across as terminally screwed up, for all the Zen stuff. Or maybe not. Maybe that is just an asinine remark, maybe we are all screwed up, and that part of Cohen’s beauty (and his charm) is that his pain has so indelibly marked him that we are touched, as it were, by the fall-out from his own menagerie of perfume, lace and broken violins, and we can sink into a delectable narcotic haze of suffering by proxy. Certainly the teenage girls in bedsits who were deemed to be his early audience were not alone. This teenage boy was spellbound through long nights with Songs from a Room. And, if I am honest, still can be. He offers just that much more: I’ll call it a flake of the ineffable, because it sounds kind of Cohenesque.
But as for Tom, my internal critic just won’t shut up. Blanco likes the songs, enjoys the ironic melancholy, loves the stuff about drunken sailors and jumping ship to Singapore – and, as an aside, in many of the songs from Rain Dogs, Waits’ best album to date, there are strong personal associations with Thomas Pynchon’s fabulous novel V. which, along with Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, was another of Blanco’s travelling companions from the 1980s – but he has problems incorporating Waits into the same illustrious hall of greatness at which Dylan and Cohen hold court. Maybe Blanco will stand corrected after a few listens of Bad as Me. I kind of hope so now. Will report back.