Song Of The Day 2/20/2017: Tom Waits – “Underground”

The Final 38
Hey! Wanna know when I got woke? Are we still saying “woke”?

I was trying to think of a more precise chart outlining exactly how my music reach changed when I was a kid. Where you could stick the pushpins to note significant turns or events. A lot of it—probably the huge majority of it, actually—was probably coincidental. I heard the right thing at the right place at the right time. The only internal resistance I have to that idea is that it infers a certain passivity in my character. However, it’s pretty much true (the coincidence and the passivity).

My brother-in-law was a James Taylor fan, so I started listening to James Taylor. This woman I had a crush on when I was nine years old liked Joni Mitchell, so I got a Joni Mitchell album from the RCA Music Club. (It was The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which whether you like it or not, is probably not the first Joni Mitchell album you should get. Incidentally, I like it.) My gang of friends in junior high were into Nick Lowe and the Pretenders, so I reluctantly got into both although I heard the Pretenders were punk (“Brass in Pocket” notwithstanding). Everybody had to school me about punk since I came to it late.

Some of my first purchases from certain bands are hilarious, just because of the timing of my power as a purchaser occurred years after many of their most renown work. For example, my first album from The Who was Face Dances, the first album they made without Keith Moon. My first Stones album was Tattoo You—not a bad choice or a bad album, just not the first one a connoisseur would get.

My first Tom Waits album was Heartattack and Vine. Again, not a bad album, mainly because Tom Waits hasn’t made a bad album. (Go check.) I’d seen Waits on an old episode of Saturday Night Live. There could have been a couple of things that appealed to me about him. He played piano, which was quickly becoming something I felt an unnecessary need to defend amongst the guitarists and drummers I met. The song was “Eggs and Sausage” from Nighthawks at the Diner. I couldn’t tell you what a 12-year-old kid heard in those lyrics. It might have been the food. Anyway, Heartattack and Vine was on sale at The Wherehouse at budget-line prices, so I picked it up. It’s the one with the cover some critic said depicted Tom after “dancing cheek-to-cheek with a hamburger grill.”

When Swordfishtrombones came out I read the Rolling Stone review, a four-star recommendation from Don Shewey that began, “Tom Waits' new album is so weird that Asylum Records decided not to release it, but it's so good that Island was smart enough to pick it up.”

This was a couple of months after my social world got another sharp jostle (we’ll cover it tomorrow) and outsider forces were at work on my musical interests. I’d never seen the words “weird” and “good” used in the same sentence before. If I had, the word “weird” won out and my fear won over. (One internal thing that’s happening in this project is my discovery of how fuckin’ scared I was of certain music at one time. It’s strange, and hard to describe to people who never felt that way.)

For some reason this was different. Maybe because I carried a certain image of Waits through Heartattack and Vine, which before Swordfishtrombones was unquestionably his weirdest album, and my impression of him was so recent that this kind of announcement was begging to be researched. So I bought Swordfishtrombones to see how I took it.

I’ve spoken several times about what Swordfishtrombones did to me personally. The short version is that it’s the album that changed my life. The long version is that I hate saying anything “changed my life,” because if it’s that easy to get one’s life changed we must spend all our lives in front of cable TV. I’m sure that’s true for some. But if any album “changed my life”—if any single recording ever knocked me off my comfortable course to Sunrise Mall, and spun me into a ditch somewhere where I’d find the most amazing specimens of flora and fauna—then this one’s it.

The other line I like to use about Swordfishtrombones is that I’d never realized it was okay to make music like this. The instrumentation sounded broken, sourced from a used auto shop. There’s one organ instrumental, “Dave the Butcher” that refuses to resolve on a major or minor chord. There’s a funereal marching band on one track, “In the Neighborhood,” and a bunch of songs that took raw Delta blues and ran it through vats of Red Crown Lye. In between were classic Waits melodies like “Johnsburg, Illinois” and “Soldier’s Things,” but they were stuck in the middle of a bonafide freak show tent. Waits’ voice, which before was extreme-grizzled but soothing in its own way, now bent to suit his plans: a carnival barker, a drunken barroom gossiper, Howlin’ Wolf’s distant cousin.

I tried playing it for some of my friends. Reactions were mixed. Chris seemed to like it. Dave seemed to like it almost as much as I did. My other friend Chris remarked that Waits sung like “he has a cock in his throat.” I don’t think he meant it poorly, but it’s kind of hard to top that image.

For me it was love at first hear. I don’t know why I was so open to it. But like when Steve Martin discovered bad big-band music in The Jerk, it was the kind of music that told me to go out there and be somebody.

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