A blog of music and the mind

Author: Michael (Page 1 of 3)

The Music Goes Around

Communication and miscommunication seem to drive every human action. They’re responsible for the slow build of every strong and worthwhile friendship and the skulking, sinister suspicion and hatred that anyone can develop for some “other” who isn’t like them.

Miscommunicating even with yourself can spell all kinds of trouble, as people lie to themselves or refuse to acknowledge troubling thoughts and memories.

Music, though, has its own way of acting as our thoughts. It can communicate for us in ways that we can’t bring ourselves to do otherwise.

I seek out and listen to music every day without fail, and unless I’m in a boring mood, I never actually have to do the work of consciously selecting the genre, artist, or song.

That’s because I already know what I need on some level. I need the music that’s going to communicate to me what I’m struggling to tell myself.

Notes and chords and words and voices are made by and for humans. Some song, somewhere, in some far-away corner, is going to resonate with me, and it’s going to get in me and probably never leave.

At this point, my own long-curated selection of music is everything in the world. I can find it anywhere because it lives everywhere.

It’s in my bones.

It’s in my organs.

It’s in my blood.

It grows everywhere because I plant it everywhere. And I would bet that others like me feel the same.

The music that communicates to me, that whispers in my ears every day, that can never leave. It helps me understand the world. It helps me to know myself. It lets me connect feelings to thoughts and memories and times and places.

Songs that hit me in the chest have driven me to action and inaction.

The songs of my teenage years, my twenties, from 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2021, this very day, will both remain in those times and always be with me because I’ll always carry them. They’re in my head when other songs play, when I traverse the streets of some city, when I stand idle in an elevator.

It must be the same for others. It has to be.

Music can mark the most significant, ecstatic, grim, and poignant moments of our lives. The music that lands with you seems almost completely arbitrary. It depends on who you’ve discovered, what you’re inclined to like, what you’ve lived through, and how much you’ve matured.

The music that lives in me can take me across the world, really. I visit my hometown neighborhoods, I go back to school, I go to a 1940s jazz club, I go to the Middle East, I head up to Russia. The musical DNA of the human family shows me the ancient world, the halls of royalty, the family birthday parties, the world wars.

Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” is a 14-year-old huddled in front of the kitchen radio.

Rage Against the Machine’s “Roll Right” is that long highway commute to an exciting new job in the dark of the early winter mornings.

Mark Knopfler’s “Everybody Pays” is the devastation.

Bob Dylan’s “Up to Me” is waiting in the wings, wondering if shame or courage could drive me out on what I believed to be the biggest stage of my life.

Phish’s 2/28/03 “Back on the Train” is cruising.

Even that foolish 2008 era of Lady Gaga has its place.

Charley Patton’s “Going to Move to Alabama” is my first real experience of adult life.

John Coltrane’s “Naima” and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Lenny” are tender love and tribute that can never go away.

And if the original “Proud Mary” is the last song that I, too, ever hear on this earth, that will be just fine with me.

What do you think you wanted when you got here? What do you want now? What do you still want? How can you get it? Will you vow never to step over others to get there? Do you think that you could? Will you comb through the trust you’ve built and decide which ones would be best to betray? There really are no consequences for you if you’ve already rationalized it.

I find that music can help me address so many of these things, just not always in the most obvious of ways. No matter how loud it is, music really is like a whisper. You might need to do the work to hear it.

Sometimes, I wonder if the past is a time and place that can actually be touched again, either through wormholes or black holes or some other disruption in space and time.

But I think even if it isn’t, the connections people have to the music that means something to them will live on in some way. You won’t see them or hear them spoken about, but if you stop to realize the breadth of what the human animal is capable of synthesizing in its mind, you might meet up with those connections yourself, someday down the road.

Album Review – Eric Church’s Heart & Soul

You know why I like Eric Church so much these days?

It isn’t just that he’s doesn’t really do that “modern radio country song” that I don’t actually like or think adds value to popular culture.

That’s not all it’s about. To think only that way would be shortsighted of me.

It’s because he’s writing such enlightened and clear-headed personal songs now that you just can’t help but love this dude.

Listen to “Heart on Fire” from Church’s new release, Heart & Soul, and I bet you’ll love how passionately he pays tribute to the things that have shaped him, from rock and roll songs to the women he’s loved to his old truck sputtering down Roosevelt Road.

That’s a human being. He’s got emotions attached to all his memories, and they all set his heart on fire.

Eric Church has plenty of heart and soul on his new album, and the way he expresses those things makes the record what I think is one of his all-time best.

So, Where’d This Come From?

A lot of readers of the Musical Record blog really enjoyed my outsider’s take on Eric Church’s Desperate Man.

I guess that’s because I am not in the 2021 country scene and really just walked into Eric Church’s discography with almost no knowledge or expectation. That album just struck the right chord for me.

Now, with Heart & Soul: so, Church fans had heard about this for months. Ever since reports surfaced of his now almost mythical January 2020 recording sessions in the North Carolina mountains, fans have wondered what exactly he was making up there.

Church himself said he had gone up to an old restaurant to turn it into a recording studio and write and record at least one new song every day for 28 days. There were stretches when he didn’t sleep. He’d write or co-write a few songs in just two days, pushing himself to the edge mentally and physically.

But the story is that testing himself like that gave him a creative edge–or at least a different kind of creativity–that he might not have found otherwise.

After well over a year of hearing about it, we’re finally gotten the finished product of a triple album.

It came out in three parts last month. Produced by Jay Joyce and featuring longtime co-writers such as Casey Beathard and Jeff Hyde, Heart and Soul are now available to the public, while the six-song vinyl & is an exclusive for Church Choir members.

So now you know.

Let’s get into Heart & Soul.

Can I keep it concise? Not likely.

Oh, and just when you started vaguely wondering if I was going to discuss only Heart and Soul, I came up with an answer: yes, I have &, and yes, we’ll discuss it, so just relax for a minute.

I also haven’t read other country music reviews in preparation for this. They’re just my thoughts as I listened.

Heart

Humans find the world much easier to understand when they categorize and label things.

There’s plenty going on in the 24 songs on Heart & Soul, but if we can separate the volumes thematically, then Heart is the one where Church opens up and really bears his, you know, heart.

Eric Church Heart

And that isn’t just because there are three songs with “heart” right in the title. I mean the subjects he’s dealing with are about love, feeling, conviction, memories, and passion.

“Russian Roulette” is an experience we’ve all lived: hearing a random song on the radio and having some sad or unpleasant memories come flooding back. As my friend Kyle rightly pointed out, it’s like a counterpart, or even an opposite, of 2011’s “Springsteen.”

Heart’s lead single, “Stick That in Your Country Song,” is a track written not by Church, and not even in 2020, but by Davis Naish and Jeffrey Steele in 2015.

They composed the song as little vignettes about what life is really like in today’s America: the poverty and urban blight of Detroit and Baltimore; the soldier coming back from war; the teacher working hard to help students succeed.

Put that stuff in a number-one country song, Church challenges us. Stick that real slice-of-life in a song and sell it so the world can know.

Tell you what, he may not have written it, but you and I both hear the passion in Church’s voice when he sings this one. It’s familiar Church territory but still fresh, and it hits hard in 2015 or today. Church knows about the little guys, and he wants you to know, too.

Hey, man, it’s a lot of heart on this first record, and it just keeps going.

“Bunch of Nothing,” a personal favorite of mine, is Church giving some country boy life advice to a long-faced dude who’s feeling a bit bad about things. He’ll show him how to bass fish, tune a guitar, and have a hell of a Saturday night. Listen, it’s an awesome song.

And by the way, you don’t always need lyrical poetry to get a point across, as we hear with Heart’s closer, “Love Shine Down.”

Hey, I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m ready to be good now, so come love me, this song says. That’s a lot of us, isn’t it?

&

And now for the Church Choir vinyl exclusive, &. Let’s get into it.

Eric Church &

With the opener of “Through My Ray Bans,” Church turns his incredible tribute-writing powers onto his fans. It’s a touching ode to all those people who gather in camaraderie to hear him play live.

This is the type of mid-tempo ballad that Church does so well. Who’s going to fault him for this song? He’s a guy who loves his fans. And while I often prefer Church when he’s banging out some rock and roll song, this is quality stuff here.

“Doing Life with Me” is another bare-all salute, this time, it seems, to Church’s family, or maybe his bandmates? It’s a sensitive ballad where he once again isn’t too proud to show the world the things that mean something to him.

“Do Side” kicks things up into cool rock and roll territory. It’s got a groovy 70s feel with some outlaw acoustic throughout. This has a different feel from the rest of Heart & Soul, and believe me, Choir members are lucky to have this song. More of this in the future, Church!

On side 2, we have “Kiss Her Goodbye,” “Mad Man,” and “Lone Wolf.” The standout here is “Mad Man,” and here’s why I applaud the song maybe the most out of everything on &.

Eric Church is clearly an optimist, if his songs are any evidence of that. No matter what hardships he’s had in life, his songs portray a man who’s driven to keep doing his best and make the best of it.

“Mad Man” flirts with the idea of giving in. This angry guy got dumped and is just seconds away from losing it. Church even says you best leave him alone.

But then the song does something subtle, all from one line: Church sings that this guy is a mad man, but he’s still holding on. I think Church loves this guy for the pain he’s in. The song explodes at the end with a soulful electric guitar solo and Church kind of shouting.

Man, this is crazy stuff: one of the best songs on the triple album.

Soul

Eric Church is a smart, insightful guy, and he knows very well that titling the third record Soul is about more than just the lyrical themes. The songs are also done in that style: soul music!

Eric Church Soul

One or two of you might remember that what I loved about Desperate Man was how Church got into the R&B/soul genres with songs like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Solid.”

That’s a personal musical taste of mine, but it’s relevant in this review because Church does soul music incredibly well. The transition from the more mainstream country sounds of his past to doing the music he wants to do now would seem to be complete, and I am eating it up.

In any case, the soul of Eric Church can be found all over the place here, particularly in the record’s opener, the R&B “Rock & Roll Found Me.”

It features the great Joanna Cotten and is about how Church sees himself as having been a kind of misfit kid who’s life lit up when the music found him and set him down the path he’s traveling right now. Music’s the thing that lifted his soul and carried him into the future.

I assume everyone else is the same, but I feel that soul in Church’s voice when he sings this stuff. A great song is more than how the instruments sound or what the lyrics say. It’s also about how the performance makes you feel what the singer feels, and Church does that (and, I would suspect, with not much effort, since this is material he has probably lived).

In life, you can also find soul in people’s personal relationships. There’s two pristine tributes to a woman in “Look Good and You Know It” and “Bright Side Girl.”

You know, they’re about Church appreciating her for everything she is: how she looks and what she does for him. That’s a real human.

I love “Break It Kind of Guy” because it’s that straightforward kind of southern-rock that Church will do once in a while. It reminds me of “Hangin’ Around,” one of my favorite Church songs, and it’s upbeat, carefree, and a lot of fun.

We move into the third act with a handful of poignant love songs, “Hell of a View,” “Where I Wanna Be,” and the acoustic “Jenny,” inspired by a broken generator up in those Carolina mountains.

Another of my favorites since it was first released last year is “Bad Mother Trucker,” the title of which I don’t really care for, but make no mistake, this is quality “new” Eric Church. It’s blatantly soul and R&B in a style reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, whom Church references here.

The album closes with “Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones,” an acoustic story song that offers longtime listeners a fun Easter egg. This one is not among my favorites to listen to, although the workmanship is fine as always.

Final Thoughts

Heart & Soul surprises in many ways. For an album that came out of an isolated 28-day set of recording sessions up in the mountains, it’s more polished than what I expected.

I thought maybe Church would come down the mountain with some roots-type country blues, and this ain’t exactly that. The album is a melting pot of sounds, from country to R&B to soul.

All the emotions and passion derived from the simple act of Church and his co-writers getting words out on paper 24 times and then recording them (it would seem there are four more songs they made that aren’t here).

Where the record as a whole falls a bit short for me is in its continual revisiting of certain themes.

I get that each record is devoted to a theme.

Here’s what I mean.

I imagine when you’re forcing yourself to write a song a day no matter what, especially in the abundance of a triple album, the urgency can either work heavily in your favor or not. There were a few times where one song seemed a little too similar to another.

There’s a lot of love songs here that express essentially the same sentiment, but I don’t want to harp on that.

It may not even be a fault.

Taken individually, each song is what it is, and Church hits the mark more often than not. He pushed himself to be creative, and this is the product. He’s an artist who feels things and makes no bones about expressing that to the world.

He does the most earnest kind of songwriting I’ve heard in a long time from a musician, and he and his band should be proud of what they accomplished here.

What’s the best overall collection of songs of the three? Heart, to me.

But give these records a few spins, and you may just learn something about what you yourself value in this world.

What’s with Led Zeppelin’s Presence?

If you’ve been down in the Led Zeppelin trenches for as long as I have, and you’ve been through the flashy studio stuff and the more garage-rock sound of their precious few live albums (you knew I love live music, right?), then you’re probably able to step back and take a 30,000-foot view of the band’s output.

I’ve thought a lot about which Zeppelin album contains the most valuable musical content, and also which is my favorite. I still don’t really have an answer to either of these questions.

But one strong contender for my favorite album is 1976’s Presence, an uneven mix of good and just-okay rock songs.

Let’s discuss.

Presence Is an Odd One Out

My immediate thought on the “Why Presence?” question is because it’s kind of an oddball among the group’s eight studio efforts (so is 1979’s In Through the Out Door, I guess, but in a different way).

Unlike with In Through the Out Door, Led Zeppelin founder and guitarist Jimmy Page was fully involved with creating Presence, so there really should be no excuses for sub-par work, right?

Well, not fully. Presence was made during a rocky time for the proclaimed biggest band in the 1970s world.

In August 1975, singer Robert Plant got into a bad car accident in Greece and was in a wheelchair for a while. Led Zeppelin therefore had to cancel a huge U.S. tour that had been scheduled to start soon.

The band was also forced out of England during this time due to being tax exiles, so they had to record the album away from home, in Munich, Germany.

Led Zeppelin Presence artwork

With their sudden influx of free time, then, Led Zeppelin wrote and recorded a new album, Presence, with Plant singing it all from his wheelchair.

So, this thing came out in early 1976 to pretty good reviews and sales, but those sales soon dried up, and the record ultimately became the band’s lowest seller.

Now, my question is: why does Presence feel like such a drop-off from Led Zeppelin’s previously lofty work, such as the amazing 1975 double album Physical Graffiti?

The Songs Are Mostly Forgettable

Page wanted Presence to be more of a straightforward rock album to distinguish it from the blends of electric rock and acoustic ballads of previous records. So it’s a guitar-heavy album and has some fantastic moments, but for the most part, the songs seem rushed and messy.

The ten-minute “Achilles Last Stand” is as strong an opener as Led Zeppelin ever did, with its numerous musical changes and mythical, travel-based lyrics. But then we drop into mediocre territory with deep, deep cuts such as “For Your Life” and “Royal Orleans.”

I’ve listened to this album many times, but I can’t easily hum these tunes or tell you what they’re about. I guess “clunky” is how I’d describe them.

There’s another flash of greatness in the band’s cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” an old gospel blues song by Blind Willie Johnson. Fans consider this one a minor Zeppelin classic, right? It’s pretty good, with Plant wailing on harmonica about halfway through. I like it.

But then we’re back to filler-type stuff with the Elvis-y “Candy Store Rock” and the frivolous “Hots on For Nowhere.”

Spare me. This isn’t really Led Zeppelin, is it?

However, we do get a fairly strong closing with the nine-minute slow blues “Tea for One.” Fans, and I think the band itself, consider this one a kind of companion to their earlier slow blues, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (1970).

I prefer “Tea.” Plant wrote it about missing his family while being away with the band. The time grinds on endlessly when he’s homesick, and he’s once again out somewhere getting tea just for himself.

The connection between music and emotions? Full display here, very human.

There’s also a tasteful Page solo that gets me every time. “Tea for One” is all right, man.

Led Zeppelin Swan Song label

So, What’s the Verdict?

What’s the verdict?

My view of Presence is that the band members were troubled and probably eager to fill the lost and empty days of late 1975 with some musical activity, so they made this.

I think they had one great idea (“Achilles”), two good ideas (“Tea” and “Nobody’s Fault”), and four slipshod, middling ideas that filled out the album.

But if that’s the case, why does Presence occupy such a sweet spot in my musical heart?

It must be the uniqueness of it all.

For maybe the first time in the band’s brief career, the rock gods Led Zeppelin were showing signs of their humanity, their need to submit to external stimuli. Canceling a U.S. tour. Singing from a wheelchair. Making just so-so music.

Viewed from hindsight, it’s so bare-all. And yet Presence covers the range of everything the band was at the time: still astonishingly talented and creative and yet susceptible to weaknesses.

Taken altogether like this, Presence appears as an artwork rich with character. Make no mistake, there are some quality tunes on here. But you have to take the great with the trivial.

I think that’s just fine.

Top 6 Tom Waits Deep Tracks

The thought of covering any kind of Tom Waits subject on Musical Record has been intimidating to me for as long as I’ve considered it. I know I can dissect any individual song out there, but Waits has remained such a rare bird throughout his 50 years in music that I wasn’t even sure I could get close enough to study him.

He has been so many things since he first showed up with Closing Time in 1973.

The entirety of the 1970s saw Waits playing the noirish, drunken jazz-bar crooner, calling attention to the seedy American underworld and the sketchy characters that inhabit it. Think Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller types.

Waits’s gravelly, Howlin’ Wolf-style growl really suited that persona, and he knew how to write in a way that made listeners empathize with these people they might otherwise ignore on the street.

Waits has always been a private guy, but the story goes that he married musician and artist Kathleen Brennan in 1980. She became his collaborator, helping him to let his real creative powers begin flowing into his songcraft. Waits then went off the musical rails in the early 1980s and has never come back.

He emerged from this freshly bountiful period with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, where the world was first exposed to the new Tom Waits: he was now more of an avant-garde artist, playing in experimental rock and blues, jokey spoken-word tracks, and off-beat instrumentals.

Lyrically, he still lived in the dark, brooding underworld of modern society, but he found all new ways of telling those stories through music.

Waits will often get inspiration for a song by listening to two or more radios at the same time, subjecting himself to mishearing things that could provide the spark. He’ll use found objects as sounds in his songs, such as barbecuing chicken to ape the familiar noise of a popping vinyl record.

Yes, he is a real one.

How I Rank These Buried Tom Waits Songs

So that’s the Tom Waits of the present. If you’ve never heard a Waits song before, you might be pretty shocked when you start. For myself, I have to assume only the power of musical repetition let me finally accept his truly grating singing voice.

His post-70s music is not exactly accessible, and so it does sound a little odd even to me to be ranking his “deep cuts.”

I would guess most people don’t know who Tom Waits is and certainly haven’t heard even his better-known songs (someone, tell me please if you’ve heard Waits on any kind of radio in the last 20 or 30 years).

Now, there are some songs that pop up a little higher than others here and there, sometimes due to more popular cover versions.

There’s the Eagles’ cover of “Ol’ 55.”

There’s Wait’s original version of “Way Down in the Hole” that was made popular on The Wire.

Rod Stewart beautifully covered “Downtown Train.”

And, surprisingly, “Little Drop of Poison” was used in the seamy tavern scene in Shrek 2.

So, those are the types of songs I don’t want to discuss here. Maybe you’ve never heard of any of those. Maybe every Tom Waits song is obscure to you. That’s cool.

What I consider a deep track in Waits’s case is something that’s an album cut, nothing with fanfare or anything that’s received special attention over the years. Yet, they had to be songs that still contain great lyrical and musical value.

I could have chosen so many songs for these six. It was hard. (For the diehards out there, other strong contenders included “$29.00,” “Burma Shave,” “Temptation,” “Oily Night,” “Reeperbahn,” and “Bone Chain.”)

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to explore all this. I’m a little nervous. Let’s just do it.

1. “Please Call Me, Baby” (1974)

The first song comes from Waits’s second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, released in 1974 when Waits was only 24 years old.

This is early Waits, his classic vocal jazz period. This is an album of great maturity from someone still so young. There’s heartache, loss, goodbyes, fights, and lots of booze.

I hadn’t listened to this album in years prior to writing this, but one song that has always stood out to me after all this time is “Please Call Me, Baby,” the second song on side two of the original vinyl.

The narrator and his lady are always arguing, and this time, she has stormed out the door. The speaker then gets a little sentimental and ponders their love. He knows they’ve both been emotional, and neither is perfect, but he can’t stop thinking about her anyway. He just wants her to call him from wherever she is so he knows she isn’t in trouble.

I try so hard when I listen to any song to put myself in the writer’s place and get in touch with the music and emotions of it all.

I understand the sense of being furious at someone and yet missing them when they’re not around. The fact that this song dates to the 1970s means that Waits is referring to pay phones when he asks her to call him. I get his sense of desperation; he can’t get in touch with her unless she calls him on her own. He has no idea when or if she’ll be back, and even though he knows they ain’t perfect, he can’t shake her.

The string-driven chorus of the song is pretty by Waits’s standards, but I don’t think that takes away from its import. It’s such a real love song. It describes how human relationships actually go. This isn’t some silly bubble gum song.

And yet, “Please Call Me, Baby” is a so-called “deep track” of Waits’s, but it’s completely worthy of standing among his best work. I’ll always love it.

tom waits portrait

 

2. “Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O’Clock Club)” (1976)

By 1976, Waits had descended more into the world that made up his songs. He was drinking a lot, like a lot. The road does that to people sometimes, the near-constant traveling while still trying to live somewhat of a life.

From a selfish perspective, I can say that this period of Waits’s still-early career made his album Small Change one of his all-time musical best.

It’s a downhearted set of piano-and-sax ballads mostly, from the “Tom Traubert’s Blues” opener down to “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” But you could name countless examples of how artists’ dark times have made for powerful music.

One of the deep tracks here is an unusual song from this set, kind of buried on side two: “Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O’Clock Club).”

It’s a strangely uptempo performance that features a verbose and significantly gravelly Waits.

He’s backed only by drums, riffing from the perspective of a dude at a bawdy burlesque show. He runs through the booze, the terrible music, and most of all, the beautiful women and their stripteases.

The most fun part of this is the three times that Waits breaks down into scat singing (with great confidence).

I called the song strange in that it’s upbeat on a mostly downbeat record, but I still don’t let that fool me. The narrator is having the time of his life, but what are burlesque shows, what are cabarets, what are strip clubs but simple distractions meant to let you forget your real struggles for a little while?

This is a grown man going crazy for pastied women shaking and shimmying all over the floor. If this is his Saturday night, how empty is his life? What does he have waiting for him after the hangover the next morning?

And for Waits, the creator, what an accomplishment to convey this level of depression (as I read it) through an essentially happy song. As I say, “Pasties and a G-String” is buried on Small Change, but my appreciation of it has only grown since I’ve listened to it over again for this.

3. “Mr. Siegal” (1980)

“Mr. Siegal” from 1980’s Heartattack and Vine is a perfect deep cut in every way. It’s literally (not quite literally) buried toward the end of the album.

To my knowledge, it has never been used in any kind of media or even been mentioned with any kind of frequency by fans I’ve been around (though diehard Waits fans love pretty much everything he’s done).

I have never put much thought into the song’s lyrical meaning, but from what I can gather, this is an apparent reference to Bugsy Siegel, the American gangster and hitman who got involved with the Las Vegas casino industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

The lyrics seem to describe a criminally inclined guy who’s considering leaving the life but just can’t find his way out. There’s plenty of references to criminal acts, but interestingly, the chorus has the narrator grappling with the influence of angels and the devil.

I have no doubt that Waits would be influenced by the life of someone like Bugsy Siegel and the eternal struggle between people’s good and evil natures. “Mr. Siegal” is an interesting look into the mind of a thinking mobster.

But more than that for me, I enjoy “Mr. Siegal” for its upbeat rock sound. It’s piano driven and features a strong vocal performance from Waits, who forcefully projects his rusty snarls above the musical fray.

This one’s a cool track and one of my favorites from Waits’s career.

4. “Black Wings” (1992)

So how long do you have to sit through a discussion of “Black Wings” from Wait’s 1992 album Bone Machine?

It’s easily the most sinister song on an album already full of brooding, concentrated malice. Not Waits’s malice for another entity, but the existing destructive forces of the natural world.

I suppose “destructive force” is one way to label the character in “Black Wings.” Another way reveals itself if you really study Waits’s lyrics from start to finish.

This song appears to be about some kind of supernatural avenging angel that is not affected by anything this world can do to stop him.

He rides through people’s dreams on a horse-drawn coach.

He’s escaped from every prison that has tried to keep him, so much so that no one tries to capture him anymore.

He’s garroted a man with a guitar string and yet has saved a drowning baby.

He appears in places and then vanishes.

Some people are afraid of him, but others respect what he does.

A few even say they’ve seen black wings under his coat.

One thing is common to everyone, though: anyone who has seen him denies they ever did.

The biblical imagery is strong in the lyrics, and not just because of the “eye for an eye” vengeance reference. Specifically, I can see Jesus here. When men try to approach him in an upper room, they find nothing there “for he has risen.”

We also have everyone denying him, just like the disciples did to Jesus in his final hours.

But this isn’t Jesus, for this figure was born away in a cornfield, not in a manger, as that phrasing might otherwise suggest.

So, what’s with the parallels, and why are they important?

Well, I don’t know. It’s open-ended. You could concoct a religious-based theory of God sending an anti-hero avenging angel to Earth to mete out justice, and that’s why good and bad things happen.

You could also use a harsh version of the Jesus story to tell who this figure is. He’s sent to earth by God to save the innocent and destroy evil with no mercy.

The more interesting idea to me–as I let the creepy, moody guitar envelop me for 4 minutes and 38 seconds–is that the bearer of the black wings is supposed to be more of a force than some assassin or other person. Think of a grim reaper-type.

I think it’s the death/fate that awaits us all. It’s ancient, primitive, but it’s always been working.

Some people go violently. Others, like the drowning baby, are suddenly saved by a stroke of luck, with no other viable explanation.

You can’t catch death. You can’t lock it up.

But you can deny it because you fear it. Look death in the eyes and survive, and you, too, might deny you ever met it face to face. You do it by going on living, acting like you’ll live forever. We all do it, or we’d go crazy.

One day, though, those black wings will be the last things we each see.

tom waits guitar

 

5. “Buzz Fledderjohn” (2006, but from 1999)

The attractiveness of a track like “Buzz Fledderjohn” from 2006’s compilation Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards is in both its musical atmosphere and lyrical tightness.

It’s a slow, rural, guitar-and-harmonica blues that just oozes a hot, sticky, backwoods setting. Dogs bark in the background throughout the track. It’s perfect.

Told in the first person, “Buzz Fledderjohn” is a story of someone, probably a kid, who isn’t allowed into the yard of his neighbor, Buzz Fledderjohn. But he can’t bear not to know what’s over there, so he gets up on his roof and stands there for hours, staring into the yard.

The things he sees make up the rest of the song. They start out realistic enough: guns and ammunition and World War II books.

But then our narrator gets a little fantastical, likely due to his burning curiosity. Apparently, Buzz Fledderjohn also has piranhas, a snake swallowing a doberman, and a fish in a bathtub.

Over and over, the narrator reminds himself he isn’t allowed in the yard.

So what is all this, then? The kid’s bitter because he can’t get a piece of this guy’s privacy. Every once in a while (“What’s He Building ?” [1999]), Tom Waits will write about voyeurism and how strangers just need to know what someone else’s life is.

Think of the enormous complexity of a single human life. You know all the details of your own, how things are organized, what something means to you, how your past has shaped you, which of your interpersonal relationships have caveats, and what those caveats are.

You know it all like an expert, but even one person removed from you is operating on a completely different level.

No one can know the full scope of detail of your life as well as you do.

Would you want them to?

I would not.

It makes me uncomfortable to be asked personal questions, to be watched, to be given sideways looks by a nosy neighbor who just needs to know why I keep to myself so hard.

Who is Buzz Fledderjohn? I don’t know.

Who’s the kid? No idea.

Why isn’t he allowed in Buzz Fledderjohn’s yard? Also don’t know.

None of those things is the point.

We humans tend to get a bit inquisitive when we’re told we’re not allowed to know something. We just gotta find out what’s being kept from us. And if we can’t, we’ll make up stories to fill the void or to get back at those private secret-keepers who just want to be left alone.

After all, how dare they put up fences? They’re cloaking their activities. They have to be up to no good, probably feeding dogs to their snakes and letting killer fish swim around a mixing bowl.

6. “Two Sisters” (2006)

Bringing up the rear is “Two Sisters” from Orphans. This is not a complete Waits original. “The Twa Sisters” is a traditional song, in fact a murder ballad dating at least to mid-seventeenth-century Scotland.

As with many traditional folk songs, it’s been known by many names over the centuries, but here, Waits arranged the ballad with Kathleen Brennan and called it “Two Sisters.”

And, just like the title has changed, the story of the ballad has numerous versions, but I’ll speak about the one here.

Accompanied only by a plaintive violin, Waits recounts the story of two sisters to whom comes a handsome young man, Willy. The older sister takes a liking to him, but he has eyes only for the younger sister, Kate.

The older one suggests the two sisters go walking along the shore, and while they stroll, the older sister pushes her sister into the sea. She refuses her cries for help and taunts her, saying she will now take Willy and his land for herself.

The miller tries to help Kate out of the water, but the older sister pays him to throw her back in, so he does, and Kate drowns. The miller is seen, arrested, and hanged, while the older sister gets away with it all and presumably marries Willy.

Got that?

Why are we singing about this? Why is this a song?

You have to read it in the context of the murder ballad. The purpose of this literary subgenre is to recount a crime that occurred in the time of the original composer (although with so much of the folk tradition being oral, the details and facts tend to be a bit fluid).

There’s no intrinsic lesson here, no neat and tidy ending.

There’s also no justice. The older woman murders her sister for money and land and gets away with it and has no remorse.

It’s familiar territory for Waits, always concerned with the seedy corners of life, the darkness inside each of us.

“Two Sisters” speaks for itself, and I don’t have much need to interpret it or what it means to me other than to marvel at what human envy is capable of sometimes.

I hope at least someone goes and listens to this one from here. It’s a pretty sobering five minutes.

What Have We Learned from These Tom Waits Songs?

If there’s anything to take from this particular selection of Tom Waits songs, it’s simply that this is a man who seems to exist to shine a light on the dark underbelly of the world. We all know it’s there, but maybe a lot of us try to ignore it.

For reasons known to Waits and Brennan, that part of the human experience is endlessly fascinating to him.

I don’t think it matters why he’s intrigued. That interest has produced some of Tom Waits’s best songs over the last few decades.

I think back to my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like,” when I think about Tom Waits. His music is not exactly pleasant listening. The best Tom Waits lyrics are those that listeners will tend to find the most depressing or unsettling.

Maybe we fans like him because he gets us thinking about those kinds of societal taboos, the things that make us uncomfortable.

That an artist can do what he’s done while avoiding the mainstream spotlight and never selling out to anyone is impressive and admirable.

I’m hoping he can make one more album before he retires for good. Bad As Me was 10 years ago, just saying.

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