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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 ?” ), 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.
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.
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.