Beautiful Melodies about terrible things.
There is a deep guttural sound coming out of my speakers, like an old trailer downshifting on a curve on route 66 or a piano being dragged across a stage and it is one of my favourite sounds; the wretched voice of one Tom Waits.
I discovered Tom at an early age, well earlier than one is supposed to find something as peculiar; it was the first half of the year 2000, we had all been miraculously saved from meteors and Y2K. I had only started my first year of that hellish phase called “High School” and like most teenagers my age, I was discovering music by myself for the first time, and you know exactly what I am talking about; perhaps before that moment you have lived listening to your parents’ music and after that you listen to the radio or MTV and you get hooked on top 40. But then comes that magical moment when you discover music as art and expression and you get to pick what you listen to and you learn about all the great music that came before you and it’s a brilliant and fantastic moment in your life that you are probably remembering as you read this.
Well if it happened to you like it happened to me, there was probably some sort of “mentor” an elder figure you looked up to, perhaps an older sibling more experienced in life who discovered music before you. Maybe your cool aunt or a classmate with higher musical experience like it was in my case. This kid told me a very important secret “watch MTV after midnight” So I did, and it was a whole new world. I gota add that back then, MTV used to play mostly music videos, popular music and top 40 during most of the day, but when everyone went to bed, during the witching hours, MTV played alternative music, from punk to shoegaze going through old goth videos and upcoming bands that were not quite ready for daytime programming. It was a goldmine of new music I had never listened to before.
I would wait every day until midnight with a notebook in my hands to write down the names of these bands so I could look them up during the day, staying up past 3am and falling asleep at school but who cares about school as a teenager when you have such great music. One of those nights was very particular when the screen showed me the most bizarre of images, a grown man in a suit with a devil hat riding around a tiny tricycle and wearing a woman’s high heel shoe? Was this another one of MTV’s bizarre ads? Then the music started, a discombobulated electric guitar and the gritty voice of this bizarre man as he sang on a diminutive stage with a tiny guitar.
I don’t wanna put no money down, I don’t wanna get me a big old loan, Work them fingers to the bone, I don’t wanna float a broom, Fall in love and get married then boom, How the hell did it get here so soon, I don’t wanna grow up!
I felt as if this strange grumbling man was speaking directly to me. When you are at that age you realize you can no longer derive joy from playing with your toys and you come face to face with adulthood and all that it means and it’s pretty damn scary, so the last thing you want is to grow up.
The next day I couldn’t stop thinking about this devil man, his song was stuck in my head all day and as soon as I got home I looked up his songs on this wonderful little program we had back then called Napster.
In case you are too young to know, Napster was a computer program that allowed users to share their entire music library with other users for free, it was heaven for a teenager discovering music. It had it’s faults too, like the occasional virus or the fact that more obscure titles such as Tom Waits were hard to come across. So I had no other choice than to work, earn enough cash and finally purchase my very own CD of Bone Machine by Tom Waits. I was hooked, who was this mysterious figure with the raspy voice and fantastic lyrics? How come nobody in my life knew anything about him? Hot Topic didn’t sell his shirts, the radio didn’t play his songs…all I could do was keep collecting his albums, he even influenced my way to dress at school when I started showing up with a thrift-shop suit and a porkpie hat. And when some kid tried to diss me, I would just dismiss them with an obscure Tom Waits lyric; “Hey kid, nice suit, are you a lawyer?”
“…you gotta get behind the mule” I would respond. What do you say to that? Nothing, soon people stopped bothering me.
I’ve often heard people talk about Tom’s music as “an acquired taste” I don’t know about that, I was a fan from the first song I heard but through the years I’ve learned that his music is definitely not for everybody. But if you are one of the lucky ones like I was, his music will find you. And with it come fantastic stories about a particular side of America that nobody sings about, tales about dinners and trailer drivers, prostitutes, drunken pianos, sleazy cabarets and deals with the devil. This and more, all accompanied by decadent jazzy tunes that steal a note or two from rock and mix it with a little vaudeville until you have just the right music to suit these tragic stories of the humanity that Tom gladly shares with us.