Sunday, February 18, 2007


Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti, 2006) A.

REMEMBER when you were in school, there was always that kid who sat in the corner of the room, who never seemed to belong, who never participated in any of the class functions, who seemed aloof – perhaps detached would be a better word. He looked weird, as though someone forget to dress him properly in the morning. His grades were good, his attendance record above average, but there was just something about the guy that prevented you from getting to know him. Even the bullies would keep their distance. Then someone would crack a joke and from the corner of the room you’d hear a snicker – a half-muted laugh - from the guy. He was paying attention after all, he heard every word that was being spoken; he just chose that precise moment to chime in with his own two cents.

For 33 years now Tom Waits has been that kid in the corner of the room. The weird outcast who just didn’t seem to belong. Ever since Closing Time critics have been trying to classify his music and have failed miserably. And like the snickering kid who got the joke, even when the rest of us didn’t, Waits just kept on recording music his way: weird, aloof, detached from any genre or sub-genre the biz could concoct.

Not that there haven’t been sign posts where his music veered off in new and divergent paths. Swordfishtrombones represented for two decades the demarcation point between his bohemian, gin-soaked jazz/blues days (OK, that’s as close as I can get to defining what it was!) and the eclectic troubadour artiste he has been morphing into ever since. Not unlike his early albums, the music and the singing were ugly, except now it all seemed to make sense. Like a glove the warped sense of humor his fans have always cherished most about him came together brilliantly. That it even came into existence in the first place was owed directly to the persistence of then girlfriend, now wife, Kathleen Brennan, who after Asylum rejected the record, and then subsequently dropped Waits, convinced Island Records to give it a shot. The rest as they say in the biz is history.

But, whatever one may think of that record’s virtues, and I for one thought it had many, success, even for a recluse can be a hard road to travel. Rain Dogs, the follow-up, began for Waits a vicious cycle of vying for either an identity beyond what he had created or a recapturing of the moment of his greatness. For once in his life, he was the one telling the joke not merely laughing at it. Almost over night he had gone from the guy bumming a cigarette off of a patron to being able to buy the whole house a round. You could say he didn’t care, but you’d be wrong. For the next dozen or so years, he struggled artistically, even as his film career soared. It wasn’t until Mule Variations, 16 years later, that he finally seemed to make peace with himself. Again Brennan’s hand was evident. While I generally loath direct comparisons the album is a cross between the melancholy of Closing Time and the hope-filled minimalism of Swordfishtrombones. Imagine, an album about romanticism that isn’t self-indulgent; what a concept!

What followed was, you guessed it, more vying. Blood Money, Alice, and Real Gone showed he was more the romantic of Closing Time than the hopeful troubadour of Swordfishtrombones. Of the three, Blood Money was my pick. I’ve always operated under the premise that when in doubt less is more. Waits, for me, has always been at his best when he has aimed low. Grandiosity has, more often than not, boomeranged on him. You could say it has been his ambition that has gotten the better of him. But give the man some credit; his refusal to give up on himself as been his greatest attribute. He is indelible, if nothing else.

Which of course brings us to the main event: a 3-CD, 54-song album that reeks of grandiosity if ever any album did. A good album? Well let’s just say I wasn’t holding my breath. Then I played the damn thing. It was as if 33 years of music suddenly coalesced in front of me. This is the album the man has had in him for four decades, and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – let out. I have always suspected Waits of having multiple personalities, musically at least. Well now there’s proof.

Whether you subscribe to the theory that he is a mad man with a sentimental side, or a romantic lush with a mean streak, Orphans is proof of that age-old story of the chicken and the egg. The simple truth was and is that Waits is both. That it took him 33 years to finally come up with it is yet one more example of his indelibility. True Orphans started as a collection of outtakes - only 30 of the 54 songs are new, with 14 of the remaining appearing on other albums - but it quickly developed beyond that. The result was as ambitious a project as Waits as ever undertaken.

Seldom have I heard lyrics that speak of anguish and redemption along side revenge and cruelty. It’s as if Waits is sorry for pulling that girl’s hair in class, while at the same time enjoying the pain of the moment. Listen to the man’s own words: “What’s Orphans? I don’t know. Orphans is a dead end kid driving a coffin with big tires across the Ohio River wearing welding goggles and a wife beater with a lit firecracker in his ear.” He has always been the smart ass who couldn’t let on that he was a smart ass. This is his coming out party, if you will.

Pick a song, and you’ll probably find something of yourself in it. Disc two, Bawlers, is my personal favorite, and not merely for the Johnny Cash song “Down There By The Train” which Waits finally reclaims as his own. No, what impresses me most is how completely naked and vulnerable Waits allows himself to be. However gifted his music may have been, Waits has always had a problem letting his hair down. He has been guarded when it came to his emotions. He didn’t mind laughing at someone else’s jokes, but he shied away from self-reflection. He could tell “Martha” how much he still loved her after “forty years or more”, but look in the mirror and ask the obvious question, “Dude, why are you still living in the past?” Never! I suspect the answer was that the engine behind Waits’ lyrics has always been the regret of what might have been. Pain was OK, so long as it was somebody else’s pain. On Swordfishtrombones, the girl he just couldn’t live without in “Johnsburg, Illinois” was as close as he’s ever gotten to letting us in. But just to make sure we didn’t think him a sap, the next song on that album was “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six.” Waits could kill the ending to “Old Yeller” if you gave him half a chance.

Fortunately, on Orphans, his killer instinct, at least for now, has been shelved. The result is as secure and (gulp) mature an album as you will likely find. At 56, Waits has finally grown up. We finally get a chance to see him not as the recluse who didn’t fit in, but the scared kid that nobody bothered to get to know, who listened to everything everybody said, and who now has something relevant to say about his life that finally isn’t a punch line about somebody else’s. Like he says in the song, “I always take the long way home.” I’d say 33 years is long enough. Welcome home, Tom, stay a while.

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