First time I saw him, Tom Waits scared the hell out of me.
It was sometime in 1988 (I think), and I was watching the TV special based around the Red Hot and Blue project, an AIDS awareness thing where a whole bunch of pop stars and others were doing cover versions of Cole Porter songs. It was a pretty eclectic selection, going from David Byrne to U2 to Neneh Cherry and others, and everything was burbling along fairly normally – until suddenly, we got this song that didn’t even sound completely like music. There was some kind of odd, humpity blues thing going on, a hoarse, weird screaming voice over it, and the video accompanying it was a weird, distorted 8mm film of a frankly rather worrying and distinctly simian-looking bloke. The only way I can described the effect on my teenage consciousness, is to paraphrase comedian Lewis Black (actually talking here about N*synch and Aerosmith playing together) – “What they were playing wasn’t music – it was the sound of chaos! Pigs were being slaughtered, women were sobbing, men were gnashing their teeth, and there were sounds so terrible I cannot describe them to you, lest you flee from the room!!” It was disturbing and scary and odd enough to make me go “What in god’s name was that?!?”, and it took checking the end credits to find out that I’d had my first encounter with Tom Waits, who in this case was doing a somewhat loose interpretation of “It’s Alright With Me”.
I hadn’t liked what I heard – but it stuck in my memory. And even if you didn’t like Tom Waits, it was rather hard to avoid him – if it wasn’t Heartattack and Vine turning up on a Levi’s commercial (even if, if I’m remembering rightly, it was a cover by Screaming Jay Hawkins), it was the man himself turning up in an uncredited cameo in the quite wonderful film The Fisher King (which is also arguably Terry Gilliam’s last genuinely great movie in the last seventeen years, sadly enough). So, while I still wasn’t tempted to investigate more, I was aware of Tom Waits. I knew he was there. And over the years, despite still not having heard that much of his music, I couldn’t help but start to respect him. I’ve always had a liking for people who do their own thing, and Waits has always seemed to be the working definition of that idea. Plus, almost all of his acting appearences have been eccentric, bizarre, and eye-catching – most especially, his cameo in Tony Scott’s borderline psychotic (and yet perversely entertaining) DOMINO, where Waits just turns up randomly as either himself or a messenger from God, and I can remember the odd joy of thinking “Oh my god- it’s Tom Waits!!”
I knew his albums almost always got good reviews. I knew that the cover of ‘Bone Machine’ was somewhat worrying. I knew he was an artist who’d gone through a number of phases in his career. But still, he was someone I respected without ever actually picking up a disc and trying out some of his music.
Well, this week I finally put paid to that. Thanks to the wonder that is low-budget record store Fopp, I was able to pick up a copy of ‘Used Songs’, a compilation covering Waits’ career from 1973-1980, for the bargain price of £3. Now, I do know that this is, comparitively speaking, the most normal phase of Waits’ career, but I have to admit that so far, I’m hooked. Waits does have one of the weirdest voices on the planet – it’s bluesy, and smoky, and hoarse, and soulful, and about ten other descriptions none of which will ever quite encapsulate it. There are moments where it’s almost too weird to cope with, and yet I’m gradually getting used to it, and finding that there are some truly beautiful songs on this album. It’s music for late at night, music that makes me think I should be propping up the bar in some smoke-filled speakeasy or dive bar, nursing a bottle of bourbon (and I don’t even drink bourbon, for gawd’s sake). It’s music for misfits, for the lost and the broken, for the people who sometimes find themselves falling through the cracks. It’s got one song – ‘Ol ’55’ – that’s in danger of becoming one of my current favourite songs, and a whole selections of others that are the kind of slow, jazzy, compulsive listens that are nestling inside my head and refusing to leave. It’s also melancholic in the best sense, and so is (rather understandably) somewhat fitting some of my moods right now. I don’t know how much further I’m going to proceed into the Kingdom of Waits – but so far, I think I’m liking what I hear.