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Waits and Measures

[whitespace] Tom Waits Tom Waits for No Man: No one knows where the role ends and the man begins when it comes to eccentric troubadour Tom Waits.

On 'Mule Variations,' Tom Waits avoids the expected once again

By Gina Arnold

ON THEIR LAST ALBUM, Adios Amigos, the Ramones scored a minor hit with "I Don't Want to Grow Up." Not to be confused with the Toys 'R Us theme or the song from Peter Pan, this one went "I don't want to be a good Boy Scout/I don't want my hair to fall out/I don't wanna be filled with doubt/No, I don't want to grow up." Played at a breakneck tempo and yelped out in punk-rockese, the song describes the decrepit Ramones' situation perfectly, but in fact the number was written by Tom Waits, the mysterious, almost cartoonlike songwriter whose talents are so strange and large they can barely be contained by his own persona.

Waits has written songs that have worked for the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart, and performed duets with Crystal Gayle, Bette Midler and Keith Richards--certainly a set of artists who have little in common except their love of Waits' haunted work.

Waits' new album, Mule Variations, like so much of his work, has left field written all over it. For one thing, the record is on the small independent label Epitaph, best known for punk bands like Bad Religion, NOFX and Rancid. That's a weird enough circumstance for this ordinarily class act, but Waits has never done the conventional thing, and this particular "small is beautiful" gesture seems to have worked out quite well for him.

It also illuminates the difference between artistry and popularity--because there once was a time when Waits' career ran parallel to Springsteen's. Indeed, Springsteen's 1973 album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., and Waits' 1973 album, Closing Time, have much in common.

Originally, Springsteen and Waits were anti-hippies, uninterested in psychedelia, garage rock and unlocking those gosh-darned Doors (of perception). They both possessed gruff, raspy voices, a liking for saxophone breaks and a penchant for long, rambling ballads about the low life.

Springsteen, of course, based his Dylanesque tales of the Jersey shore on his own life. Legend has it that Waits' songs were based on snatches of conversation heard at his job as the doorman of a seedy bar in L.A. But somehow the latter turned up more memorable lines: "I'm so horny I could screw the crack of dawn," "The rain sounds like a round of applause" and "I wish I had that money that I used to spend on dope."

Obviously, Waits is not the lowlife he pretends to be, but such is the blinding nature of his artistry that one is able to believe implicitly the truth of his perceptions--to believe in the romantic dignity of dirt and defeat. That's pretty much where the likeness to Springsteen ends, however, because Springsteen believes that dirt and defeat, though dignified, should be eradicated. Perhaps that's why Springsteen proceeded to superstardom, deliberately (if you believe the book Mansion on the Hill) courting the commercial mainstream with pop anthems like "Hungry Heart" and "Born in the U.S.A .," while Waits has merely become increasingly arty, ever more cutting edge.

Indeed, despite their distinctly similar skills and tone, by 1983, while Springsteen was touring stadiums, Waits had just released Swordfishtrombones, a highly acclaimed noise-jazz exercise that is almost unlistenable to anyone not steeped in the works of Captain Beefheart and/or Weimar cabaret artist Kurt Weill.

MORE SUCH ALBUMS followed, and although they have their beautiful moments (the Rain Dogs song "Downtown Train," for example, and "Innocent When You Dream"), his work can be difficult to appreciate. His oeuvre tends to be noisy, clattering and arcane, yet he is idolized on a Springsteen-like level by those who appreciate it.

At his very rare live shows--like one held two years ago as a benefit at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, and one at SXSW in Austin, Texas, this year--his fans, all wearing invisible berets, are keyed up into a state of nearly hysterical worship.

Live, Waits is a true wit. Whether he's hunched over the microphone like some kind of demented dwarf or flailing his arms and legs about like a psycho Chuck Berry, he is always utterly convincing in his role as carnival freak. Musically, though not an obvious innovator, Waits has synthesized certain elements of style into a type of expressionism that transcends mere rock performance, blending art and theater and music in a truly unique fashion.

In addition to his music, Waits has a career as an actor. He starred in the film Down by Law and Night on Earth, as well as appearing in Rumblefish, Ironweed and Short Cuts, and he is in the midst of making another film. He generally plays roles much like the one he plays onstage. But how much of his persona is an act and how much is really him is anybody's guess, since he's as interview-shy as Springsteen--and twice as mysterious.

Some facts are known. Waits grew up in El Cajon, near San Diego--also the birthplace of über-rock critic Lester Bangs and the setting of Springsteen's most Waits-like song, "Rosalita." He began his career in L.A. writing songs for Rickie Lee Jones and the Eagles ("Ol' 55") and opening for Frank Zappa, but he has long been considered a singularly original talent, so out of step with trends that he is a trend unto himself. He currently lives reclusively in Northern California.

Mule Variations, his first album in six years, is ironically, given its label affiliation, his most commercial to date--which is to say, not very commercial, but more so than previously. The record is inordinately long--70 minutes--but worth every second. It has the straightforward songwriting of Blue Valentine, combined with thwacking percussive sound effects, bullhorn shouts and the delicate, evocative sonic melodrama of, say, "Frank's Wild Years." One song is punctuated by a cock crow, for example; others sound like they were recorded in a Mississippi swamp in 1930 and transmitted here via some kind of time-traveling satellite.

This is particularly confusing, as many of these new songs offer a carefully wrought musing (or variation) on earlier work. "Eyeball Kid" has much in common with "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six," "Filipino Box Spring Hog" sounds a little like "Gun Street Girl," while the pretty ballad "Picture in a Frame" recalls "Innocent When You Dream." But these aren't bad comments, they're good ones. Waits' work is so rich and textural, it can certainly use some self-annotation.

THE ALBUM isn't just a retread, though. As is usual with Waits, the record is peopled with strange characters, like the "Banzai Aphrodite" in "Black Market Baby," who stirs her whiskey with a nail and "gives broads a bad name," and the Jersey-like girl in a coffee shop who says, "God bless your crooked little heart" in "Hold On," a track so Springsteeny that one suspects that Waits is goofing on the guy--showing him how it's done. Such a trick wouldn't be that far-fetched, since at times Waits' theatricality gets away from him: "What's He Building?" for instance, is a spooky spoken-word number about a neighbor who seems to be building some kind of gross sex prison in his backyard. Or something.

But all the most transcendent numbers are the simplest, i.e., the ones played on the grand piano. "Georgia Lee"--a tragic song sung by a mother who's lost her daughter to drugs--is particularly heartbreaking. "Why wasn't God watching?" sings Waits, as Mom, "Why wasn't he listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?" Another truly beautiful song is "Take It With Me," in which Waits sounds as cancerous and sinister as ever, creating beauty out of ugliness in his own inimitable way.

It's about as far a cry from Bruce Springsteen as possible--but then, what Tom Waits does has little or nothing to do with rock & roll. It's more in touch with older traditions--jazz standards and folk music, vaudeville and musical comedy. The truth is, Tom Waits walks all alone down a strange little byway of popular music. If you want to trail along after him after dark, you might get spooked, but you sure won't be sorry.

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From the April 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro.

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