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Tom Waits rasp exceeds his reach on two new albums.

Tom Waits for No Man

Is it the music or the manner that really counts on Waits' new releases?

By Gina Arnold

MY FAVORITE cover song of the past decade is, without question, "I Don't Want to Grow Up," written by Tom Waits and his songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, and sung by the Ramones. The song decries maturity as the repository of baldness, greed, debt, sadness and bad health. As sung by Waits--whose peculiar persona exudes the crusty air of the aged alcoholic--it's easy to believe that that's all adulthood has to offer. As sung by Joey Ramone, however, the song evinces a poignancy that Waits himself can't approach, because the idea of an old Ramone--alas, a dead Ramone--is so unthinkably heartrending.

"I Don't Want to Grow Up" is the classic example of a song whose meaning quadruples in someone else's hands--and it's a warning to fans of Waits, who think the guy can do no wrong. There's no question that Waits is an artist of great merit and integrity, but do we like his music or his bizarre persona? I had to ask myself that question this week as I listened to his two new releases, Alice and Blood Money. With many artists, it's difficult enough to separate the two things, but with Waits it's all but impossible. Who is he, really, and what is he singing about?

Alice is the soundtrack to a musical written in 1992 by Waits and Brennan (that is, they wrote the music). Apparently, it is about Charles (Lewis Carroll) Dodgson's obsession with Alice, his colleague's small daughter, although it would be difficult to tell that from songs like "Table Top Joe" and "Kommienezuspadt," which could just as easily be part of The Three-Penny Opera. The title cut is a real winner; the rest of the album is classic Waits, sung in his raspy, scary old man voice and wrapped in sound-effects-ridden music. Each song has a complicated character at its core, but without the dramaturgy, it's difficult to connect the dots.

Alice certainly stands on its own, but that probably says something bad about the play. The other new release, Blood Money, proves much more cohesive, and its timely theme is man's inhumanity to man. "Misery is the river of the world," Waits sings on the first number. "All the good in the world, you can put inside a thimble and still have room for you and me." God, he adds later, is away on business: "I'd sell your heart to the junkman baby, for a buck, for buck / ... If you're looking for someone to pull you out of a ditch, you're out of luck." And finally (on "Starving in the Belly of a Whale"), he sings, "If you live in hope, you're dancing to a terrible tale." Not exactly music you want to lull your child to sleep by, although if sung by someone with a sweet, sweet voice, you might be fooled into thinking these terrifying tales were merely beautiful ballads. In its lyrics, this record is as down as you can get--post-9/11 music for the already chronically depressed. Waits thrusts his listeners into a twilight world of frightening men and mysterious strangers.

When I saw Tom a few years ago, I was surprised to see Jon Bon Jovi seated in the row in front of me, staring hungrily at the stage as if he understood what it meant to be a real artiste. A friend of mine subsequently noted, "Bon Jovi and Tom Waits are equally phony: both are role-playing, but one is dark, and one is light." And that may be true. Waits' whole ethos and incredible appeal really sidestep the question of authenticity that so dogs most rock bands.

It seems as if the more mannered and fake-looking musicians are these days, the more appealing they are. The more theatrical rock becomes, the more laughable--and the less meaningful. In the old days, bands like CSN and R.E.M. made a virtue out of being ordinary--just a bunch of serious guys in blue jeans. We don't see that too often anymore, and when we do, we kind of cringe. Whom do we prefer? Ozzy Osbourne or Jack Johnson? Michelle Williams or Beyoncé Knowles? These days, everyone's got an angle, and the weirder and more memorable the angle, the more likely we are to want to hear their music. That being the case, Tom Waits, phony or not, should go supersonic this summer.


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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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