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Good Time: 'Big Time' is one of the most enthralling music films ever made.

Frank Talk

The Raven screens the Tom Waits classic 'Big Time'

By Greg Cahill

"Life is picking up a girl with bad teeth," singer-songwriter Tom Waits told Time magazine in 1978, while describing his philosophy, "or getting to know one of those wild-eyed rummies down on Sixth Avenue."

The fringe-dwelling characters that populate Waits' world are a colorful bunch indeed: the one-eyed dwarf shooting craps on a fog-bound waterfront or the haggard hooker in a Minnesota jail who fakes a tale about her trombone-playing sugar daddy--marginal figures one and all, spinning out in a dream world haunted by personal demons.

"These are people trapped in what a patient Christian might call the tunnel toward salvation," Anthony York wrote in a recent Salon.com article about Waits.

How drawn to these characters is Waits? In the 1980s, this eccentric bohemian and West County resident released a trilogy of albums--Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank's Wild Years (1987)--that compose a brooding Beat opera centered around a broken-hearted sailor (Frank) adrift in a sea of despair, a veteran who experiences a psychotic episode and torches his house before fleeing into the night.

The richly textured material from these albums--which marked a highpoint in Waits' storytelling and a departure from his earlier bluesy piano-bar style in favor of a nightmarish cabaret of bagpipes, accordions and percussive objects--served as the basis for Healdsburg-based director Chris Blum's classic 1988 performance film Big Time.

That rarely screened film, which is not available on DVD, screens Friday, July 9, at the Raven Film Center in Healdsburg.

It's one of the most enthralling music films ever made. That's due, in part, to Waits' dark humor, his riveting portrayal as a sardonic carnival-barker-type (replete with police bullhorn and work light, the kind you hang from the hood of your '58 Pontiac while changing the plugs, and which Waits uses to illuminate his sneering expressions) and a crack band that features the famed former Lounge Lizard Marc Ribot on guitar.

But the real star is Frank and the strange songs that tell his story.

In his Salon.com piece, York unearthed several past articles in which the usually reclusive Waits talks about the evolution of his music during that period and especially how liberating he found the transformation.

"Anybody who plays the piano would thrill at seeing and hearing one thrown off a 12-story building, watching it hit the sidewalk and being there to hear that thump," Waits told Playboy magazine. "It's like school; you want to watch it burn."

Freed from the confines of the standard jazz trio, York adds, Waits continued to experiment. He found music in "dragging a chair across the floor or hitting the side of a locker real hard with a two-by-four, a freedom bell, a brake drum with a major imperfection, a police bullhorn."

He also honed the art of evocative storytelling, a development that began when Waits stopped romanticizing the life of a drunk. "I tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail-lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have," he said in a Rolling Stone interview. "There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk. You know, I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."

In the Frank trilogy, which finds the protagonist transformed over time, Waits has created a modern American version of the Odyssey, one that has invited speculation among fans and inspired countless college dissertations.

But Waits has a much less complicated way to explain his songwriting approach, as in this quote excavated by York. "The best songs come out of the ground, just like a potato," he once said in a conversation with Roberto Benigni, which was published in Interview magazine. "You plan and plan, and then you wait for the potato."


'Big Time' screens Friday, July 9, at the Raven Film Center, 115 North St., Healdsburg. 9pm. $6. 707.433.6335.

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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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