Thoughts From the Dead: Tom Waits and Metal Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Metal
Being dead gives me a lot of time to think. I think about a thing, and then that turns into an opinion, which then turns into fact, and then I give it to you. Find out your new opinion on Tom Waits in this first installment!
Tom Waits is a fairly divisive artist. I don’t mean that he once ate a cat onstage while wearing a Nelson Mandela mask, I mean that people are either going to get or not get the appeal of this gravelly-voiced weirdo. I remember hearing my first Tom Waits song and immediately thinking “I must possess every second of music ever made by this human.” Many others, however, have heard his music and immediately thought something along the lines of “kthxbye.” Much like metal, I’ve witnessed people nod along in appreciation when listening to the instrumental portions of his songs, only to spit out their Cheerios when he starts singing. Or hooting, hollering, yelling, barking, or whatever else he decided to do in that song. I get the feeling that his gruff, raspy, unsettling vocal style may hit people in the same way a growl from a death metal singer does. Before I go any further, let me say this: while there may be some parallels, I’m not going to try to force metal characteristics into all of his music. At the end of the day, he’s not a metal artist, and his music needs to be taken on its own merits. However, I would like to point out traits and qualities that I think fans of metal can appreciate.
If I really knew how to write op-ed pieces, I’d probably find a logical thread to unravel right around now, trapping you in my devastating analysis and dreamy eyes. But I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I’ll hook you with this massively awesome song.
In addition to being a fantastically creative music video, how friggin’ heavy was that?? It may be lacking blast beats and down-tuned guitars, but there’s no getting around how massive that song is. An assortment of percussion and claps lurch around in no specific direction, a broken riff works itself out in the background, and then he just starts yelling at you. “What did I do?” you sheepishly ask. “MY STANCH WAS A CHIN FULL OF SOAP. THAT RANCID DINNER WITH THE POPE,” he yells back, and you decide that it’s much to better to rage along with him rather than figure out what’s going on. “YOU’RE RIGHT, TOM. SERGIO IS DEVELOPING A REAL BAD COUGH.”
Metal nerds clearly have no problem with harsh vocal styles, and that’s a huge plus when diving into Tom Waits. Ultra nerdy metal nerds clearly have no problem with eccentric instrumentation and bizarre sounds, and that’s an even bigger plus when diving into Tom Waits. Both of those traits are essential to his sound; every song on every album has its own feel and instrumentation, making for some truly unique and standout tracks. Let’s all take some time to enjoy this whacked-out tune, “Kommienezuspadt” off the album Alice.
I’m not sure if Tom Waits knows German, or if he’s just good at yelling in what sounds like angry German. Speaking of yelling, I’ll throw one more of his fantastically eccentric tracks at you, then get down to some serious discussion about something or other. Here’s “Spidey’s Wild Ride” from Orphans: Bastards.
That song is a good segue into Waits’ ability to take a single idea and run with it for a song, without that idea getting stale by the end. When you dig into his song structures, he doesn’t really deviate from his tried-and-true method. He typically uses a pre-rock format of verses that lead into a short refrain rather than a proper verse-chorus layout, and the instrumental parts chug away without much change as the song goes on. Contrary to my love for metal with twists, turns, and varied sections, I love the simplicity of Waits’ song structures. “But wait!” you probably didn’t interject, since you stopped reading a long time ago, “how can he be creative and engaging if his songs don’t develop at all?” That’s a great question you didn’t care enough to ask, and here’s my answer: as I said before, every song of his has such a unique and different feel that I want to hear that particular thing for the duration of each tune. There is a fantastic amount of diversity from track to track, so when the same groove happens for 4 or 5 minutes, the listener can groove right along the whole time. Let’s take a look at how that concept applies in few tracks off one my favorite albums, Real Gone: “Top of the Hill” swaggers along in a ragged, obscure hip-hop-inspired groove; “Hoist That Rag” lurches like a wounded anthem, leaning heavily on the backside of the beat; “Shake It” launches out of the speakers and tangos dementedly around the room; and “Green Grass” rumbles softly and directly in your ear, so close that you can hear the room noise from Waits’ mic.
If you like gritty, raw metal, this is the Tom Waits album for you. I get the feeling that he hired a guy to stand in the recording booth and slap the engineer’s hand every time he tried to turn the gain down or get the signal out of the red. As soon as “Shake It” kicks in, any sound engineer within a five-mile radius probably has an unreachable itch in the back of his or her brain, but our lo-fi appreciation comes in mighty handy when listening to this album. Like a black metal musician recording on a crappy mic in the middle of the woods, Waits eschews a drumset for a pile of junk that he smashes around in a clangy concrete room. Or he barks out a rough approximation of a vocal percussion idea in his bathroom, and uses that on the actual album.
Like many metalheads, I find myself with a certain amount of contempt for popular music. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy certain pop artists or newer trends in music, but one of my favorite aspects of the metal I like is that it does what it does, and people will listen or they won’t. Dedicated metal musicians surely don’t choose the genre for the money; an artistic vision gets stuck in their heads and it must be realized. Similarly, I love that Tom Waits has never cared what’s going on in the rest of the musical world. “Oh, synth-pop is all the rage right now? How about I write a crazy carnival tune from hell?”
That was “Cemetery Polka” off his 1985 album Rain Dogs. Waits released 4 albums in the 80s, none of which sounded even remotely like the musical trends of the time. Additionally, the first two albums of that decade marked the biggest shift in Waits’ career to date. 1980’s Heartattack and Vine held the last vestiges of the jazz orchestra-type accompaniment of his first period, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones was a different animal altogether, where all bets were off and he even had to find a new label to keep up with his new fangled ideas. I believe that the idea of risk and artistic integrity resonates well with fans of underground metal, who love having their ears pushed and pulled in different directions while the music remains fundamentally metal. Now appreciate how well I transitioned into the song “Underground” off Swordfishtrombones.
Like I said earlier, Tom Waits is not a metal musician. For all the gritty and raucous similarities to metal that we can find in some of his music, he has a marvelous talent for crafting soulful, deeply emotional ballads and softer songs. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” from Small Change, “Widow’s Grove” from Orphans: Bawlers, “No One Knows I’m Gone” from Alice, and “Kiss Me” from Bad As Me are all vastly different songs that display his smoother side, as well as what he’s capable of across the board. For a real glimpse at his musical range, listen to the back-to-back tracks of “A Little Rain” and “In The Coliseum” from Bone Machine. Or “Fannin Street,” then “I’ll Be Gone,” then “King Kong.” I’ll stop myself, because let’s be honest, I’m talking to myself by this point.
So there you have it. Is Tom Waits metal? While we love to use that word as an adjective for everything from movies to beer to cats, the answer is no. However, I hope I at least got some points across that can be appreciated by metalheads: gritty, unusual sounds, unique ideas in structure, and a bucking of musical trends in the name of artistic vision. There’s no possible way to cover all of Tom Waits in a single article, but trust me when I say he’s a fascinating dude. He’s notorious for avoiding the truth in interviews, giving wildly different answers when asked the same question in different interviews. NPR has a great archive of lengthy and fascinating interviews with Waits. So the bottom line is this: dive in to Tom Waits, and be ready to Get Lost.
What do you guys think? Is he just a whacked-out old guy? Is he totally irrelevant to our tastes? Are there tracks I should have included? Does anyone care? Discuss below!