I believe I’ve mentioned here before that I haven’t always been a fan of Tom Waits’ music. Or, more accurately, his voice. Well, it was this particular CD that my wife lent to me, back when we were dating, upon which I based these first impressions.
Of course, such nonsense just goes to show how out of the loop I was, not really trying out Waits’ growl until this release. Hell, he’d already been playing and recording for a couple of decades by then. But I was the jazz and swing kid, and his name just never came up. My wife, of course, is a huge fan of All Things Waits, and we have every album in our house.
I hereby officially retract my initials impressions, which were that basically he sounded like a bullfrog in a tin can, howling into the pit at the gates of hell. Looking back it’s understandable, but with time I’ve learned that that is a harsh indictment. True, his voice is gravelly and rough, but I’ve realized that this is the way things were meant to be for his songs. Just listen to Rod Stewart’s soul-sucking destruction of Downtown Train for proof. Only Waits’ voice can bring these tunes the edge they need.
The cantankerous clatter of the music is worthy of mention here, too. To me, his songs sound like Archie’s jalopy, rattling down some dusty road with bolts flying everywhere, on the verge of complete collapse at any second but never quite giving up. The syncopated notes bash up against each other to create the sounds of madness. But let’s not forget that they are sounds forged in the American tradition, steeped in the lore of delta crossroads and deals with the devil at midnight. With this in mind, it all works. It just fits.
No one else could make these songs happen as they should. Many have tried, but short of the Ramones’ straight-on cover of I Don’t Wanna Grow Up there aren’t many that are credible. Holly Cole gave it a try and they came out sounding like well-written lulllabies, and even John Hammond’s kick at the can came out sounding like… John Hammond.
Face it folks, if you want it done right you have to go to the man himself, and this collection of songs from his years on Island Records will lick you up and down like a hellhound’s tongue and, if you’re a lucky convert like me, stand as proof that the man knows what he’s doing and he’s worth every second of your time.