My first memory of Tom Waits came from the back our family friend Colin’s car. He briefly dated my mom when we moved to Des Moines, but he remained close with us in the years after. Colin moved here from his homeland of Northern Ireland, to teach chemistry (which he still does to this day at Drake University). He was an early influence on me, in the sense that he was clearly aware of obscure cool stuff of which I had zero awareness. I might have been about 9 when I remember climbing into Colin’s backseat and pushing aside a stack of cassette tapes. The only one I remember was Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs. The cover showed a strange figure laughing while holding an oddly peaceful, shirtless man. I had no idea what to make of it, but I knew it must hold some fascinating secrets.
This story would be even better if the record I’m writing about here was Rain Dogs, but it isn’t. I also would have had a nice clean narrative if I was writing about Mule Variations, the first Tom Waits record I heard, but I’m not. Instead, I need to move a bit past those records and get to Bone Machine, Waits’s 1992 release that found its way to me via Colin. In my senior year of high school, I was close to failing the one math class I needed to pass in order to graduate. Since a chemistry professor needs to have at least a passing familiarity with math, this made Colin the most qualified non-professional in my life who could tutor me and get me through the class. I went there once a week, and as Colin kindly helped me understand algebra (or whatever the hell it was), he would also give me CD’s. Knowing that I had gotten into Tom Waits, Colin insisted I needed to hear Bone Machine right away.
And Colin was right, because it would end up becoming my very favorite Waits record from my very favorite solo singer-songwriter. Understanding Waits’s genius was a process that needed to unfold over several records, but pretty early into my relationship with his music, I knew this was the guy for me. His ability to touch almost all genres of American music was astounding. That voice of his, which both invites and almost defies description, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. When people mock Waits for his singing style, they usually direct their ire at his roaring, throaty bellow — a voice that comes shooting out of a bottomless pit. And yes, Waits does that style quite a bit, but he has so much more to offer. I really don’t think there has ever been a singer with the range and dynamics of Tom Waits. He can bellow, but he can also croon, and he can sound like a singing duck. He does it all, and in particular, he does everything possible on Bone Machine.
The insanity of Waits’s voice makes itself immediately known on the opener “Earth Died Screaming.” Over horrifying percussion that literally sounds like bones being clanked against each other, Waits croaks out a doomsday scenario until the chorus comes crashing in, featuring what might be Waits’s most vocally powerful moment ever. He pushes out an overwhelming howl that somehow didn’t knock down the walls of his recording studio. Add to that some booming bass (which I just found out is played by Les Claypool of Primus), and the song’s title begins to feel like inevitable prophecy.
Looking for the less bombastic, more quietly sinister side of Tom Waits? You’ll find that on “Black Wings,” in which Waits never rises above a low hiss and the band follows suit. It hums along with confidence and menace, as Waits tells of a shadowy figure with possibly supernatural powers. “He once killed a man with a guitar string. He’s been seen at the table with kings. He once saved a baby from drowning. There are those who say beneath his coat, there are wings.” What are we to make of a character such as this? Waits raises questions and creates images that don’t settle easily. In his finest moments as a lyricist, Waits can rattle your faith in humanity, and in the next moment he can remind you of the greatest joys in life.
Looking for a mature, almost adult-contemporary ballad, albeit with a voice like sandpaper? You can find that too with Waits, who has written songs later covered by much more palatable artists: “Downtown Train” was a hit for Rod Stewart, “Ol’ ‘55” was a hit for The Eagles, and “Jersey Girl” was made famous by Bruce Springsteen. If “Who Are You” had been covered by a similar artist, I’m sure it would have been a hit too, though it might not have enough of a repetitive chorus. But still, it’s a gorgeous song about two people who have thrown so many emotional grenades in their relationship that they are barely even able to recognize each other’s humanity. Most of us have been there at least once in our lives, hopefully not currently.
I know for a fact that everyone in the world can identify with “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” As he laments the pressures of learning to count and getting to go out drinking with your friends, seemingly appealing activities, he hits on the fundamental reason why we dread adulthood: having everything on your shoulders and no one else’s. As my 7th grade students would say, “Ugghhhh, that’s doin’ too much.” And sometimes, it is. Just the thought of having your hair fall out as you try to get the most money possible, as Waits sings, is enough to make you pull the sheets over your face and wish it all away.
It’s no coincidence that on their final album, Adios Amigos, The Ramones covered “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” It fits them so well that you’d easily believe they wrote it, not Waits. I don’t believe it’s an accident of the universe that my favorite band and my favorite solo artist covered each other (Waits would go on to cover “Danny Says” and “The Return of Jackie & Judy”). There is a shared kinship, a shared sensibility between Waits and The Ramones. Though the Ramones didn’t evolve musically like Waits has over his 44-year career, they both went about their business with the utmost of freedom and conviction in their abilities. And neither could possibly be tamed. Especially Waits and his voice, that thing is eternal.