AKA Abraham Bacoln

Spanning a chronological distance longer than that of my life
October 7, 2008, 7:29 pm
Filed under: tidbit

If you’re not a Tom Waits fan, you can stop reading as this will probably bore you to death. In fact, you all can probably stop reading as I’m mainly writing this for myself but hey, if you keep going you can’t say I didn’t warn you. I will also warn you that I do not have an impressive vocabulary regarding music, I don’t study it, so if all of this seems like a shallow dive into a very deep pool, well, I told you not to read it.

If you are a Waits fan I highly suggest you try this for yourself.

In 2006 I was driving from Portland, OR to Cookeville, TN, a 2400-mile trip that took me four days. I decided at some point that listening to my entire Tom Waits discography in chronological order would be a grand idea. Turns out it was a profoundly stupid idea because I was seriously not in the right mental state to absorb that much Waits. I got all the way to Frank’s Wild Years (1987) before I had to stop and listen to something lighthearted to cure my funk lest I stop in some podunk town and buy a shotgun and trade my Camry for a rusty Ford and run off into the woods.

I’ve been wondering for a day or two now what prompted me to revisit this experiment just recently and I honestly haven’t the slightest idea. All I know is that I was listening to Filipino Box Spring Hog off of Mule Variations (1999) and it struck me that doing the Chronological Tom Waits right then was a great idea.

To give you an idea the scope of this thing, I apparently have 349 songs that span the distance from 1971 to 2006 – a total of 21.3 hours of music. That’s … that’s a long stretch of Waits.

To further complicate things, I don’t actually listen to music very often while sitting at my computer. I typically compute in silence, especially when I’m working on a paper or something like it. Not to mention that I always have to mute my music any time I’m watching a video, and I don’t always remember to turn it back on when the video is done, since I’m accustomed to computing in silence. Also I pause the music every time I leave the room, because I intend to hear every bit of all these songs. Once again, sometimes I don’t remember to turn it back on.

All that is just to explain why I am just now finishing up my journey. Right now Orphans (disc 2) is wrapping up, leaving the 20-something songs on disc 3. That means it took me from September 30th to October 7th to complete this (to me) Herculean task.

Oh, let me state that I am glad as hell for my iPod and the CD player in my car. Without an occasional break from Waits while on campus or driving around I think I might very well have gone mad, comatose, developed major depressive disorder, all three, or something worse. Seriously, I love the hell out of Waits’ music (obviously) but man, the overwhelmingly melancholiac nature of his songs just gets to me in a fundamental way.

And I wasn’t even upset or down when I started this – it wasn’t the result of a pity party or anything. Quite the opposite, I mean, Filipino Box Spring Hog is one of his stompiest shoutiest songs, makes me feel like going outside with a lead pipe and a blowtorch. I guess maybe it was a test to see if I could get through it.

Okay, so what did I learn?

I learned that I absolutely love everything from the beginning of his career (The Early Years / Closing Time (1971/1973)) straight through Heartattack and Vine (1980). When I first started listening to Waits, thanks to Trey, I started out with the hard stuff, the Island Years, when he was just damn weird. After cutting my teeth on this kind of controlled insanity I had absolutely no interest in his bar ballad phase. Even as recently as 2003 or so I still wasn’t very familiar with his earlier stuff. I remember a time at a party that I heard something off of Closing Time and I thought, “Jesus, whoever this is sure is doing a poor Waits impersonation.”

I know, I know. It’s hard to admit to that kind of ignorance.

But anyway, yes, I absolutely love those albums now. In fact, I’d probably turn to one of them before any of his later stuff, with a few exceptions.

I also learned that Kathleen Brennan (his wife and co-writer on many many songs) really did help him transform himself completely. After listening to 1971 to 1980, the intense and disconcerting rush of 1983’s Swordfishtrombones is, to put it mildly, quite shocking. No wonder everyone got all freaked out upon its release. Since this is the album with which I started I never really understood what the big deal was until now.

I learned that Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank’s Wild Years (1987) work so so so much better as a trilogy. I honestly somehow had never bothered to listen to them all in a row and in one night.

Aside from a few scattered songs there really isn’t that much that captivates me from 1988 to 1999 (encompassing Big Time through Mule Variations). I mean it’s all good, yeah, but none of the albums just really grab me and shake me like the others did.

I think that if someone said, “Pick two of his albums and that’s all you can have from now until forever” I’d probably reflexively reach for Alice and Blood Money (both 2002). They seem to me so opposed and yet intertwined. There’s something about the common themes of madness and love that totally hook me.

Real Gone (2004) and I never really got along.

And finally, I am now finally suffering my way through the three discs of Orphans (2006). Yeah, I said it. I don’t really like … well, no, there are a few songs that I absolutely love. However, somehow – and this is hard to say – the rest of the songs just feel like filler. I’m quite sure that all three could be compressed into one killer album. Problem is that this perfect album would have different songs for every person, I guess. It just seems over-reaching, perhaps. I know that’s the point, it’s a gigantic mash of various styles and stories. It’s a stew of everything. I guess I just like something more cohesive; all three together just seems like a serving of leftovers. I’ve hardly listened to disc 3 at all – it’s my least favorite by far. I can stand one spoken word piece or recitation or incantation per album, tops.

Finally, the songs I really really wished I could have skipped:
– Potter’s Field, Foreign Affairs (1977)
– Somewhere (From West Side Story), Blue Valentine (1978)
– Sins of my Father, Real Gone (2004)
– Road to Peace, Orphans disc 1 (2006)
– Little Man, Orphans disc 2
– King Kong, Orphans disc 3

The songs that made me mad I was dedicated to the concept of going straight through, because I always want to listen to them more than once:
– Grapefruit Moon, Closing Time (1973)
– I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work, Small Change (1976)
– Cinny’s Waltz, Foreign Affairs (1977)
– Jockey Full of Bourbon, Rain Dogs (1985)
– Yesterday is Here, Frank’s Wild Years (1987)
– Cold Cold Ground, Frank’s Wild Years
– The Earth Died Screaming, Bone Machine, (1992)
– Goin’ Out West, Bone Machine
– Walk Away, Dead Man Walking soundtrack (1995)
– Filipino Box Spring Hog, Mule Variations (1999)
– No One Knows I’m Gone, Alice (2002)
– Everything Goes to Hell, Blood Money (2002)
– Hoist That Rag, Real Gone (2004)
– Lucinda, Orphans disc 1 (2006)
– Tell it to Me, Orphans disc 2 (2006)

Children’s Story from Orphans disc 3 is almost word-for-word from a bit of dialogue from the 1979 film Woyzeck by Werner Herzog. It may very well be in the original (unfinished) play – I have never seen the play itself. Waits’ album Blood Money is his soundtrack to Robert Wilson’s 2002 adaptation of the play. If you like Blood Money I highly suggest you watch the 1979 movie.

That’s it. Orphans is almost done. I can see my driveway from here.

4 Comments so far
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Seriously, I love the hell out of Waits’ music (obviously) but man, the overwhelmingly melancholiac nature of his songs just gets to me in a fundamental way.

How do you think it makes him feel?

Comment by Marlboro

this sounds like an awesomely bad idea and i want to follow suit!

(i might decide to start with a chronologic dylan weekend though)

Comment by liz

I started listeninig to Waits due to refrence from youse guys on the Posse, which I am always going to be eternally thankful for. I do find it strange that I started out almost 180 degrees opposite from you when i started listening to him. I started out with all the bar ballads and jazzy tunes from the 70’s and early eighties, which tied me into reading Bukowski.

I found This which is going right into my Christmas mix of tunes this year.

I haven’t seen you in a while, if you are in Cookeville anytime soon, gimmie a ring, and we can nab a drink sometimes.

Comment by Trash

Woyzeck is a pretty cool, and definitely odd performance. I saw at Brooklyn Academy of Music several year ago – and when I was just there recently for a work event in NY, it’s being restaged but with music from Nick Cave.

Comment by Ryan

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