Sunday, December 9, 2018

A HOT TAKE ON TOM WAITS

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Left to right, Tom Waits, Ted Burke, Barry Alfonso.
Waits is one of the finest lyricists; colloquial without being bucolic, reflective without self-pity, poetic without forcing a rhyme or an image. He succeeds where many others who strike the pose of "storyteller"--Harry Chapin, Billy Joel--flounder. Where others lard up their narratives with qualifiers and hackneyed and worn out romantic tropes that dilute the power and make their tales little else than an over sudsy soap operas, Waits had the instincts of a good short story writer, a John Cheever, a Flannery O'Connor, a Nelson Algren. A character, a journey, a timeline, telling and terse details, just the right number of qualifiers, a wisdom to not fill in all the spaces nor to betray his mood and artistry with a convenient "moral". At his best, he conveys an emotion, emotions of all sorts--rage, joy, sorrow, regret, celebration, lust--and allows the listener to experience them fully with a minimum of manipulation. What has occurred during his many mini-sagas, for both the protagonist and listener, remains a mystery; the meaning and the lesson to be learned is deferred except, perhaps, to resonate in the interstices of one's own memories that the story isn't over yet. Joyous or at randomized saturations of despair, melancholy or anger, one goes to work, to the next town, to cemetery to respects, going on with what we're doing because that's what we do, but sensing, somehow, with all the pain, disappointments and mundane travails that one is richer, wiser, or wizened, for all the acute sensations a memorable time awards us, That makes him an artist. A fine fellow.

Barry Alfonso and I interviewed Tom Waits in the lobby of the Little American Westgate back in the 70s; he was wearing a ratty bathrobe, slippers that curled up, Aladdin-like, where the toes would usually be, his hair was a mangy hedge, and he smoked an entire pack of Winston's while we chatted in the hotel's opulent lobby. He tore the filter off each cigarette and smoked them, one after the other. He was a nice man. I suspect he still is. 


Some years before then, 1970 I believe, my high school girlfriend Laura and I went along with our friend Molly who wanted to sing that night at the open mic night The Heritage folk club offered during its tenure in Mission Beach. It was a two dollar admission for the no age limit club, and I as scraped together the greasy dollar bills that constituted the saved up tip money from my dishwashing job at the La Jolla Shores Colony Kitchen, I looked up at the employee taking the money and issuing the hand stamps for re-admission; he wore a suit with skinny lapels that was too small for him--his pant legs stopped at the ankles and he wore black socks . He had short hair, wore a small hat with a brim that curled up like a cheap rain gutter. He had one of those soul-kiss beards right smack in the center above his chin. Molly signed the performers sign up list and in time we were sitting there drinking coffee that was barely a passable version of chalk shavings in a glass of old milk, sitting through one banjo and harmonica toting, goatee wearing straw-man and Madonna after another, all of whom seemed to nasally intone paeans to cultures they knew only from Classics Illustrated and the backs of bubble gum cards in various degrees of flesh-eating drone . "Mother of God, " said the Doorman.  Molly eventually got up and sang her song, a nice, pleasant cover of Melanie's song "Psychotherapy". All I wanted to do was to go over to Laura's house and ask her what she wanted to do, ball or send me on my way. Years later, but not before our arrival at the Little American Westgate, I walked into Golden Hall in downtown San Diego expecting to see The Mothers of Invention perform their usual brilliant said of complex, tick tock comedy, the kind busy, bullshit art-rock and turgid comedy I found appealing at the time. What I heard instead was Frank Zappa introducing Tom Waits; what the goddamned fucking whorehouse nut grabbing was this nonsense was this? I hated him at once, intensely, with an irrational intensity suitable for a shooting range or the pronouncement of a death sentence. This is not what I paid to see, I thought, although I understood the tickets were free because I was there in the capacity of a reviewer who was assigned to write a critique of the show.


 The review I wrote was kind to no one who performed, although I cannot remember if it was published or not. Likely that the editor had wearied of my airs and my aromas. In the meantime, I reviewed records for a partial living and managed to listen very, very close to several Waits releases and came to the reasonably argued conclusion that Waits was one of the three or four best pop-rock lyricists of all time. Waits was my second choice at the time, my first pick being Elvis Costello, whose impenetrable surrealism I equated with genius. I still regard EC has a high talent, but there is the advantage in having three decades between you and your first encounter; too many of the songs just made no sense what so ever, and they lacked even the surface quality one wants if coherence is not to be had; to this day I really have no idea what John Ashbery is talking about, but there are a number of things he brings to the blend, such as wit, erudition, a tangible philosophical struggle with the notion of life as he lives it and the language he is forced to contain his experience of it. 
This process is fascinating even when clarity takes a holiday while you read him. The third lyricist was always changing--sometimes it was John Lennon, sometimes Bob Seger, other times Robert Palmer James (from King Crimson). The last time I compiled a list of three best lyricists, I settled for Keith Reid of Procul Harum for third place. I suspect he's gone too. Of them all, Waits is the only one I still care about.  I no longer have copies of those reviews , which pisses me off  if only because the pieces, exercises in my efforts to teach myself to write with style (and style being the means to insight and wit), contained ideas worth salvaging and expanding upon now that my age has caught  up, just a bit, with my youthful ambitions. In any event, this change of heart brought me and, at that time, my new friend Barry Alfonso to the lobby of the Little American Westgate to interview an artist who was doing what no one else could get away with. Barry Alfonso was a nice man at that time, I know he is still is. And his wife  Janet is very nice as well. 

1 comment:

  1. Tom was a character then and is now as I hear. I was working near the Heritage at the Fine Arts movie theatre when he used to be married to the sister of the manager there. He would approach the box office where I sat reading and growl "Is Dave here?" without making me look up from my page--who would not recognize that voice?--and I'd say "Go on upstairs, Tom." Didn't know I should've asked for his autograph back then.

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