Play It Like A Midget’s Bar Mitzvah

… was Tom Waits’ instruction to guitarist Marc Ribot during the recording of one of the tracks here, you know what? I can hear it.  Welcome to the mad, bad, wonderful, colourful world of Rain Dogs.  Warning: I’m going to gush even more than I normally do here, so you may wish to ready any and all necessary protective clothing.

Since I discovered him via the gateway-drug that was Nighthawks At the Diner*, Tom Waits has arguably become my favourite artist, period. He’s just so diverse and innovative, pushing the boundaries like Captain Beefheart at one point, Jumping Jack Kerouac a little further down the line, singing sad drinking songs that would sit well with Merle Haggard at another, or even going hell-for-leather for an insane Kurt Weill/Brecht-meets-Primus-doing-opera track later on.  But what I like best is that voice and the fact that when Waits sings a song it really stays sung.  Everything I hear and learn about him just shouts ‘Integrity’ too and I find that really attractive, in fact he’s the person in my record collection that I’d like to have dinner with the most**.

In my own head, I look this cool
In my own head, I look this cool

Rain Dogs was a really pivotal album for him, cementing the left-turn he made with Swordfishtrombones and ramping up the marimba-factor hugely, yet just like that album Rain Dogs is still firmly drag-anchored in the blues, stopping it from spinning off into self-indulgence or strangeness for strangeness sake.  As always with Tom Waits part of that lies with the having a crack band of musos at his command, Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen, Ralph Carney (uncle to the Black Keys dude), Robert Quine, Larry Taylor (of Canned Heat fame), Chris Spedding and Keith Richards too.  That’s a serious busload of talent right there all great, individual players who put their own stamp on things as well as having the nous (and ability) to play it the way Tom wanted – there’s nothing worse than not quite getting the midget bar mitzvah feeling wrong.

Tom Waits Rain Dogs 04

I love every second of this album unreservedly and so rather than spraying you with my word-spittle as a I manically jump up and down on my keyboard gesticulating wildly in an attempt to carry you all along with my enthusiasm, let us pick just a few favourites.

Downtown Train: in a lot of ways probably the most conventional tune here, it sounds rather a lot like Springsteen in fact (who’d already covered Waits’ mighty. mighty ‘Jersey Girl’ by this point).  The video even featured Jake La Motta and a woman with one of those pointy bras – what more do you people need? I’m just a sucker for a good, bitter romantic song and this is a great one sung with real emotion, especially when he sings (about ‘all those Brooklyn girls’):

You wave your hand and they scatter like crows
They have nothing that will ever capture your heart
They’re just thorns without the rose
Be careful of them in the dark

Union Square: gets my nod over the similarly Keef fuelled ‘Big Black Mariah’, just because it’s faster! I always love it when Waits really lets rip.  Oh and because I like the sexual ambivalence in the lyrics.

Tom Waits Rain Dogs 02

Clap Hands: you want marimbas? course you do, well folks we got them here by the dozen! This song conjures up a fabulously steamy, sinister atmosphere with Tom sounding really sweaty and evil.  It sounds like the sort of thing Colonel Kurtz spent his spare time listening to in Apocalypse Now.  Some really good primitive guitar here from Waits himself.

Gun Street Girl: possibly my favourite here, it sounds like a particularly gnarly archive track from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music.  The percussion sounding, purposely, like a tin cup rattling on the bars of a jail cell as Waits plays a fabulous banjo and sings the cautionary tale of John who kissed a Gun Street girl and ‘now he’s danced in Birmingham jail’.  This track is just so full of fabulous imagery, Waits playing with US place names and little touches for all he’s worth:

Brought a second-hand Nova from a Cuban Chinese
Dyed his hair in the bathroom of Texaco
With a pawn shop radio, quarter past 4
Well, he left Waukegan at the slammin’ of the door

Tom Waits Rain Dogs 03

So there you go, so as to not kick the bottom out of it for you I’ve restricted myself to four tracks, but even now as I listen to ‘Blind Love’ his country track on the LP, I think that one should be one of my favourites too, maybe just in honour of Keith Richards’ backing vocals.  The hard jive of ‘Walking Spanish’ ditto.  The spoken word ‘9th and Hennepin’ with the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear and ‘all the donuts have names like prostitutes’.  Or maybe dump one of the others out for the free-associating, muted drunkard’s tale of ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ – you get the picture I’m sure.

There is a veritable smorgasbord of styles and favourites here, but as always with Tom Waits he himself provides the necessary unity amidst all the singles bar disparity on offer here and so what you end up with is something utterly idiosyncratic and grounded too, which is no mean feat.  Rain Dogs is as mixed and schizophrenic as the USA itself, as high-minded and low-rolling, as melodic and as dissonant too.  These contradictions are what really drive Rain Dogs and make an album of really great songs into a great album; that and the voice.

Tom Waits Rain Dogs 06

392 Down.

*Yes, Mr Connection, another live LP I like!

**conveniently ignoring my baser instincts which would push The Donnas, Alison Goldfrapp, Joan Jett, Isobel Campbell and both Deal sisters ahead of him.

P.S – for those of you still reading, this is where I was today in beautiful Snowdonia in my beautiful homeland of Wales.  It has sod all to do with records, but an awful lot to do with my good mood and aching feet (10 miles, almost none of it level!).  Bliss.

Beddgelert and Nantmor Valley
Click to view in its full, righteous glory

22 thoughts on “Play It Like A Midget’s Bar Mitzvah

  1. My favorite Tom Waits album alongside “Bone Machine”. It has 19 tracks and it’s perfect from beginning to end. That’s just absolutely ridiculous!

    1. Yeah possibly at #2 for me, although ‘Nighthawks’ can be up there too if I’m in the right mood. Nobody else ever sounded like this, which is an incredible thing to say.

      1. Nighthawks is not up there for me, although I do like it. It’s absolutely hilarious.

        And yeah, there is nobody quite like Waits. I usually say Dylan is my favorite songwriter, but I always wonder if that’s not Waits’ throne.

      2. There isn’t the same variety and breadth in Dylan’s sounds as in Waits’ catalogue, but he’s written the ones with the most impact. Tough equation, especially if you throw Nick Cave into the mix.

      3. And Neil Young, who’s also up there for me! It’s a hard choice to make.

        The problem with Dylan’s breadth is that there is quite a bit of it I do not like. What I do enjoy, though, I absolutely love.

  2. I bought this album when it came out. Somehow on the day of the purchase I left it at a friends house. He and another one of my good buddies listened to it before I did. Lets just say they had different musical tastes and did not give old Tom a very good review. ” That record is a piece of @#$**^^$#!”. It did not sway my love for Tom, just made it stronger. Did you know that he used to babysit for Roy Orbison. That’s what I heard him say.

    1. Yeah I read your piece on that – I tend to go for anything post-Nighthawks a bit more.

      Thanks for stopping by my gilded palace of sin though!

  3. Excellent post about a most excellent album. This was the first Tom Waits album I heard (a copy given to me by my 6th year English teacher, believe it or not!) and one I keep coming back to for various reasons. Outstanding piece of work.

    You’re spot on about the musicians he’s surrounded by, too. They’re a top bunch; each adding something to the punch.

    *goes away to listen to some Wednesday morning Rain Dogs*

    1. Brilliant and thank you, I wouldn’t have found this otherwise. I don’t wish to cast aspersions but I fear the man may have been drinking a little …

      I like your point about theatre, if its good theatre you never come away saying ‘well, it was very good, but its not real-life you know’. I choose to believe.

  4. Enjoyed the review and good job on limiting the manic spittle spraying. Guess this isn’t the time to mention that I remain ambivalent about Mr Waits even after all these years. Authentic or an old-style carny huckster? Does the distinction matter? Good theatre, after all, invites you into its world and colours it for the duration.
    OK, over to you for a passionate rebuttal.

    * The incremental growth of your tally of fave live albums is duly noted.

  5. “…gateway drug that is Nighthawks at the Diner”
    THAT caught my attention, perfectly describes my descent “on a pawn-shop marimba” into a full-bore Waits addiction (Bone Machine is playin’ right now). Great job on the review, very descriptive prose. And if you ever have dinner with him, I wanna be there too 😉

    1. Thank you, thank you! I’ve never known quite how to ride a pawn shop marimba but I love Bone Machine – probably my second fave LP ever (mood depending). Consider yourself invited.

  6. “It sounds like the sort of thing Colonel Kurtz spent his spare time listening to in Apocalypse Now.”

    That thought had never, ever, ever occurred to me. But…I get it. Good show, sir knight.

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