I’m an obsessive type, I know, Shock! Horror! You never saw that one coming. I’ve spent large chunkaroonies of my adult musical life obsessed with Tom Waits, so many of his albums are just so chewy. At the moment I’m obsessed with Tom Waits’ sixteenth studio LP Bad As Me from 2011. I bought it about a year after it came out as at the time I was a bit jaded by him I wasn’t knocked out by Alice or Blood Money, I really liked Mule Variations but whilst I could tell that Real Gone was an incredibly good album, I found it a difficult listen and still do actually. What I was really hoping for from Bad As Me was a summation of all of those albums as well as a spoonful of sugar to make the music go down.
I got it.
I really got it. Bad As Me is such a cracking album, seven long years on from Real Gone, almost everything I worship about Waits is right here – junkyard percussion, ballads that make you weep from every pore, true creative cacophony, a voice flavoured by generations of living, frantic rocking rhythms, sozzled unexpected corners and an aching sense of the true scale of America. This is all served up with the odd curveball like the Latino rockabilly stylings of ‘Get Lost’ and gnarly crooning on ‘Last Leaf’. If you like Tom all the reasons why are beautifully buffed and displayed for you in this cabinet, if not then your time is better spent elsewhere, I can’t see Bad As Me converting any floating voters out there.
The main point of my obsession today is the burning, tumultuous anti-war stomp-fodder, Beefheart-in-a-bad-mood of ‘Hell Broke Luce’, which is the only Waits song I can think of off-hand with swearing on*. It’s a wonderful clapping, barking, percussive angry track. Featuring the considerable talents of Flea on bass and Keith Richards and Marc Ribot on guitars – some heavy churning guitars actually, this is a real smacker, the surrealist angry cousin to Real Gone‘s sad, scared, sacred, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. This is anti-war in the sense of being anti all wars because of the cost to the individual, universally political rather than being tied to the particular rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq/Afghanistan which it references.
Listen to the general every goddamn word
How many ways can you polish up a turd
How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess
Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk
This was true 100 years ago, possibly 200 years ago and will be true 100 years from now too. I’m always a sucker for a protest song and this really does tweak my dingly-dongles, Tom Waits very rarely does angry and I’m wishing he did do so a little more now**. here’s the video I found for the first time ever today.
Waits plays guitar, percussion, piano, tablas and banjo at various times on the album – I’m guessing not simultaneously, although I would pay lots to see that. Best of all though is his voice, this is what you buy a Tom Waits album for. It’s a damnably versatile instrument these days too, howling, growling, falsetto, crooning, tentative, pleading all the way to the run out groove. There aren’t many out there who can cover this range. Needless to say he has assembled a crack team of players along with guesting greats like Les Claypool (Primus), Flea (RHCP), David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Charlie Musselwhite and Keith Richards; Casey Waits sounds like he earned his place on the team this time around with some great drumming and the ever wonderful Marc Ribot is omnipresent -1.
I’ve lived Bad As Me over the last few days and I don’t accept there’s a weak second on it. For what it’s worth my other favourite tracks are the frantic, febrile-sounding ‘Chicago’ with its note of forced optimism, the zoot-suited speed freak Latino Elvis-isms of ‘Get Lost’ and the stately Godfather II sounding ‘New Year’s Eve’, which pilfers ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to, in me at least, teary effect.
It felt like four in the morning
What sounded like fire works
Turned out to be just what it was
The stars looked like diamonds
Then came the sirens
And everyone started to cuss
It’s that old Waits thang, you can sit on the curb, three sheets to the wind, with holes in your trousers and pinholes in your shirt and weep great hacking tears for the life you’ve fucked up, or just marvel at the rainbow of oil in the puddle of dubious origin in front of you. He can capture that like no-one else can, except maybe Raymond carver at his best^.
The only other one I’ll single out here is ‘Talking At The Same Time’^^, a tale of economic woes as relevant now as in the 20’s which is a beautifully smooth confection, garnished with some delightful piano tickling and sub-Blue Hawaii guitars.
Ain’t no one coming to pull you from the mud
You gotta build your nest high enough to ride out the flood
I know you’re leaving and there’s no more next time
Everybody’s talking at the same time
A tiny boy sat and he played in the sand
He made a sword from a stick
And a gun from his hand
Well we bailed out all the millionaires
They’ve got the fruit
We’ve got the rind
One other thing before I take my leave of you, this is a beautifully presented LP. Vinyl thick enough to repel a bullet and a wonderful full-sized booklet with some great photography by Waits himself (mostly walls and fences) and Jesse Dylan. I hate it when artists just give you the CD booklet in an LP, if I’d wanted to screw my eyesight up that badly I’d have just bought the CD! There’s a CD copy of the album with it too, which is another nice touch. I love it when I feel like I’m being looked after and valued as an LP-buying customer, rather than as just another sheep to shear.
Best of all waits is clearly not going anywhere soon; witness his duet with Keith Richards on ‘Last Leaf’;
I’m the last leaf on the tree
The autumn took the rest but they won’t take me
I’m the last leaf on the tree
I fight off the snow
I fight off the hail
Nothing makes me go
I’m like some vestigial tail
I’ll be here through eternity
If you want to know how long
If they cut down this tree
I’ll show up in a song
*I’m missing Frank’s Wild Years, Alice and Blood Money – every single song on each of those may be littered with obscenity and MF depravity for all I know; I’m guessing not.
**Just like the Mothers’ ‘Trouble Every Day’, which makes me so sad every time I hear it that they never did anything else in the same vein.
^Waits’ appearance being the reason I first watched the film Short Cuts, based on Carver’s stories and two of his poems – a film I was and am obsessed with to an unhealthy extent.
^^damned appropriate when discussing any of Robert Altman’s films.