Tom Waits has turned 70, Getintothis’ Lee Grimsditch tips his hat to a unique troubadour.
It’s common, during the fuzziness of a Getintothis staff night out, that a point in the evening will arrive when a bombardment of hypothetical ‘what ifs?’ will ping their way across the wet tables at Jimmy’s.
Think the least sexy game of volleyball you’ve ever witnessed.
At one recent bout, a deceptively tricky curveball was served, posing the desert island classic: ‘If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what artist’s music – and you can only choose ONE – would you spend listening to for the rest of your living days?’
It’s a classic question and one likely to prompt answers from the perfectly sane to the questioning of a person’s entire character.
Like all good shit-faced ‘what ifs?’ there should be a considerable amount of thought – or at least what passes for thought – exercised before reaching an answer. These are often life’s most important questions.
It needs to be an artist with a considerable body of work, capable of indulging the broadest range of moods and emotions that can be experienced by any heart during its lifetime.
Is that too much to ask?
Now, having already rehearsed the scenario of an unexpected marooning many more times than should reasonably be expected of a man who lives in the Dingle, I already had my choice.
This writer’s safe harbour for a shipwrecked soul just happens to have just celebrated his 70th birthday The man who writes beautiful melodies that tell of terrible things, Tom Waits.
Few artists can claim to have written music so successfully and in as many styles and moods as he.
From the beat/jazz soaked early albums to typical eccentric yet brilliant wanderings through folk, rock, pop, industrial, even vaudeville.
There are Tom Waits albums that sound like a kind of neanderthal blues – played on mammoth bones and sang in a voice once described by the critic Daniel Durchholz as being ‘soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.’
So to recommend an album, any album, for those keen to experience that one distilled moment of purest Waits feels like an impossible task.
Except maybe it isn’t.
On November 17 2006, Tom Waits released a 56 song album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. It’s an album divided into three distinct sections as the title suggests.
The Brawlers are the grittier, blues and rock-based offerings; Bawlers a collection of slower tempo ballads, and the Bastards are experiments too wayward and weird to find homes of their own.
Orphans is a collection of 26 rare and 30 original songs that never found a place on his previous albums, but are, as Tom Waits said: ‘Songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner. Stuff that didn’t fit on a record…oddball things, orphaned tunes.’
The fact that oddball tunes as provoking as Road to Peace or as nourishing as You Can Never Hold Back Spring can slip behind any musician’s oven suggests an artist who casually creates incredible music for fun.
There are more complete Tom Waits albums with widely admired treasures such as Shiver Me Timbers on The Heart of Saturday Night, 1974, Tom Traubert’s Blues on Small Change, 1976 (released as a single for Rod Stewart more commonly known as Waltzing Matilda in 1992), ‘and Downtown Train from Rain Dogs, 1985 (another song popularised and covered by Rod Stewart in this 1990 hit).
But such gems make up just a small part of the tapestry of this unique artist and It would be neglectful not to mention a few of the other qualities the man has up his ragged sleeve.
Search Tom Waits interviews on YouTube and you will find no better example of a storyteller and raconteur. Rumour has it that a 1979 TV interview with a typically shambolic and witty Tom Waits was the inspiration Heath Ledger used to create his iconic performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).
There’s also his 40-year acting career. Currently, you can catch Tom turning in a great performance as a 19th-century prospector on Netflix right now in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
So what then can we call a man with so many strings to a bow that he plays so beautifully?
Polymath would be true but sounds too academic; a genius, maybe, but Renaissance Man would be closer in spirit to his poetry and wisdom.
I think, perhaps, a better fit would be to say that he’s a rare bird.
Happy Birthday, Mister Waits.