Listen to this track by gravelly-voiced troubadour and downtown Saturday night mythologist Tom Waits. It’s “I Wish I Was In New Orleans”, a sumptuous tune as taken from his 1976 album, Small Change. The album was recorded quickly in the last two weeks of July of that year.
This record represents a high point in Waits’ initial foray into a unique and signature take on the emerging singer-songwriter “genre”of the early-to-mid-seventies, in Waits’ case complete with heavy jazz flourishes and hard-boiled lyrical imagery to go along with his distinctive and texturally complex singing voice. Additionally, some high profile West Coast Jazz musicians back him up on this one, including renowned drummer Shelly Manne who’s intricate brushwork is a highlight through out, coupled with warm acoustic bass, and a lot (a lot!) of tenor saxophone that provides an effective musical foil to Waits’ voice.
“I Wish I Was In New Orleans” includes this jazz dynamic, but centers on Waits’ piano and voice, contrasted with a string arrangement that seems to weep with melancholy. On this one, you can almost see Waits leaning in close to the microphone while hunched at the piano, eyes closed and brow furrowed. This has always been one of his strengths; vivid and wholly embodied performances, even on a studio recording. It’s not just the arrangements, the playing, and the production we get, either. It’s another element that is common to many successful singer-songwriters and bands of that era — the evocation of a mythological world within the music. In this case, it’s a world that is in the process passing, or has passed entirely.
There are a number of examples of this kind of thing in the work of others during this era. The Band evoked post-Civil war sepia-toned narratives. Springsteen did the same with working class boys and girls trying to escape their nowheresville small towns to find the promised land on the road somewhere. Bob Dylan — well, what didn’t Dylan evoke in terms of a distinctly American set of archetypes and legends to form biblical and absurdist worlds in his material? All the while, Tom Waits is unique among all of them. During this phase of his career, the world he conjures is decidedly noirish, urban, and also distinctly American, dealing in clinking bottles, city streets at night glistening with rain, low-lit dive bars, all-night diners, and hookers and hobos with hearts of gold. In addition to that, he was wise enough to attach it all that to other American mythologies in order to create even more vivid landscapes that are peppered with cultural signposts for listeners to follow.
New Orleans itself is a place of American myth even without this song to add to its mystique. It’s landscape has been immortalized as the birthplace of jazz, and of Louis Armstrong who is practically the patron saint of Waits’ output from his debut in 1973 until the end of the seventies. It is the center of the myth that from toil, poverty, and suffering, great things can emerge. By this period in history in which Waits’ recorded, the legacy of the city and its influence on American culture was fading, along with the values and the vernacular of that mid-century post-war era. This builds in an instant sense of nostalgia into everything Waits committed to vinyl at the time, as technology had begun to ramp up toward space programs, the digital age, and computer technology that would soon find its way into our very homes. The black and white aesthetics of the previous era began to lose their cultural grip. The world that was, was passing on by the mid-to-late seventies when it was getting harder to believe in America as the beacon of prosperity in quite the same way as was possible before, with Vietnam and Watergate behind it.
This song is a lament of sorts that can be applied to that shift, giving voice to a longing for a time when things were simple, and when friends and fun were easily counted on, and when the world itself seemed to reserve one’s place within it. But, this is more than just nostalgia at work here. The strength of this song is all about who the narrator is, and what his circumstances are that makes him long for days gone by in an age that has passed, and how well Tom Waits embodies him in the performance. Is he on his death bed? Is he in jail? Is he just simply alone and abandoned in old age, the last one of his group of friends left standing in an increasingly confounding world that is moving further away from the one he knew?
To me, that’s the engine of this tune, with the knowledge that all of us, at times, longs for a world that only now exists in our memories, which in turn aren’t completely reliable as we selectively judge them through an idealized lens. These worlds can never be revisited, nor can they be understood by others who did not also directly experience them. This is even more the case in the twenty-first century, when the speed of change is increasing, with worlds growing old and passing away at an even faster pace than ever before.
When we talk about the end of the world, we often don’t think of it in these terms. And yet this is the most common form that the end of a world takes; that the ones we remember most fondly often pass away from reality and into our personal myths without us noticing it’s happened. Eventually, we can only visit our most cherished worlds in our dreams, or indeed in song. Maybe this is why our memories of the various worlds we’ve inhabited at various stages of our lives are so important, and how keeping them close to our hearts as we enter into new worlds can lend us so much perspective on our own identities; we are who we are because of the people we’ve been, shaped by the world’s we’ve lived in.
Tom Waits is an active musician, writer, and actor today. Be sure to visit tomwaits.com to keep up with his latest movements.