Tom Waits Sings “I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)”

220px-Tom_Waits_-_Small_change_(1976)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. Read more

Tom Waits Sings “Alice”

220px-tom_waits-aliceListen to this track by gravel-throated singer-songwriter and consummate storytelling force of nature Tom Waits. It’s “Alice”, as taken from the self-same 2002 album of the same name, Alice. The track is a wintry tale of love and obsession, and ultimately of destruction too, all set to the kind of late-night jazz sound for which Waits had become known many years before in the 1970s, and to which this track is arguably something of a return.

The record is the result of a theatrical production that Waits, and his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, had worked on with playwright Robert Wilson. It was a stage production based on the supposed relationship between Alice Liddel and Lewis Carroll, who would eventually write Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, with Liddel as his muse.

But, how does what Lewis Carroll’s muse inspired translate into Tom Waits’ song, and the album on which it’s the opening track?

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Tom Waits Performs ‘Day After Tomorrow’

tom-waits-real-goneHere’s a clip of Brechtian barfly and junkyard poet Tom Waits with his 2004 track “Day After Tomorrow” from his  most recent disc, Real Gone.  Once again, Waits shows his ability to put across an affecting, humanized portrait of a figure which is often dehumanized by context – the soldier away at war.

In 2004, commentary about the realities of war remained to be an important message, with many soldiers and their families wondering how long the war in Iraq, and the conflicts in Afghanistan would continue.   Of course this still remains true four years later. Yet, this song isn’t about those specific conflicts so much as it is about one of the many casualties of war – separation from those who love us and are loved by us.  As far as songs about war goes, this one packs a punch, and could really be about any war, past, present, or future.

Tom Waits’ delivery suits the material here, with the sound of a man who is buoyed up only by the last shreds of hope that the war will not consume him before he is able to return to his loved ones.  There is a sense too that innocence has been lost, that “they fill us full of lies/Everyone buys/of what it means to be a soldier”. The impossible task of trying to reconcile the images of heroism and glory to the grubby, mundane, and terrifying realities of war that is left to each soldier, giving way to disillusionment and spiritual emptiness.

And further to that, the song evokes the ultimately confounding idea of an enemy who ‘prays to the same god we do’ and also the idea that if there is a god, how is it that only the prayers on one side are valued?  So many questions which arise against the idea of a just war, even a holy war, so as to make the entire exercise one of absurdity rather than nobility.

Ultimately as the song points out, the only real fight that means anything is the fight a soldier puts up for life, for the chance of going home to loved ones.  This of course is the prayer for every soldier, regardless of their culture, political position, or religious faith.  They all want to go home.

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