Tom Waits is an imaginary hobo. He cruises the oddball corners of American pop culture, collecting the deft and moving and loopy short takes he sees and imagines there. Back in 1973 Closing Time first caught Waits’s grizzled voice on disc, growling about unguarded moments in real lives. Unlike that era’s Me Generation singer-songwriter crop, Waits made you feel other people, because he did. He was ironic or direct, caustic or unabashedly torn open by loss and hope and love and fear–the pivotal emotions that daily face folks who don’t live inside recording and movie and TV studios, ivory towers, newspaper and magazine offices, the Beltway or their own swollen heads.
When Tom Waits’s death-and-sound-obsessed 1992 disc Bone Machine won him his first Grammy, Rolling Stone, by way of yuppified praise, summarized his output to date this way: “For more than twenty years, Tom Waits has chronicled the grotesque losers of the seedy underworld.” More revealing and to the point, Bruce Springsteen covered Waits’s “Jersey Girl”–one master chronicler’s homage to another.
Waits’s long career falls into two congruent pieces. For his first ten years and eight recordings, the SoCal boho (remember Rickie Lee Jones?) collected noirish pictures for his outsider’s album of Americana. Meanwhile, he started acting in 1978, with a small part in Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley. He’s notched four Coppola flicks, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, plus a half-dozen others since, but his most telling performance was in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986). That offbeat prison-break movie teamed him with a downtown-music leader named John Lurie and a then-little-known Italian comic named Roberto Benigni.
What led Waits to outsider auteurs like Jarmusch and Robert Wilson (Waits’s last album was 1993’s The Black Rider, his music for the folktale-based opera Wilson directed) was a switch thrown by his eccentric muse. With Swordfishtrombones (1983), Waits hopped a creative freight train into the New York music scene–sound-scramblers like Lurie and John Zorn and Laurie Anderson and Run-DMC, all with their own ideas about recombining and recycling ideas. Swordfishtrombones ditched hi-fi recording and noir songwriting for impressionistic soundscapes dreamed in rude facilities–bathroom echo chambers, a concrete-and-wood bunker-studio on a chicken farm, a Mexican hotel room where he battered a dresser to pieces while screaming into a cheap cassette recorder. Waits amassed an eighteen-wheeler’s worth of weird instruments–calliopes, Balinese metal aunglongs, glass harmonicas, bowed saw, pump organ, accordion, Mellotron, bass boo-bams, brake drums, parade drums, even one he built called a condundrum. No big surprise that Waits wrote the foreword for Gravikords, Whirlies, and Pyrophones (Ellipsis Arts), an interesting book-plus-CD pack about strange soundmakers.
Hanging out with all those grotesques over the decades has helped Waits grow into an American original, a wonderfully gifted miniaturist with a romantic’s touch and bruised ironies, like Sherwood Anderson.
Mule Variations (Epitaph) is Waits’s first album since 1993, but it’s unmistakably the sound of him opening up his outsider scrapbook again. A sharp pal who’s a fan heard the advance CD and said to me, “Good, huh?” He paused, a shade defensive. “A lot like the last two.” Another beat. “But that’s who he is.” Exactly.
It’s hard not to be yourself when you’re as much who you are as Waits is. With co-writer/producer and wife Kathleen Brennan, he covers so much stylistic and dramatic ground, you could call him a musical avant-archivist. Mule Variations naturally catalogues a lot of American music. There’s gospel (“Come On Up to the House”), parlor songs and Civil War ballads (“Take It With Me,” “Pony,” “Georgia Lee”), jazz noir (“Black Market Baby”), Stax-Volt soul (“House Where Nobody Lives”), jungle-funk (“Big in Japan”), gently buoyant Tex-Mex (“Hold On”). There’s even electroblues surrealism straight out of Captain Beefheart (“Eyeball Kid,” “Filipino Box Spring Hog”). And in “Chocolate Jesus” (whose chorus runs: “When the weather gets rough/and it’s whiskey in the shade/it’s best to wrap your savior/up in cellophane/He flows like the big muddy/but that’s ok/Pour him over ice cream/for a nice parfait”) there’s more than a hint of Weill and Brecht.