Staff Top 10
Top Ten Nightmares of Tom Waits

it’s one of those dreams where everyone you never wanted to see again, showed up,” Tom Waits once told an audience in his 1988 concert movie, Big Time. “It’s Uncle Phil. Shit, I owe him money! “ He spoke of the street corner Ninth and Hennepin, as a place where “all the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes,” with a flophouse where “all the rooms, they smell like diesel,” and “you take on the dreams of the ones who slept there.” Waits describes it all in his famous growl that’s oiled in cheap bourbon, L.A. smog, and scars from endless nights of hollering at the devil in SRO hotel rooms. And somehow he still makes you wish you were there with him.

10. Introduction to “Train Song” [from Big Time]
Apparently Tom Waits always gets asked this question: “Tom, uh, is it possible for a woman to get pregnant without intercourse?” To answer, Tom tells us a story, going all the back to the Civil War. As he hammers sour chords on his piano, he describes an incident in which a stray bullet pierced through a Union soldier’s testicle and then got lodged into the ovaries of a nearby girl. Our narrator tells us that the baby was later born and everybody was fine, and “guilt-free,” but the solider was a “little pissed off.”

09. “Midtown” [from Rain Dogs]
Waits’s big band stumbles into the middle of the boulevard on this track—poisoned by moonshine, rotgut, and mad dog—singing praises to the angels above and the devils below. The walking bassline and horn stabs seem like a cute jaunt—something out of a Tex Avery cartoon. But then, suddenly, the sax wraps its arms around your neck and starts screaming for a dollar, playing the type of jazz that drags you by your ankles down city blocks while cops merely laugh.

08. “Dave the Butcher” [from Swordfishtrombones]
Film treatment: A parlor game. Dave uses a cleaver to slice up a smiling pig into strips as thin as playing cards. The butcher then shuffles the deck, fires the cards over his head and into his other hand. After he reshuffles the deck, Dave claps his hands to make it disappear. The pig arises from underneath the tablecloth. The creature’s smile is as wide as Dave’s.

07. “Knife Chase” [from Blood Money]
A chair-smashing rumba, in which the band plays cat and mouse with one another—the brass snarling and taunting the whole way through. Ennio Morricone is a huge influence here, as are endless and fruitless chase scenes.

06. “Circus” [from Real Gone]
“And I wish I had some whisky and a gun, my dear,” Waits repeatedly exhales before he passes out. Why so dour? Earlier that day, Waits’ traveling circus pitched their tents outside of town. You had Horseface Ethel and her “Marvelous Pigs in Satin”; One-Eyed Myra, who wore a Roy Orbison shirt and stared at Waits while bottle-feeding an orangutan; and Yodeling Elaine who had a “tiny bubble of spittle around her nostril, and a little rusty tear, for she had lassoed and lost another tipsy sailor.” What happened that day is murky—but there’s also a knife thrower that slices off his love’s ear and that’s probably all you need to know.

05. “Watch Her Disappear” [from Alice]
Waits dreams of staring at his love as she undresses, his whisper cutting through the night air, while his band drifts asleep. He watches the rose that’s “strangled in ebony curls, moving in a yellow bedroom light.” He hears how “the air is wet with sound,” and notices the “faraway yelping of a wounded dog.” A tango later emerges and his angel dances into a tree’s shadow. “I watched you as you disappeared,” Waits whispers.

04. “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me” [from Bone Machine]
“The ocean doesn’t want me today, but I’ll be back tomorrow to play,” Waits mutters through a megaphone. This particular nightmare is one of rejection. Waits looks into the ocean bottom, and over a soft rumble of percussion and the ghost of Captain Nemo’s grand-organ, he claims that he’d “love to go drowning and to stay and to stay….But the ocean doesn’t want me today.”

03. “What’s He Building?” [from Mule Variations]
It begins with a shortwave radio. Then comes the erratic clang of workshop metal.“What the hell is he building in there?” Waits wonders as he begins to tell us what he does know about his next-door neighbor. He’s consultant in Indonesia. His ex-wife lives in Mayors Income, Tennessee. But the noises coming from his house confuse everything: nails are pounded into a floor, and someone’s moaning. Waits sees a TV’s light, and he recalls stories about the man’s surplus of formaldehyde.

02. “9th and Hennepin” [from Rain Dogs]
Bass strings and piano keys tick-tock away, and a bowed saw whistles like a Southern-Pacific. Waits’s sleep-deprived voice tells you about that enchanted skid row where “the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky like a tarp thrown over” and “steam comes out of the grill like the whole goddamned town is ready to blow.” He dreams that he is still there. “And I’m lost in the window, I hide on the stairway, I hang in the curtain, I sleep in your hat,” he mutters.

01. “Frank’s Wild Years” [from Swordfishtrombones]
Pull up a Barcalounger, don your fez cap, and pour yourself a sixth martini; it’s time for a bedtime story. Enjoy that cocktail lounge organ as Waits tells us about his hero Frank, a used office furniture salesman who settled in the San Fernando Valley and “assumed a $30,000 loan at 15-and-a-quarter percent, and put a down-payment on a little two-bedroom place.” His American Dream came true all right, he had a “spent piece of used jet trash” for a wife and a blind Chihuahua named Carlos. One night, Frank gets drunk and torches his damn house. Our hero then laughs at the fire, which is “all Halloween orange and chimney red.” Frank then escapes to Hollywood. “Never could stand that dog,” Waits tells us.

By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-09-15
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