Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 9 Swordfishtrombones

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 9
Swordfishtrombones - Tom Waits

"they're alive, they're awake
while the rest of the world is asleep"

I don't think I've ever taken to any artist quite like Tom Waits. I was sixteen and all I knew of him was the live version of The Piano Has Been Drinking, which I had seen him play on The Late Late Show. The version released on Bounced Checks was recorded in Dublin on that same visit.

A few years later I took a chance on Small Change, the album which included the original version of The Piano Has Been Drinking. Two weeks later I had pretty much everything he had released up to that point. I was blown away and mildly obsessed. Soon afterwards, when I got Swordfishtrombones I was blown away again by what seemed like a new artist.
Moving away from the beat generation boho jazz of the seventies Waits seemed to have gathered a carnival around him, a broader spectrum of instruments and song structures and ambition, and sounds. There had been an injection of fantasy, and the voice and lyrics seemed to come from an unfixed place in time. The first song, Underground, could be the theme tune to a warped Walt Disney cartoon. This time the Seven Dwarves never emerge from their hypogean hideaway - "all the roots hang down / swing from town to town / they are marching around / down under your boots / all the trucks unload / beyond the gopher holes / there's a world going on / UNDERGROUND"

The sound is at once more organic and less realist, it shuffles and marches, coughs and shrieks, it's a dance of brass lunged skeletons, a bellow of asthmatic squeezeboxes and the beat hammered out on car carcasses by mutinies of mules.

The grizzled bootlegger gives us part of the recipe: "so I spent all my buttons on an / old pack mule / and I made me a ladder from / a pawn shop marimba / and I leaned it up against / a dandelion tree / And I filled me a satchel / full of old pig corn / and I beat me a billy / from an old French horn / and I kicked that mule / to the top of the tree / and I blew me a hole / 'bout the size of a kickdrum / and I cut me a switch / from a long branch elbow" but nobody else has ever managed to distill songs of such high proof  from this mash.

Sometimes it seems that everything has an identity in this world, animate and inanimate, "the eggs chase the bacon round the frying pan", it's a "Hong Kong drizzle"or that the words are turning into the music "the train smoked down the xylophone," and the music is sometimes left to speak for itself. (My none too reliable mental card index file tells me instrumentals were a departure for Waits.)

Two songs, the title track and Frank's Wild Years tell similar tales of men who fall into a stasis and break free. Frank burns home, wife and dog. After watching it burn "Frank put on a top forty station, / got on the Hollywood Freeway / headed North." In Swordfishtrombones "he holed up in room above a hardware store / cryin' nothing there but Hollywood tears / and he put a spell on some / poor little Crutchfield girl / and stayed like that for 27 years." Then he "packed up all his expectations he lit out for California / with a flyswatter banjo on his knee / with a lucky tiger in his angel hair / and benzedrine for getting there." They both seem to point at the fact that Tom had broken free and was now a confirmed outlaw "stayin' in a broken down shed", "sleepin' in the devil's bed", "stayin' away from the main roads".

it's not all fantasy though and one of the highlights is Soldiers Things, with Tom listing the ragged possessions of a soldier being sold because he is broke or dead. It is a touching song, paying hommage to the dignity of second, third and sixty seventh tier lives. There is dignity and pride and personality everywhere, you just have to look for it.

There were many antecedents for the sound Waits embraced on this album, main among them Harry Partch, Howlin Wolf and Captain Beefheart. Also Brecht and Weill, perhaps as channeled by Agnes Bernelle, although I can't date his eulogising her. It is a furrow he has continued to plough ever since, and it remains fertile. However this album is still the one that pleases me most, although it is run close by its follow up, Rain Dogs. Everyone should have both.

In my ongoing series You can blame (insert name here) for (this song) by The Knocking Shop I give you my own stab at surreal blues. Putting these songs beside the masters of the forms is a bit like self-flagellation. Maybe it'll get me to heaven when I die.


  1. I love this album Seamus.
    Can't say too much as I'm still mitering over Waits' best...

    1. That's a question with lots of right answers anyway, Trev. I just go with my gut on those choices.

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! This would be my Waits pick too, followed by Rain Dogs. Timeless. You would never think these came out in '83 and '85.