Tom Waits: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis

Tom Waits has remained a mysterious character on the fringes of popular music for over 40 years.  One of the small drawbacks to his personae is the lack of critical and analytical interview content of the strange and wonderful musician.  Thankfully, the Under Review documentary series has produced two 80-minute films which offer a surprisingly in-depth examination of the man and his music.

The first segment is titled Tom Waits: Under Review 1971-1982: An Independent Critical Analysis, and the second bears the same title replacing the years with 1983-2006.  The films feature rare interviews, footage, unusual photographs and criticism from many different experts and acquaintances of Tom Waits.

under review 2

The most revealing insight is presented in the first of the two films, which examines the context and collaborations resulting in Waits’ always unique but ever-changing sound.  Speaking about his earliest downtrodden troubadour era:

If you were the kind of person who was going to walk into the seedy bar and say, “oh… there’s a drunken bum over there,” and walk out, you weren’t going to be sitting there listening to Tom Waits.

But if you were the kind of person whose imagination started to think, “Well what was that guy’s life like? How did he end up here? What happened here?”… if there was an element of “who washed up on the shore of the promised land… L.A. being the ultimate destination and the final burying place of western culture… Tom Waits is interested in finding out where the body is buried. And that’s where those guys were.”

There is also a detailed analysis of Waits’ atypical approach to lyricism which favored narrative over confession.

This was a guy creating theater pieces in a way, in a song. These were characters he was either inventing or finding and expanding upon in his own mind. This was not the kind of diary writing that a lot of singer/songwriters were doing. This was more like short story writing – there was a highly theatrical – an element of artifice (used neutrally) in his music that was not what the singer/songwriters were supposed to be about.

Tom has always maintained a style unlike any of the artists of his day.  What was particularly fascinating about the album Swordfishtrombones was that a listener couldn’t point to other records from that decade and say, “I see where he got that from.” And that unlike his contemporaries of the 1980s, the album hasn’t become embarrassingly dated to its decade.

Still, there are more subtle stylistic influences to Waits’ work.  His music mirrors the wit of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Kerouac.  His songs also embrace the atonalism and avant-garde compositional form of Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, and most certainly German composer Kurt Weill.  But perhaps most apparent are the vocal influences of Howlin Wolf.  The film humorously describes his more self-parodic songs as falling “somewhere between an imitation of Louis Armstrong and Oscar the Grouch.”

This outlandish and extreme vocal quality was met with criticism from the listening public.

Speaking about Nighthawks at the Diner, the film observes:

I think it’s more about authenticity. People began to wonder whether this bohemian bar stool philosopher was a real character or whether it was just a theatrical construct.

Until you got to know Waits and you started to really believe in the character and see the depth of what he was doing, it kind of looked liked a pastiche. There was initially some suspicion that it seemed a bit phony. [But really] all artists are self-created in some form or another.

Tom-Waits 1

They go on to examine his vocal characteristic further, noting that “Nighthawks was nearing self-parody, but with Small Change Waits transcended his own influence.”

They described the peak of the boho barstool character thusly:

It’s like an anti-operatic, opposite of belle canto – the opposite of beautiful singing and we understand it. And it’s certainly not natural – it’s an assumed voice – it’s a put on vocal persona. But it’s the key to why the [sentimental] / schmaltzy things work.

But it is Waits’ juxtaposition of innocent lyrics and melodies with his nighthawk performances that really make his character memorable.

A key analysis presented in segment one outlines the importance of this quality:

When Tom Waits plays around with songs like Waltzing Matilda and Silent Night – those songs represent a communality and sense of you in the famiy bossom and the bossom of your community and faith – all of which has been lost to his character. So when his character is groaning out Waltzing Matilda and growling Silent Night – that is their [Samuel] Beckett style poignant memory of what once seemed possible. They stir the emotions that those songs typically do but only by way of trying to demonstrate their absence. And that’s what’s so affecting about it.
It’s a way of re-contextualizing that music to dramatize the desperation of the characters who are singing it.

And finally, another layer of context is added to Waits music when the culture of his listeners, (particularly American audiences) is added to the mix.  Speaking on the value of the album Heartattack and Vine

Only American capitalism could have produced the songs of Tom Waits. There’s a sense of this human debt detritus – these people who are just cast off by the system here that I don’t think exists in most other industrialized countries where there’s more of a social net.

Those characters could only exist here. This is the anti-story – the other story of America that he’s interested in. And not from a social protest, Woody Guthrie standpoint but from a human narrative
standpoint. Who was that person? What was possible for that person? What was his/her dream? There’s not a lot of tolerance in America for losers. Tom Waits made art of that possibility.

Under Review expertly illustrates the depth and consistent quality of Waits’ music throughout his career with this fantastic critical analysis.  For any listener growing bored of the superficiality of taking music at face value, Under Review will be an inspiring breath of fresh air.

Published in: on July 25, 2015 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Record Store Day (Revisit)

It’s been a busy week – I’ve picked up 50 new albums and am working on a post that will highlight a number of them.  In the meantime here’s a forgotten post from Record Store Day 2010 which fell through the cracks in the months between my old blog and the new site.

I hit various record shops in NYC that morning with a specific plan of action.

Record Store Map

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica
Trout Mask Replica (1969)

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n bulbous! Got me?”

I was blown away when I found this disc.  It’s been on my wish-list for quite some time, but it’s long out of print and highly sought-after, so I never thought I’d actually own a copy myself.

Matt Groening had this to say about Trout Mask Replica:

“I took it home and put it on… it was the worst drek I’d ever heard in my life. They’re not even trying!  They’re just playing randomly! And then I played it again and thought, it sounds horrible, but they mean it to sound this way. The third or fourth time it started to grow on me. And the fifth or sixth time… I loved it. And the seventh or eighth time I thought it was the greatest album ever made and I still do.”

The legendary John Peel once said that Beefheart “is the most important figure to emerge from the rock era of the 1960s and 1970s.  I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week. And I’ll hear more echoes in the records I’ll listen to this week.”

He also called him “rock’s only real genius.”

Carl Sagan - A Glorious Dawn
Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn 7″ etched picture disc (2009)

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Symphony of Science is a musical project designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.  For the song “A Glorious Dawn,” speech recordings of astrophysicist Carl Sagan and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking were auto-tuned and set to music.  The result was not a kitschy novelty track, but a beautifully philosophical tune that stands quite well on its own.

As an added bonus, the b-side of the disc is etched with the image that appears on the Golden Record which was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.  (Sagan directed the committee that selected the sounds for the Voyager LP.)

Voyager Record

Barbara Feldon - "99" single
Barbara Feldon – 99/Max (1966)

A strange and unusual item… Barbara Feldon played the spy 99 on the ‘Get Smart’ TV show back in the 1960’s with Don Adams. Here she sings seductively about her prowess, and then, on the B side, about her secret passion for Max (Don Adams). The music is in the same vein as Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Boots Are Made For Walkin’.  I also have a recording of Beck performing this song live.  “99” is the most rare of all my Get Smart collectibles.

Fred Wesley & the Horny Horns - Say Blow by Blow Backwards
Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns – Say Blow By Blow Backwards (1979)

The Horny Horns involved many of the members of Parliament Funkadelic, with Fred Wesley on trombone, Maceo Parker on tenor and alto sax, and production by George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.  I found this disc beside a stack of Bootsy LPs, but I had to draw the line for the sake of my wallet.

Parliament - Chocolate City
Chocolate City (1975)

Another original pressing to add to my collection of all things P-Funk.  “God bless Chocolate City and its vanilla suburbs.”

JBs - Doing it to Death
J.B.’s – Doin’ It To Death (1973)

Just as I was leaving the shop where I picked up Trout Mask Replica, I took a quick look through the milk crates of “bargain bin” cheap LPs on a small table outside the store.  Astonishingly, stashed among the mostly disposable LPs was this copy of Doin’ It To Death, marked at $3!

This album also contains favorites like “More Peas” and “You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight.”

Vinyl Heaven

Sunday, May 1st was an absolute thrill.  Both Buffalo and Rochester held their annual record shows the same day.  I attended both, (nearly 120 eight foot tables!) and was amazed by what I found.

Standing in line for the Buffalo show to open it’s doors I was complemented by the four men in front of me for my resemblance to Captain Beefheart.  From our chat I learned of Frank Zappa’s Lost Episodes album which contains a number of collaborations with the Captain from as early as 1958.  Later when I researched that album I discovered a similar collection titled An Evening With FZ & CB. That’s what I love about music – there is always more to learn.

The Lost Episodes

An Evening With...

Within the first 10 minutes I found The Flaming Lips’ masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin.  Yoshimi may be their most popular LP but nothing compares to The Soft Bulletin’s masterful compositions, sonic bliss, and brilliant production value.  It was album-of-the-year on nearly every major list in 1999, and was selected by Pitchfork as the third greatest album of the decade.  Several critics have called The Soft Bulletin “the Pet Sounds of the 1990s.”  I’d been tracking copies online all month, so I bought it without a moment’s hesitation.  The disc also comes with a bonus CD featuring “The Captain,” “Satellite Of You,” and “1000 Ft. Hands.”  The same vendor had a red vinyl sealed copy of Yoshimi that I’d also been tracking online, but his price was a bit steep.

The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin

Next I hit up a booth with a ton of original 70s funk LPs.  I purchased a near mint original German pressing of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain.  The album is an absolute classic.  Rolling Stone ranked the disc among the top 500 records of all time and the title track as #60 in the greatest guitar songs of all time.  It has also earned the reputation of the #1 guitar solo in the history of rock.  For those who aren’t familiar with the legendary solo, George Clinton allegedly told Eddie Hazel to play “like his mother just died.”  The result was a ten minute opus, the conclusion of which just might have resurected Hazel’s mother from her funky grave.  Beside the album was an equally rare near mint copy of Funkadelic’s self-titled album, but I didn’t have an extra $40 to spare.

Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

The last table I stopped at was better still.  The vendor asked me where I acquired my Beefheart tee.  When I told him that I made it, he replied, “Me too!  Hey – I’ve got that album right here if you want it!”  And he promptly produced a 1970 (second pressing) copy of Safe As Milk!  The first issue of that album, along with the baby Jesus bumper sticker is often considered the holy grail of record collecting.  Tom Kohn, owner of Rochester’s Bop Shop once said that he’ll retire the day he finds that LP.

Captain Beefheart - Safe As Milk
Just as I got ready to leave the table I saw a Jim Henson album which I snatched as quickly as I could.  For $3 I took home the soundtrack to The Dark Crystal, which sells for between $50-$60 online.  After looking up the album I saw photos of a fold-out poster that originally came with the LP.  I hesitated for a moment, reached into the sleeve… and pulled out the mint poster from inside!  Of my twenty five Jim Henson related albums, this might be my new favorite.

Dark Crystal Soundtrack

Dark Crystal Soundtrack Poster
At the Rochester show I met up with two wonderful friends and received hugs and handshakes from several vendors I hadn’t seen in as many as fourteen years, (namely Mark of the Compact Disc Exchange.)  One vendor had a mint original copy of the Meters’ Fiyo on the Bayou, but like the aforementioned Funkadelic LP I didn’t have an extra $40.  I was completely surprised, however to find at the very last minute Soul Coughing’s Irresistible Bliss!  I wish their debut album, Ruby Vroom had been released on vinyl, but alas it was not.  Still Bliss spent years in my CD player so it’ll be great to hear it on my turntable.

Soul Coughing - Irresistible Bliss

I finished the day with a massive garbage plate in the company of good friends and made a few more stops around town before heading home.

All in all probably the best day of crate digging in my entire life, and in the company of people I miss dearly.  Just for fun, below are the other albums I found but didn’t have the $400 extra dollars to pay for…

The Flaming Lips – Oh My Gawd! (2005 clear vinyl reissue) $20
The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (red) $28
The Meters – Fiyo On The Bayou (mint original pressing) $40
Leon Redbone – Champagne (78RPM 10″ single) $4
Funkadelic – Funkadelic (original German pressing) $40
Funkadelic – America Eats Its Young $20
Funkadelic – Uncle Jam Wants You $10
Fuzzy Haskins – Radio Active $20
Bootsy’s Rubber Band – This Boot Is Made For Fonk-n $5
Tom Waits – Mule Variations $20
Tom Waits – Romeo Is Bleeding – Live From Austin $20
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones $20
Tom Waits – Glitter And Doom Live $20
Captain Beefheart – Mirrorman $20
Captain Beefheart – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) $15
Captain Beefheart – Bluejeans And Moonbeams $15
Captain Beefheart – Unconditionally Guaranteed $20
Captain Beefheart – Spotlight Kid $20
Captain Beefheart – It Comes… In A Plain Brown Wrapper $30
Captain Beefheart – Strictly Personal $20

Along with the two Zappa albums mentioned above, I’ve got a lot of new music to take in before my birthday this June!  Special thanks to all my friends in Rochester who made the day memorable.

National Record Store Day

The fourth annual National Record Store Day was a fantastic success.  Keeping with tradition, record labels issued super limited edition albums available Saturday only.

Disney released a 10″ picture disc for the occasion – featuring four of Daft Punk’s songs from the TRON: LEGACY soundtrack.  The final track, “Castor” was not available on the original soundtrack, making these discs even more collectible.

TRON: TRANSLUCENCE

From Examiner.com:

“In keeping with its title (and the cutting-edge TRON imagery), TRANSLUCENCE is pressed on translucent vinyl featuring a likeness of the Identity Disks featured in the film and will be available in 3 colors: red, blue and yellow. TRANSLUCENCE is limited to only 6000 manufactured units worldwide – 2000 of each color.”

I’m still trying to gather statistical information, but it appears there were more limited edition releases this year than there were for any of the previous Record Store Days.  This is great news for independent record stores because it’s one more thing they can offer that the big chain stores cannot.

The official Record Store Day website (www.recordstoreday.com) has a page filled with quotes from musicians supporting independent record stores.

Tom Waits was quoted saying, “Folks who work here are professors. Don’t replace all the knowers with guessors keep’em open they’re the ears of the town.”

In Buffalo, record fans waited in the rain for 45 minutes outside of Spiral Scratch Records.  We packed the small shop, shuffling past each other, flipping through new releases.

I found a sealed re-issue of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk and similar issue of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left.  As much as I’d prefer the original pressing, I couldn’t even afford the new copies, so I left them behind and took home a new Spiral Scratch t-shirt instead.

Later, at Record Theatre on Main I had better luck and found an LP I’d been looking for for over a year for a mere two dollars.

Sweet Cream - Sweet Cream & Other Delights

Sweet Cream & Other Delights is yet another parody cover spoofing Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and their memorable Whipped Cream LP.  The album has been imitated more than 10 times by other artists.  Check out a few of my favorites below.

pat cooper - spaghetti sauce & other delights

Soul Asylum - clam dip & other delights

Frivolous Five - Sour Cream & Other Delights
For more album cover parodies check out M Patton’s gallery on rateyourmusic.com.

I’ve got some really special vinyl planned for this Wednesday night, so stay tuned.

Fumblin’ With the Blues

I had the day to myself today, so I got up at the crack of noon, poured myself a massive bowl of Corn Pops, and put together a map of all record shops in the area.

I didn’t expect to find anything special and was mostly visiting stores to inquire about special ordering rare items from my want-list.

One shop had a staggering number of Zappa-related albums – at least thirty, including the very first three (Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only In It For The Money.)  But I wasn’t there to drop $200 on shiny black discs, so I moved on.

Surprisingly, just before I left the last store I found a gem in a pile of LPs of the floor leaning against a shelf.   It was Tom Waits’ second major release – The Heart of Saturday Night (1974).  A copy in VG+ condition will run you around $20 on Discogs, plus shipping.  I snatched it up for a quarter of what it would have cost for me had I ordered it online.  (And buying from local shops is always more fun!)

The Heart of Saturday Night

On The Heart Tom performs as his usual troubadour self.  He hadn’t yet developed the gravel-throated trademark sound, but the songs are instantly recognizable as Waits’, with lyrics like, “that ol’ bloodshot moon in that burgundy sky.”

Including this new find I’ve got sixty Tom Waits albums between LPs, CDs, digital albums, and DVDs.  The most recent acquisition before The Heart was the Live 7″ single from National Record Store Day 2009.   (Special thanks to Chuck for that single!)

Tom Waits Live

Tom once said, “The record store is the livery stable where I can tie up, feed and groom my ears.”

Tom Waits Fun Fact #2015: The topless go-go dancer that appears on the cover of the Small Change LP is Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark!

Before driving back home I stopped at the downtown library, dug through the card catalog in their archives department, and had the librarian go into the basement and get me their copy of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk album.

Safe as Milk

Unfortunately it wasn’t the original 1967 pressing, which I was hoping would include the legendary and highly sought-after bumper sticker.  It was the 1970 repress with the quote from Rolling Stone magazine printed across the top of the cover.  Still, it’ll still be a blast to hear “Abba Zaba” on my turntable!

When I got back to the apartment I found that a very generous fellow Underworld fan had contacted me and uploaded some EXCELLENT live material.  Waiting for me was the Brixton Academy show [31.10.2008] and a link to a professional looking fan-made DVD of Underworld – Live at Bucharest [2009].  He also let me have an MK1 demo tape from 1990 that I hadn’t seen before.  It included “Window Pane,” “Seven Hellos, and “Theme From the Underworld” – songs I had never even heard of.  If you have any information about this demo please drop me a line!

Hit that long lunar note, and let it float.

Captain Beefheart

As Tom waits said told the Guardian UK last month, “Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood.”

With the recent passing of Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart I thought I should post something of value to both long-time listeners and to music lovers who have yet to discover his genius.

A number of books have been published about Beefheart, two by members of the Magic Band – Zoot Horn Rollo and John “Drumbo” French.  Beefheart: Though the Eyes of Magic (Drumbo’s book) is the best place to begin.

There are several documentary films on the Captain as well.  The best by far is BBC John Peel Night (1999) The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart.  To my knowledge it is not available on DVD but you can watch it on Youtube.

My favorite quote from the documentary is from Simpsons creator, Matt Groening.

“The first time I heard Trout Mask Replica, when I was 15 years old, I thought it was the worst drek I’d ever heard. I said to myself, they’re not even trying! They’re just playing randomly!  But then I thought, Frank Zappa produced it, maybe I should give it another play. So I played it again, and I thought, it sounds horrible, but they mean it to sound this way. And about the third or fourth time it started to grow on me. And the fifth or sixth time, I loved it. And the seventh or eighth time I thought it was the greatest album ever made. And I still do.”

The film begins with the band’s performance of “Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do” live at Cannes in 1968.  Blues music fans will recognize the guitar riff from the classic “Rollin & Tumblin” and Willie Dixon’s “Down In The Bottom.”  The song also shares it’s opening lyric with the Grateful Dead’s “New, New Minglewood Blues.”  I’ve included videos of each of these songs below.  I believe the origin of the riff is the “New Minglewood Blues,” a re-write of “Minglewood Blues” recorded by Noah Lewis and Canon’s Jug Stompers in 1928.

Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do:

Howlin’ Wolf performs Down in the Bottom (at 01:25):

Jeff Beck & Imogen Heap’s incredible version of Rollin and Tumblin (click to watch on Youtube):

New New Minglewood Blues live:

UPDATE: After posting this blog, I realized that a recording of Beefheart performing “Rollin and Tumblin” live in 1968 was released on the Grow Fins rarities set.  Enjoy!

You can watch the Peel Night Beefheart documentary in four parts below.  R.I.P. Captain.

Published in: on January 1, 2011 at 10:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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