Monday Music: Tom Waits

For those who are new to this blog, this is the 4th in my September series of musical tributes to my brother Mark. The series starts here.

No tribute to Mark would be complete without Tom Waits. I clearly remember Mark’s pleasure when he shared One of Waits’ early albums with me in our grotty student house lounge room (Small change, I think it would have been). I’m not a Waits fan, but I can see … hear … why Mark liked him. The gravelly voice, the poetry, the bluesy sound, the stories of people on the fringe, the somewhat depressing tone.

This is the Tom Waits I remember from the 70s.

And this, which I feel I have to include just because the chorus comes from one of Australia’s most famous songs.

I’m not sure why Waits decided to included Waltzing Matilda — maybe to make the point that being homeless is far from romantic — which is the impression that Banjo Paterson’s ghost story has probably created for countless school children and tourists (including my son AM, who once dressed up as the swagman for a kindergarten re-enactment).

Moving along, this next song is from a 2004 album. It’s proof that Mark sustained his interest in Tom Waits, because this was in the CD collection I inherited from him. This is one of the more melodic tracks. I don’t know what Mark would have thought of the others on the album, which sound like Waits is having painful surgery in a junkyard. I couldn’t listen to them, but I liked this, in spite of the macabre content. My favourite line is definitely ‘He’s not the kind of wheel
You fall asleep at’. I’m not sure whether the video enhances or obscures the meaning. It’s not quite how I imagined it — he’s not enough of a bad boy.

And finally … the title track from Waits’ most recent album: Bad as me (2011). Mark died before this was released, and we hadn’t talked about Tom Waits for a long time (having both developed a passion for African music by then), so I’ll never know what he would have thought of it. Would he have liked how Waits had evolved … or not?

At Mark’s funeral, our oldest brother told the story of how as a small child, Mark’s approach to food was always open-minded. Even if he didn’t really like something (for example, inexplicably, strawberries), he always appreciated the ‘experience’. Every now again he’d even try the food again, just to see if his opinion had changed.

That’s a lesson I take to heart after making myself listen to Tom Waits this week. Often I react to his voice as I do to chalk on a blackboard — aaargh, get me outta here — but overall, it was worth it for the experience. I get it. I understand why people love his music. Just not for me, thanks. Well, not very often, anyway. I might give it another go next September.


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