A friend of mine (French ‘Doctor Stix’ Acers) told me about Tom Waits’ new record on Facebook, when I had inquired if there were any new promising releases for 2011. I was dumbfounded on my first listening of Bad As Me, but realized anyway that I was in touch with a very important record, where Mr. Waits pulls every shape, size, or texture of a musical rabbit out of his significantly variegated Bag of Tricks! ‘Why plant a seed deep in the ground? Why, Why, Why?’
I felt like one of Napoleon’s archaeologists, on their journey/conquest to Egypt, when they discovered The Rosetta Stone, and didn’t know what in the world the hieroglyphics were telling them. Okay, so I also wasn’t able to decode Mr. Waits on one or two (or three or four) spins of his mystifying new platter. Yea, I had to break it down to see if I could (at least) make sense of four of these wonderful offerings. Here’s what I came up with, but I could change my mind, if I’m paddlin’ a row boat down a crooked stream with broken oars!
Chicago is a scrappy morsel of an R & B number, with a single motif driving forth a burst of power-packed energy, where all these veteran musicians are vamping on the same lick. What we have here, is a small rant about the migration of rural black blues musicians migrating north from Mississippi to Chicago, after WWII. Okay, so Waits never mentions this historic musical/sociological phenomenon, except by way of poetic license. Yet, since it’s a first person testimonial, delivered as if the 1950s were in the now, you can tell what he’s talking about. Anticipating the Big City!
When Tom says ‘the seeds are planted here but they won’t grow,’ he means that rural blues had to be electrified, sped up, and urbanized, and Chicago was just the place to realize the process of reinventing the Blues. Muddy Waters, Little Walter Horton, and Howlin’ Wolf accomplished this feat and Waits gives us a fictitious, distilled, commiserated rendition of that memorable movement. Try listening with the lyrics handy from the song booklet, with uneven inking that resembles an old-timey typewriter ribbon; adds to its authenticity.
Get Lost is a like a ’50s rocker, punching, kickin’ a can down the road. Waits own it, no maybe David Hidalgo own it with his rockabilly guitar. All do! Tom throws his voice like Jerry Lee or Eddie Cochran would. The saxes (Clint Maedgen) punch down staccato blasts that hold the rhythm tight against a pared down drum kit and thumping bass beat, to give you a jagged, gyrating juke-joint jive. In case you don’t think I know my business, ’50s R & R was a primitive Cro-Magnon, testosterone laced Ho-Down!
On Satisfied, Tom’s voice sounds like a can of (1950s) refried, petrified Wolf Brand Chili, raspy and gravelly, wailing away ’bout when he leaves this world, nothin’ but brittle charnel bones left behind in the rear view mirror of life. Keith’s raunchy guit-fiddle’s spilling out gritty reverb and blister, banging, wailin’, funky slapping, horns pop and jive, writhe and wail, toot and pop and pound. Counterpoint, trash can percussion against smoky sax, bar-b-que Telecaster, rhapsodic organ like water in your face, when the Sandman tickles you mercilessly in a blissful (R & B) DreamLand! Go Away!
No chorus, no bridge, just a monolithic vamp on one gigantic verse. Better this way! Waits wants to go out with a bang. And Charlie Musslewhite is blowin’ a little harp in there too, which makes it even more authentic as a piece of inspired R & B, that could have been written and recorded fifty years ago. A tip of the hat to Jagger and Richards (for their classic Satisfaction) only adds a touch of humor, and doesn’t distract needlessly. Anyway, this is Juke-Jive R & B, not Pop/Rock ‘N’ Roll (such as I Can’t Get No).
Don’t know if it’s David or Marc that’s doing the pick-up lick on Tell Me, but I do know it’s perfect. Tell Me, which is a bonus track for the deluxe edition of Bad As Me, is starting to look like (or sound like) my favorite song, on a record that is already void of any filler. Part of this is due to the amazing lyric, which is divided between a series of cosmic questions, which are asked on the verse. The answers come to us during the chorus, with some Animistic truisms that could just as easily have come out of one of the Good Books of the Old Testament.
But this is the philosophical world of the street, Jack Kerouac or Alan Ginsberg, or most certainly Charles Bukowski, not Daniel or David, not Moses or Abraham from the olde book. These are the Waitseian carny truths of Subterranean Hobo Culture, which is why I equate it with Animism, where stones, creatures, and rivers have spirits that are ruled over by a benevolent maker. But the street scene has its own laws too, that can only be uncovered by sagacious poets or soothsayers (such as Tom Waits).
The material on Bad As Me is so dense and diverse, so well thought out, with its arrangements and variety of genres (Blues, Rock ‘N’ Roll, ballads, and free-form), that (as humble as I am), dared only approach four of its songs. I’ll have to dive in for more (and you will too), when I’ve digested these four pearls entirely. Is Tom Waits the greatest living singer/songwriter? Maybe, if you don’t mind abandoning the haunts of your comfortable suburbs (for a change), and pay a covert visit to a make-believe land, the ‘poetry of the street.’