Singing lead soprano in a junkman’s choir

I came late to Tom Waits’ party. Picked up Mule Variations in 1998, and while the first thumping sounds of “Big In Japan” had me interested, it was at the other end of the album that I fell in love. He took me from crying to grinning like a maniac in the space of two songs, and explained the nature of existence in the last track on the album, “Come On Up To The House”.

I exaggerate with that last remark, but only slightly. There’s a couplet in that song that absolutely resonates with me, that I cannot find it in me to disagree with on any level, atheist though I more-or-less am, that runs “The world is not my home/I’m just passing though” and it’s so superbly delivered it scares me.

A month or so later, I picked up “Rain Dogs”. It was very nearly as good. Didn’t actually reduce me to tears, but the sheer quality of Waits writing and imagination still shone through.

(Hold on, I’m getting to the point.)

Over the last few years, I have acquired a complete copy of his back catalogue. In fact, he’s the only artist I like that I’ve even taken the trouble to acquire copies of a couple of bootlegs, because I never thought I’d see him live. While I claim the Tansads as my favourite band, there’s all sorts or reasons bound up in that that have little or nothing to do with the music. Waits, on the other hand, is by some margin the single musician I admire/adore/am completely bowled over by more than any other.

I mention all this so you understand how incredibly easy it would have been for him to fall short of my hopes when I finally saw him live. I went into that gig expecting to come out just a little disappointed. There was just no way he could live up to it, and I knew it.

Yeah, you all know what I’m about to say.

He opens with “Hoist the Rag”, a thumping, rattling, percussive thing held together with a guitar sound like sharpened steel. It’s the blues, but it’s the blues for an industrial age. This isn’t the blues in a sleazy bar, or a backwoods town. This is the blues with steam and pistons and barbed fucking wire. This is what happens with the blues get fed up sitting about feeling down, and go for the throat instead.

And that’s the tone set for the first while.

I had to suppress a squeak of joy several times during the night, but the one that’ll stay with me was the feeling when “Don’t Go Into That Barn” began. I called it a “murderer’s worksong” a month or so back, and live, Waits makes good of every bit of menace in it, as the lights flare magnesium white, and throw eerie shadows over the band’s faces.

But much as “Real Gone” is easily my album of the year, he’s got a massive back catalogue, and we got a good amount of it. “Jockey Full of Bourbon” was the sleazy drunken thing it’s meant to be. “Alice” was every bit the hallucinogen-laced song of love and obsession. I’d heard “November” live as part of the production of The Black Rider I saw earlier in the year. This left it in the dust. I could go on and on, but I’ll limit myself to mentioning “Sins of the Father” and “Day After Tomorrow” from the new album – they both leave me a bit cold on record – the first is good, but too long, and the second, just a hair the wrong side of sentimentality. Live, on the other hand, they blew me away.

Waits leaves to a standing ovation, and thunderous applause.

And then the encore. The piano is wheeled on stage, and we’re back to the blues of sleazy bars and losers in late-night diners where Waits began.

God, it’s good.

For me doubly so, as, a few songs into it, he starts the opening chords of “Come On Up To The House”, and I find myself fighting back tears of joy.

“The world is not my home/I’m just passing through”.

I’m so glad he stopped and made some music for a while.

In short, though: Worth every penny. Hell, if I’d paid the hundreds of pounds they were going for on eBay (and let me just take a moment express my contempt for those utter vermin who buy tickets for gigs like them and sell them on eBay) it would still have been worth it.

If he’s ever back in London (and the rumour is that he may be for a couple of weeks next year), then for god’s sake, sell one of your kidneys and go.

One thought on “Singing lead soprano in a junkman’s choir

  1. What a fine review, and I was grateful to read that he lived up to all your’ expectations. The first time I saw him was in Berkeley Ca. around 77 or 78. He had a backup band that looked like they’d crawled out of a tb asylum to appear with him and a bent streetlight as the sole stage prop and nod to his considerable anti-hero visual appeal. That and he smoked more cigarettes than seemed humanly possible.
    As you mentioned, he had an enormous emotional wallop.

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