Ghosts That Sell Memories

There aren’t many artists that get a standing ovation before they’ve started playing. When Tom Waits walked on stage last night, the crowd were on their feet at once. I’m trying to find something more meaningful to say than that, something that’ll explain what this gig was, what it was like, why on earth I would fork out over two hundred quid (including travel expenses etc) to go see him, so bear with me if this is a little incoherent.

I’m very, very fortunate – I’m the only person I know who has seen him live not once, but twice. Firstly in London, for the Real Gone tour in 2004, and then yesterday in Edinburgh as part of his current Glitter and Doom tour.

Real Gone was an album tour, and was focused on that album – he played other stuff, too, but it was very much about that album. Glitter and Doom felt like a career retrospective – his personal favourites of his work, perhaps – at one point, when the crowd were shouting between songs, asking for their particular favourites, he paused and growled “Well, those are all requests – but they’re *your* requests” before getting on with whatever he damn well wanted to play.

And what he wanted to play was damn fine. I particularly enjoyed the way that so many of the songs were reinterpretations of his earlier work – not so heavily different that they felt spoiled, but enough that they felt excitingly fresh and new – not like heaving them for the first time, but enough that if felt like a privilege to be there, to hear these distinct versions of his songs.

Highlights of the night for me were Hoist That Rag, hearing the thumping percussion and listening him to him rasp “The cracked bell rings and the ghost bird sings/The gods go begging here”, the collection of down-and-outs “handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar” in Bottom Of The World, and him inviting the audience to join him on the chorus of “Innocent When You Dream” which has probably taken the lead as the single most touchingly magical gig moment of my life, one that genuinely brought a tear to my eye, and then, during the encore, a track I really didn’t expect him to do, “9th and Hennepin”, because it’s not really a song – it’s a monologue set to some minimal percussion, but it’s that track that probably provides the best explanation of why I would pay 200 quid and trek the length of the country to see him.

You see Waits isn’t just my favourite recording artist, he’s one of my favourite writers, period. He’s got a knack for imagery that very, very few people can match. You can’t read a review of Waits without the writer going on about the world he’s created for his songs to inhabit – this slice of twisted carnival Americana, of three-time losers and late night blues bars, and the reason they all do is because the quality of his writing is so very strong, and doubly so when coupled with his perfectly pitched delivery, and it the imagery he evokes in every song so memorable and lasting.

“Such a crumbling beauty, ah
There’s nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won’t fix
She has that razor sadness that only gets worse
With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by
And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet
til you’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…”

And all too soon, off he went, to another standing ovation, his third of the night. I’m honestly not sure what my upper limit for seeing him perform again would be, but it’s certainly higher for him than for any other artist. 200 quid, and worth every penny. Hope he’s back soon.

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