Tom Waits, “Blood Money” (2000)

The older I get, the more I see that I’ve missed.

            I’ve known of Tom Waits for a long, long time.  I’m sure that I’d heard songs of his, if not in complete form, certainly in fragments. But they must have come on the radio when I was at the McDonald’s drive thru. And as he’s done music for movies I’ve seen, it stands to reason I heard them in their entirety.

            But really, I don’t think I’d ever listened to them.

            So why have I shied away from Mr. Waits?

            I vaguely recall seeing him in a movie, with, I think, Lily Tomlin (must’ve been a Robert Altman movie) where he was crying about a “broke yolk.” That’s all I vaguely remember of him, but I also clearly recall finding that scene obnoxiously affected.

            Yes, I know that to call an actor’s performance “affected” might be skirting the line. After all, what is acting but pretending, a honed affectation?

            Still, I have no cavil with people who are affected. I do, however, not care for affectations that are obvious, silly, threadbare. When an actor is obviously acting, then that can be a problem. Over-actors don’t normally get nominated for acting awards. A good actor strives, I believe, to not look like they’re acting while acting.

            If you’re trying to make your acting obvious, you step over the line into camp, which is a different discussion.

            Or is it?

            Affectations that are obvious:

            Bryan Ferry’s vocal wobblings in the first Roxy Music album.

            Bob Dylan’s Woody Guthriesque salt-of-the-earth singing, variable throughout the years.

            William Shatner’s acting.

            Tom Waits’ singing and performance.

            But hold on. Now, just because something is affected doesn’t make it unlikeable or fake. Not exactly.

            As a young man I loved Bob Dylan songs but hated Bob Dylan performances. It took time and age to make me love his early performances, of course abetted by the seductive architecture and perceptive poetry of incredible songs.

            Same with Bryan Ferry with his GQ Tin Pan Alley Playbook persona, desperately pretending to be some Dashiell Hammett gumshoe. I think he’s cool (at least was, up to “Siren”).

            And William Shatner? Well, who doesn’t love Captain Kirk? (Except Sulu, of course.)

            Even so, it’s difficult to predict which of the obvious affectations will rub one the wrong way. Presumably the less pronounced they are, the less obtrusive they’ll be. Affectations are like plastic surgeries: You only notice them when they’re done too often, and/or done badly.

            I, for one, find Morrissey’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” too precious and mannered for my blood. The song “Rock and Roll Heart” by Lou Reed (among some other songs, too) is offensively mock-low brow, a song in praise of being stoopid. And this from the man who made the album “Berlin?!?”

            And the list goes on.

            Contrary to my long-held though somewhat vague feelings about him, I decided to listen to Tom Waits’ album “Blood and Money.” I’d read quotes by him that I thought deliciously poetic and twisty, observant and acute. My favorite: “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”

            How can you not love something like that?

            So, I listened to “Blood Money.”

            I found the first song, “Misery is the River of the World” outlandishly performed, and the song gave me no little amount of listening misery. It sounded like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street singing with a sore throat. I stopped playing the CD then.

            But I was determined to be fair. The next day, I started listening again, and played the whole album.

            Something possessed and shook me. Slowly at first, for sure. Kind of like when I first ate sushi, which I tolerated while I was eating it, liked it the next day, but day after that I was singing its praises.

            I know that Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, wrote the songs. Waits is a musician as well, and I can only imagine that the sound created was his. I was sucked into the conjurations of the man and the creations he and his wife have lovingly crafted.

            Each song is a world unto itself.

            Is the performance affected? Are the lyrics, slanted with a particular worldview? Is the music shaped to purpose? Ask it another way. Is the performance enthralling? Are the lyrics observant, mordant and skewed? Yes, yes, and hell yes.

            I had no idea that the Cookie Monster was so damned talented. He grows on you.

            I even came to like that first song which I’d initially hated.

             But yeah, he grows on you.

            There is a New Yorkish vibe to him, a 1920’s bohemian aura, Color Noir à la Blade Runner. His world is the world of Tim Burton and Diane Arbus, the arrangements of the music instruments and the guttural growling voice conjuring the work of the German artist George Grosz. The feelings of delighted unease he creates in me recall watching, as a five-year-old, the underworld demon footage from Disney’s Fantasia, a full color extravaganza watched on a black-and-white TV. It also brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s “Diamonds in the Mine.”

            I enjoyed the entire album, but I did have favorites.

            I loved the eighth song, “Lullaby.”

Sun is red, moon is cracked
Daddy’s never coming back
Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes, go to sleep
If I die before you wake
Don’t you cry, don’t you weep

A gently growled put-the-child-to-bed melody that made me think of The Addams Family. Even beautiful monsters have children.

            And “Coney Island Baby,” the third song. It conjured images of 1920’s cartoons, recently reincarnated in the video game “Cuphead,” that kind of stuff. And very romantic.

            And I loved “The Part You Throw Away.”

Will you lose the flowers
Hold on to the vase
Will you wipe all those teardrops
Away from your face
I can’t help thinking
As I close the door
I have done all of this
Many times before

            If you are like I was, ignorant of Tom Waits’ music, then do yourself a favor: listen for yourself. And hold your trepidation in check as you approach the fence to peek at the fierce beasts. They look scarier than they are.

            Even so, be careful. They can be dangerous.

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