No one speaks English, and everything’s broken and my Stacys are soaking wet…
—”Tom Traubert’s Blues”
When I was 21, I actually bought a pair of Stacy Adams wingtips because I idolized Tom Waits. If you’ve seen Stacys, you probably realize that a white kid from Michigan has no business wearing them. And you might be right. But Tom Waits claimed to wear them, and I thought Tom Waits was the coolest guy in the world; therefore, I was going to wear them too.
Besides, the issue of authenticity has always been complex in the world of Tom Waits. Was he really ever the hobo jazzbo he tried to be in the seventies? I don’t know. But I know that I spent most of my early twenties in dive bars and diners. I mean, I loved Frank Sinatra and had already read Kerouac and the Beats years before I had ever heard Waits. So now, I can’t seem to remember which came first: was I attracted to Waits because he was singing about stuff I thought was cool, or did I think stuff was cool because Waits was singing about it… Regardless, I certainly never would have bought a pair of Stacy Adams shoes had it not been for “Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission)” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”
By the time that 1992’s Bone Machine came out, I was already obsessed. A few years later, I had burned myself out on Waits and moved on to other obsessions. I’d still buy the albums, of course, but I was no longer fanatical. My Stacys wore out, I got married, got a good job, the whole bit. I started to understand some of the reasons Waits himself had left that 70s persona in the Asylum, where it belonged. Charles Bukowski is fun to read, but he’s not much of a role model. And Neal Cassady was dead at 41.
Recently, I’ve started to get back into Tom Waits. Not as an obsessed kid this time, but as a serious music lover, ha ha. His latest albums are full of great sounds and his usual assortment of wild characters. I never would have imagined beatboxing and scratching on a Tom Waits album, but they sound great on Real Gone. And to compare that album to the Asylum years, you really see what a remarkable musical journey this guy has taken. He’s a true American artist.
And I had never seen him in concert.
Oh, I owned Big Time on VHS and had watched it several times in various states of inebriation. But I had never seen the man in person. Which seemed a shame. I saw Frank Sinatra in 1992, but never Tom Waits. And with how infrequently he hits the road, I was resigned to never getting the chance.
And then in July, he announced a short tour including a stop in Chicago. After an infuriating experience with Ticketmaster (don’t ask), I thought I missed my opportunity. But I must’ve done something decent in a past life because I eventually procured tickets (eternal thanks to Tresa and Josh!).
On a Wednesday night at the Auditorium Theater, the band emerged from behind the curtain, backlit so their shadows looked like giants getting smaller and smaller until they slipped through the slit and stepped right up to their instruments. Tom Waits was a wearing a dark suit and a porkpie hat (as were half the dudes in the audience, including John C. Reilly). He growled, “Good evening,” and kicked right into “Make It Rain.” He reminded me off the Tin Man, in need of some oil, dancing the Robot. His moves were jerky and stiff but his voice sounded perfect and his stage presence was absolutely captivating.
Half of his set came from his most recent label, Anti, with the bulk of the rest coming from his Island years. He dug into the Asylum era for three oldies: “‘Til the Money Runs Out” from Heart Attack and Vine, “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” from Blue Valentine, and the highlight of the night, “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (mp3) from Small Change.
My only real gripe of the evening would be that he didn’t play enough of the pretty stuff. Other than “Traubert’s Blues” the only real bawlers that he did were “Day After Tomorrow” (first song of the first encore) and “Time” (the final song of the final encore). I realize that it’s preposterous to expect an artist of Waits’ persuasion to retread old paths that he probably got sick of decades ago, and that’s not really what I’m asking for. But the man has written so many heartbreakingly beautiful songs, that it seems almost inhumane to keep them all locked up in a cellar somewhere while he’s out there having fun with a wild, new batch of brawlers.
And I’m not even suggesting that he necessarily needs to resuscitate the really old stuff. 2002’s Alice is chock full of pretty tearjerkers, and he ignored that album completely. But instead he focused on a set of stompers that featured plenty of bone-rattling rhythms and bluesy guitars but ended up sounding a little samey after a while. Granted, Tom Waits’ “samey” is unique enough to remain fascinating for over two hours, easy, but come on, I’ve waited 15 years for this show!
Waits seems to undervalue his ballads. Especially his piano ballads. And that’s just insane. In a surprisingly candid 2004 interview with MOJO magazine, Waits dismissed his cinematically romantic output as “Maudlin and schmaltzy. Oh yeah, I’m aware of that. My wife electrocutes me every time I do that. […] I was overly maudlin and romantic and I really hadn’t grown up, I still very much lived in a fantasy world.” So somehow the Edward Hopper fantasy world is bad but the circus freak fantasy worlds of “Eyeball Kid” and “Hoist That Rag” are okay?
I suppose he could’ve played for an additional hour without managing to do all of the songs I would’ve loved to hear, and that just proves the depth of the man’s catalog. And how much I still love those songs. Hopefully, I’ll get to see him again before he retires from the road permanently. And I better not have to wait another 15 years!
Celeb Sighting Postscript
Waiting in line to get into the Auditorium, we were about six people behind Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar from O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and John C. Reilly (who didn’t have to wait in line, apparently) walked up and talked to him for a while. Those were the only famous people I saw but I bet the place was silly with them.