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Music: Tom Waits

"We all hear our own stories in our favorite songs (that is why Tom Waits sings in werewolf language—you can pretend it is about anything you want!)."

"This is a man who writes songs for the angels and sings them in the voice of Beelzebub. The Carny, the Sideshow, the circus freak show is a world I've always wanted to be in, and that's exactly where Tom Waits is."

Describe Tom Waits here.

Okay... but how?

Well, everyone seems to use the cliched phrases like "whiskey soaked," "gravelly-voiced," "barfly," "hobo," "raconteur troubadour."

With that out of the way, Tom Waits is an innovative musician, generally classified as Alternative, but borrowing heavily from European and American folk music, gospel, lounge music, pop, the blues, cabaret, and occasionally country and even rap (he beatboxes on the 2004 album Real Gone and Atmosphere's When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, and he appears on N.A.S.A's "Spacious Thoughts").

His work can be divided into two periods, his jazzy, lounge singer period, lasting from the '70s to the late '80s, and the reinvented, experimental sound of his "Swordfishtrombones" album on, and his shift to a mysterious, Carnival-and-Sinister-Junkman persona. This shift was caused by his abandonment by Asylum Records and his marriage to his co-songwriter and muse Kathleen Brennan. Brennan introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart, whose influence can be seen in "Swordfishtrombone" and later albums.

He is known for his theatricality, dark and dense lyrical style, and a charming sense of humor - he's one of the few musicians that tend to get long interview sessions on late night talk shows, occasionally getting more laughs than the host. He wrote the scores of four musicals: "Franks Wild Years" [sic], written with Kathleen, and his collaborations with Robert Wilson, "The Black Rider", "Alice," "Woyzeck" (the last being released as Blood Money).

He has also acted in several films, notably Coffee and Cigarettes as himself, Down By Law as a radio DJ who gets framed, Mystery Men as a Mad Scientist, Bram Stoker's Dracula as Renfield, and Wristcutters: A Love Story as Kneller, whose dog is missing. He plays Mr. Nick (the Devil) in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which also happens to be Heath Ledger's last film, and he was a bird named Virgil in Rosto A.D.'s Monster Of Nix. He also played one of the eponymous Seven Psychopaths.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making him either the second (after REM) or third (depending on if you count The Velvet Underground or Talking Heads) Alternative Rock artist to be inducted.

References to Waits were a Running Gag on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Also, for some reason, he's the curator of The Museum Of Everything.


He provides examples of:

  • A Date with Rosie Palms: From Nighthawks At The Diner:
    "Well usually about 2.30 in the morning you've ended up taking advantage of yourself. There ain't no way around that you know. Yeah, making a scene with a magazine, there ain't no way around. "
  • Album Title Drop: From Closing Time "Now it's closing time/the music's fading out." Which comes from "I Hope I don't Fall In Love With You" and not "Closing Time," the song, also on the Closing Time album.
  • Anti-Love Song: Several examples.
    • Especially notable that he didn't really start writing actual love songs until his sixth album, Heart Attack and Vine.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: From "God's Away On Business":
    "Who are the ones that we kept in charge? Killers, thieves, lawyers!"
  • Badass Boast: "Goin' Out West" is all about his character boasting about his looks and how badass he is, specifically saying he knows karate and voodoo and can handle himself in a high speed chase. He's got the scars and chest hair to prove it.
  • Band Toon: While not a straight example, he was featured in an early music video featuring a rotoscoped version of himself and a stripper. It was called "Tom Waits For No One," and was unreleased until published on YouTube. It's the only Oscar-winning music video of all time.
  • Beneath the Earth: He often uses subterranean imagery, such as his songs "Underground," "Dirt in the Ground," and "Down, Down, Down." "Underground" is supposedly about Tom Waits' dream of a colony of dwarves living under a city.
  • Big Applesauce: Rain Dogs was written during a point where Tom was living in New York. It shows.
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: "Cemetery Polka"
  • Careful With That Axe: Near the end of "Swordfishtrombone," a song where most of the vocals are somewhat quiet, Tom Waits lets out a loud scream.
  • Child Ballad: He has his own version of Ballad #10, "The Twa Sisters," from his album "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards." Take a listen.
  • Circus of Fear: His songs are soaked to the bone in the imagery of the carnival, and the Devil Pegleg in The Black Rider is the leader of a twisted carnival of lost souls.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "Hell Broke Luce" has a couple of F-bombs in it.
  • Collector of the Strange: In real life, Waits collects exotic instruments and strange bits of Americana, such as a mouse trap activated by the mouse chewing through a string (as seen in his 2012 appearance on Letterman's show).
  • Cool Old Guy: Oh, definitely.
  • Cool Shades: "In Shades"
  • Cosmic Plaything: The main character of Blood Money, Woyzeck, is definitely one of these.
  • The Cover Changes The Meaning: His version of "Heigh Ho" has been described as "the theme tune for midget slave labor." Take a listen and see if you don't agree.
    • Legend has it that Disney were on the phone when they heard about it, but not for the reason you'd think. His version is so weird that, supposedly, not even Disney recognized it as their own song.
    • A very strange example. Army Ants is taken from a book about insects, but the way he reads it, sounds like the ramblings of a Conspiracy Theorist.
  • Crapsack World: "Town with No Cheer", "9th and Hennepin", "Potter's Field", and "Children's Story" (which he didn't write). A lot of the settings he has used are this.
  • Dance Sensation: Parodied with "The Metropolitan Glide", which - from the instructions given in the lyrics - is utterly undanceable.
  • Darker and Edgier: "Bone Machine".
  • Deadpan Snarker: Plenty of interviews show that he is one. His habit of telling tall tales at live shows also qualifies.
  • Devil but No God: a common theme in his lyrics is to play with this trope in some way, such as God's away on business, or Heart Attack and Vine's "There ain't no Devil, there's just God when he's drunk."
  • Dream Team: "N.A.S.A. featuring Kool Keith and Tom Waits". Only one song ("Spacious Thoughts") unfortunately.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Some people who were introduced to him during his Island Records/ANTI-Records years find his stuff from the '70s through the early '80s to be this. The early stuff is actually mostly less weird.
  • Either/Or Title: Most of the songs on Small Change are titled this way - for instance, "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)".
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Two of Tom Waits' musicals-turned-albums - Alice and The Black Rider - use frequent German words and fake accents to creepy effect. This reaches its logical conclusion with "Kommieneszuspadt" (sung by the White Rabbit), whose lack of any real meaning cleverly allows the listener to imagine something far nastier than anyone could ever write.
  • Flower Motifs: "The Briar and the Rose" most prominently, but really, this is all over The Black Rider.
  • Gag Dub: Inverted in this video, which overlays "God's Away On Business" with video clips that make it appear to be sung by Cookie Monster.
  • Gallows Humor: Common, with Frank's Wild Years being the most obvious example.
  • Genre-Busting: At least one third of his catalog falls into this category.
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: In-Universe in "Big in Japan", which is a send-up of such an individual ó though Tom Waits is slightly more popular in Europe than he is in America.
  • Grotesque Gallery: Invoked with the line "My friends think I'm ugly / I've got a masculine face", from "Goin' Out West". On top of that, Waits - despite actually being a fairly handsome guy, given his age - makes a lot of really weird faces. Plus the numerous songs about circus/carnival freaks.
  • Growing Up Sucks: "I Don't Wanna Grow Up", obviously.
  • Guttural Growler: Does this even need to be said?
  • Harsh Vocals: Ditto.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Often done deliberately, since Tom loves resurrecting old slang expressions. "I Can't Wait To Get Off Work And See My Baby" is one of the more egregious examples, using "jerk off" to mean "slack off".
  • Hell Hotel: the music video for "God's Away on Business" looks like a hotel, but it was actually filmed at his house. By the son of Bob Dylan. While it is entirely plausible that the emus were added for the video shoot, it is equally possible that Tom Waits just lets live emus wander around his house.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: For "The Piano Has Been Drinking", Waits lapses into this with both his vocals and the instruments (including numerous missed piano cues), all done intentionally to give the idea that the singer is drunk.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: The narrator from "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" is definitely one.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: The stories he tells during his concerts are often littered with these, as shown on the second disc of "Glitter And Doom Live:"
    "I've never known a lobster to donate anything to charity. You wanna know why? They're shellfish!"
    (Audience groans)
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Midnight Lullaby" riffs on "Song of Sixpence", "Jockey Full of Bourbon" features "Ladybird, Ladybird," and "Clap Hands" features "3,6,9, the Goose Drank Wine," but without any sinister intent. But a better example of this trope is his use of lullaby-like sounds on Alice and Blood Money, in "Everything You Can Think Of Is True" and "Misery Is the River of the World." Also found on Blood Money is the track "Lullaby," an original lullaby with sinister, depressing lyrics.
    • Here's the most disturbing cover of a Disney song ever recorded. Appropriately, the album's called Stay Awake.
  • Keith Richards: On Rain Dogs, offers guitar and backing vocals in "Union Square," "Big Black Mariah" and "Blind Love."
    • And on Bone Machine, he and Tom do a Gravel And Gravel duet on "That Feel".
    • Richards makes a collaborative comeback on Bad As Me, providing guitar parts for the songs "Chicago", "Satisfied", "Last Leaf" (in which he also sings backup), and "Hell Broke Luce". He's even name-dropped along with Mick Jagger in "Satisfied".
    Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards/I will scratch where I've been itching.
  • Knife-Throwing Act: "Circus" from his 2004 album Real Gone features a knife throwing act as part of the eponymous travelling show.
    Only once, in Sheboygan, did he miss. And he took off a miniscule portion of her ear.
  • I Lied: Before playing "Innocent When You Dream," "This is a song my dad taught me when I was a kid. Thatís a lie. This is a song I learned from kids I met in a back alley. Thatís also a lie. This is a song I learned from Gregory Peck. That too is a lie. Theyíre all lies. The whole song is a lie. No itís not. I learned this song from Pavarotti."
  • Lipstick Mark
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "Walking Spanish", "Flower's Grave", "Alice" and others.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Frank's Wild Years". The song on Swordfishtrombones specifically, not the album. Generally, that voice makes touching love ballads sound like funeral songs.
  • Mockumentary: Several of his performance arts pieces and interviews are in this style.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Great Scott. The genres can change at the drop of a hat, often within the same album.
  • Nightmare Face: The cover of Bone Machine.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Just look at him. There's a reason Terry Gilliam cast (typecast?) him as The Devil.
  • Not Christian Rock: References to God, the Devil, Jesus, and other religious motifs are fairly common in his lyrics (notably "Way Down in the Hole," which was even covered by the Gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama), but whether that's a statement of faith or just the influence of Gospel/Americana style is anybody's guess. After all, this is the same man who once opined: "...there ain't no Devil/There's just God when he's drunk."
  • Ode To Sobriety: "The Piano Has Been Drinking" is a type 1.
  • Opening Chorus: "Woyzeck" features "Misery's the River of the World." Notably, only the opener on the album, and not in the musical.
  • Protest Song: "The Day After Tomorrow", an anti-war song, "Road to Peace," about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and "Hell Broke Luce", about the suicide of Iraq War veteran Jeff Lucey.
  • Real Song Theme Tune and Thematic Theme Tune: The Wire uses "Way Down In The Hole". Each season with a different version - season 1 by The Blind Boys of Alabama, season 2 was Waits's original, season 3 was by The Neville Brothers, Season 4 was an R&B version by Domaje, and season 5's version is by Steve Earle)
  • Rock Opera
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Waits has turned down numerous offers to use his songs in commercials, even going so far as to sue companies to prevent it, the one exception being for a charity.
    • Though Waits is generally considered an Unreliable Narrator, both he and others have repeatedly stressed that were it not for said lawsuits he never would have been able to pursue his career as long as he did. He wound up making far more from refusing to allow his music be used in adverts than he ever did from his modest-at-best album sales.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Waits tends to be the only guy doing vocals on most of his albums - exceptions include Rain Dogs and Bone Machine (Keith Richards) and the One From The Heart soundtrack (Crystal Gayle).
    • Don't forget about Bette Midler on I Never Talk to Strangers from the album Foreign Affair.
  • Shaped Like Itself: In the song "New Year's Eve," "what sounded like fireworks turned out to be just what it was."
  • Shout-Out: To Edward Hopper's painting "The Nighthawks" in Nighthawks at the Diner.
  • Signs of the End Times: "Earth Died Screaming" deals with this.
  • Slogan Yelling Megaphone Guy: Part of his stage persona.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: He plays one in "Step Right Up," cramming as many Advertising Tropes as possible into hawking a product.
  • Soprano and Gravel: Pretty much any time he performs a duet, probably most notably with Bette Midler and Crystal Gayle.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: A meta example. ņ la Pink Floyd and The Wizard of Oz, a fan synced Waits' albums Foreign Affair and Blood Money with, unbelievably... Disney's Pinocchio. The scariest part? It works perfectly.
  • Spoonerism: Occurs in several quotes attributed to Waits, such as "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" and "Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends."
  • Stalker with a Crush: The album Alice is all about this. Some of the songs are tragic odes to a love that can never be, while others are more sinister. Reaches probably its most uncomfortable point with "Watch Her Disappear."
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Exaggerated in his song "Fish and Bird", off of the above Alice. It still manages to be a Tear Jerker.
  • A Storm Is Coming: "Earth Died Screaming" and "Strange Weather."
  • Stylistic Suck: "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "I'll Take New York".
  • Sunglasses at Night: "Burma Shave". Complete with Reality Ensues.
    And when they pulled her from the wreck, you know, she still had on her shades...
  • Super Fun Happy Thing of Doom: The trope name is invoked almost literally as the title of the concert album Glitter and Doom.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: At the end of "The Piano's Been Drinking", the entire song is revealed to be one.
  • Talky Bookends: In the video for "Downtown Train."
  • Technology Marches On: Those of the cellphone generation may be confused by references to asking an operator for a phone number and a fee for a long distance call from 1973's "Martha."
  • Teenage Death Songs: "Burma Shave".
  • Three Chords and the Truth: He uses a collection of vintage equipment (including a calliope!), instruments salvaged from junkyards, and has recorded album tracks outside or in barns.
  • Villain Song:
    • "Just the Right Bullets" and "Flash Pan Hunter" from The Black Rider are from the Devil's POV.
    • "Everything Goes to Hell" and "God's Away on Business" from his version of Woyzeck and its soundtrack album, Blood Money
  • War Is Hell: "Hell Broke Luce", which is pretty much a long profanity laced rant from an Old Soldier in Iraq. "WHAT. IS. NEXT?!" Also, the much more somber "Day After Tomorrow."
    • That title isn't a typo, "Hell Broke Luce" is about a real soldier that committed suicide - Jeff Lucey, who was Driven to Suicide by posttraumatic stress and hanged himself in 2004.
  • The Windy City: Appropriately titled song "Chicago".
  • Word Salad Lyrics: "The Piano Has Been Drinking." Justified in that the singer is schnockered out of his mind.

His works are also used as quotes on the following pages:

His works feature in:
  • NCIS- Ziva is singing a Tom Waits song at the beginning of the season six opener. Yes, that is actually Cote de Pablo singing.
  • As mentioned above, as the opening song of The Wire, sung by a different person or group for each season (and by himself for season 2).
  • Jordon sings "Innocent When You Dream" in an episode of Crossing Jordan.
  • The first Hellboy movie - "Heartattack & Vine" is playing when we first meet the adult HB.
  • Fight Club - When they first go into the bar basement, you can hear "Goin' Out West" playing.
  • Shrek 2 - Cpt. Hook can be seen playing "Little Drop of Poison". Later on, Hook sings Nick Cave's "People Ain't No Good".
  • Robots - "Underground" plays over a creepy factory scene.
  • "Earth Died Screaming" is used in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys to chilling effect.
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room featured "What's He Building?" at the beginning and "God's Away on Business" over the end credits.
  • "Dead and Lovely" is used at the beginning of Wristcutters: A Love Story
  • "All the Word is Green" and "Green Grass" feature in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.
  • He collaborated with Crystal Gayle for the soundtrack of the musical One From The Heart.
  • He also composed and performed the score and two original songs for Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth.
  • Homicide: Life on the Street, the drug-themed, proto-''Wire episode "Bad Medicine" opens with "Til the Money Runs Out" and ends with "Cold Cold Ground."
  • The book Sandman Slim has "Alice" as a song haunting the protagonist (whose murdered girlfriend was named Alice). At one point, his worst enemy makes a jukebox play it just to taunt him.
  • The second episode of ''Bunheads has a ballet piece set to "Picture In A Frame".
  • "Soldier's Things" plays during the last scene of Jarhead.
  • In an episode of The Walking Dead Beth sings "Kold On" at the end.

Rufus WainwrightMusicians/Alternative IndieThe Wallflowers

alternative title(s): Tom Waits
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