"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.
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.
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).
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.
Fake Russian: It would seem the Russian Dance song from Black Rider musical wouldn't be worth mentioning as this (especially since Waits almost correctly utters the "one-two-three-four" in Russian there). But the thing is, Waits really doesn't like Russia and repeatedly rejected gig offers from the country, despite a massive following among Russian intellectuals; what's more, the song has been used as one of the themes for the dark and absurd movie about Russian backwater, The Truce (also despite the song not being anything like Russian in its musical style, but rather Gypsy/Balkan).
Flower Motifs: "The Briar and the Rose" most prominently, but really, this is all over The Black Rider.
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.
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.
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!"
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 "You Are 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."
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."
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)
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.
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."