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Music / The Black Rider

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Come on along with the Black Rider. We'll have a gay old time!

The Black Rider is the twelfth studio album by Tom Waits. Released in 1993 through Island Records, it is based on the stage play/musical "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets", written by William S. Burroughs in 1990 and directed by Robert Wilson for the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. For this Waits wrote the lyrics and music.

The play is an adaptation of the "folk tale" Der Freischütz from the 1810 German anthology Das Gespensterbuch ("The Book of Spectres") by August Apel and Friedrich Laun, which was translated into English by Thomas de Quincey in 1823 under the title The Fatal Marksman. Two years before that, in 1821, it was already adapted into the opera Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber and Friedrich Kind with changed names and a happy ending.

The Black Rider, which sticks closer to the 1810 story, tells how a file clerk, Wilhelm (Max in the opera), wants to marry Kätchen (Agathe in the opera), the daughter of a forester. In order to gain her hand in marriage he must prove that he is a good hunter and marksman, which he isn't. To improve his talents he strikes a Deal with the Devil, Pegleg, who offers him magic bullets that never miss their target. At first everything goes smooth. Wilhelm impresses his soon to be father-in-law and the marriage goes on as planned. However, on the wedding day Wilhelm accidentally shoots his wife dead. He goes insane and the Pegleg carries him and his soul off to hell. People familiar with William S. Burroughs' own lifestory will notice the parallel with his own accidental shooting of his wife in a drunken attempt to go William Telling with her.

The 1993 album is not a Cult Soundtrack in the sense that the music from the play is performed with different arrangements.

Waits would later collaborate with Wilson again on the plays "Alice" (1992, another Thalia Theater production) and "Woyzeck" (2000), released as Alice (2002) and Blood Money (2002).


  1. "Lucky Day (Overture)" (2:27)
  2. "The Black Rider" (3:21)
  3. "November" (2:53)
  4. "Just the Right Bullets" (3:35)
  5. "Black Box Theme" (2:42)
  6. "T' Ain't No Sin" (2:25)
  7. "Flash Pan Hunter/Intro" (1:10)
  8. "That's the Way" (1:07)
  9. "The Briar and the Rose" (3:50)
  10. "Russian Dance" (3:12)
  11. "Gospel Train/Orchestra" (2:33)
  12. "I'll Shoot the Moon" (3:51)
  13. "Flash Pan Hunter" (3:10)
  14. "Crossroads" (2:43)
  15. "Gospel Train" (4:43)
  16. "Interlude" (0:18)
  17. "Oily Night" (4:23)
  18. "Lucky Day" (3:42)
  19. "The Last Rose of Summer" (2:07)
  20. "Carnival" (1:15)

It ain't no sin to take off your skin and trope around in your bones

  • At the Crossroads: The deal with the devil is settled at the crossroads, as sang in the song "Crossroads".
    And that's where old George found himself out there at the crossroads
    Moulding the devil's bullets
  • Audience Participation: Before the play starts, the Igor of the Announcer steps down from the stage, polishing the rails, personally greeting random guests etc., hoping a TV Tropes fan is present.
  • Blood Lust: "The Black Rider":
    I'll drink your blood like wine
  • Brain in a Jar: "Lucky Day Overture" describes Hitler's brain in a jar on display.
  • Broken Record: "Oily Night" repeats the title over and over again.
  • Careful with That Axe: "Lucky Day Overture", in which Waits screams into a megaphone, and "Flash Pan Hunter", where he moans and bellows halfway the end of the song.
  • Circling Vultures: "I'll Shoot The Moon":
    A vulture circles over your head for you baby
  • Circus of Fear: The album also starts off with Waits summoning people to come and watch all the bizarre things in his sideshow circus.
  • Come to Gawk: "Lucky Day Overture" and "The Black Rider" have a ring master trying to bring in people to come and watch the freakshow.
  • Counting to Three: "Just The Right Bullets", where the musicians can be heard counting off to three and four.
  • Creepy Circus Music: A lot of music on the album has calliope-organ music, including an old carnival tune "sung" by William S. Burroughs.
  • Creepy Crows: "Flash Pan Hunter/Intro" is a gloomy tune played with cawing crows in the background.
  • Creepy Monotone: William S. Burroughs's delivery of "It Ain't No Sin" and "Oily Night", sang with a very deep voice.
  • Deal with the Devil: Wilhelm makes a deal with the devil in exchange for sharp shooting talent.
  • Dem Bones: "The Black Rider" and "It Ain't No Sin":
    When it gets too hot for comfort
    And you can't get an ice cream cone
    It ain't no sin to take off your skin
    And dance around in your bones
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Crossroads":
    Someway he got into the magic bullets and that leads straight to the Devil's work
    Just like marijuana leads to heroin
  • Evil Sounds Deep: "Oily Night" has a very deep and frightening voice repeat the title over and over again, while the music around him slowly but surely goes berserk. In the context of the play it is meant to be music for a Satanic ritual.
  • Evil Sounds Raspy: See Evil Sounds Deep.
  • Flower Motifs: The briar and the rose symbolizes Wilhelm's realization that he can't marry Käthchen (the rose) without help from Pegleg (the briar). Then, in one of Pegleg's many Villain Songs, "Flash Pan Hunter", he gloats over his impending victory with the line "The briar is strangling the rose back down." And when Käthchen dies, what's the song? "The Last Rose of Summer Is Gone".
    Picked the rose one early morn
    Pricked my finger on a thorn
    They'd grown so close, their winding wove
    The Briar and the Rose
  • The Freakshow: "Lucky Day Overture" describes several freak show artists with deformities. Tom plays a circus promoter promising "human oddities" such as a three headed baby, Hitler's brain, the human pincushion, a seal boy with flippers for arms, the man born without a body, and more!
  • Good Parents: "Lucky Day":
    Now when I was a boy
    My daddy sat me on his knee
    And he told me
    He told me many things
    And he said: "Son,
    There's a lot of things in this world
    You're gonna have no use for
    And when you get blue
    And you've lost all your dreams
    There's nothin' like a campfire and a can of beans"
  • Gothic Country Music: The album's Gothic Americana themes are consistent with this genre, if the instrumentation is a bit weirder than usual.
  • Gratuitous German: "The Black Rider" is sang with a mock German accent.
  • Gratuitous Russian: "Russian Dance" has a line in Russian: "One-two-three-four."
  • The Grotesque: The acts described in "Lucky Day Overture" feature such freak show attractions. See also Real Life Writes the Plot below.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "The Black Rider", in which the audience is guaranteed to have "a gay old time."
  • Hypocritical Humor: In the German play, the Announcer and his Igor goof around at the beginning of the 2nd act. Igor plays the radio station search button. When it turns into an Overly Long Gag, the radio plays a recorded snippet of Marcel Reich-Ranicki complaining that this is nonsense and dramaturgically drawn-out.
  • Homing Projectile: In "Crossroads", the devil gives Wilhelm magic bullets that never fail to hit their target.
  • Instrumental: "Black Box Theme", "Flash Pan Hunter/Intro", "Russian Dance", "Gospel Train/Orchestra", and "Interlude".
  • "I Want" Song: "But He's Not Wilhelm", sung by Agathe about how she wants to marry Wilhelm.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Lucky Day Overture" has a gentle musical fanfare band playing, while Waits screams in a megaphone about the bizarre things the people can see in his circus.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: The cover shows the name of the artist and the title of the album written in such big letter type that it covers the entire album cover.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Three pieces ("Flash Pan Hunter/Intro", "That's The Way", and "Carnival") clock in at about a minute. "Interlude" is eighteen seconds of gloomy trumpet.
  • One-Word Title: "November", "Crossroads", "Interlude", and "Carnival".
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The human oddities mentioned in "Lucky Day Overture" are all real-life freakshow artists from the 19th and 20th century: Lya Graf note , Percilla Bejano the monkey woman note , Jo-Jo the dog faced boy note , Milton Malone the human skeleton note , Grace McDaniels the mule-faced woman note , Sealo the seal boy "who has flippers for arms" note , Johnny Eck "the man born without a body, he walks on his hands" note , Gerd Bessler the human pincushion note , Ko-Ko the bird girl note , Mortado the human fountain note , and Radian the human torso note .
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Asking the devil to give you sharp shooting talent in exchange for your soul: you just KNOW that's gonna backfire!
  • Rock Opera: This is a prime example of a rock opera, based on the story that was also turned into the opera Der Freischütz.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "Lucky Day", sung by Wilhelm after accidentally murdering his bride-to-be on their wedding day, before being dragged off to hell by Pegleg the devil.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Lucky Day Overture" provides a shout-out to They Saved Hitler's Brain and 19th century billionaire J.P. Morgan. The song also mentions many real life sideshow artists from the 19th and early 20th century, among them Johnny Eck, Ko-Ko the bird girl, and Radian the human torso, who all appeared in Freaks.
      You'll see Hitler's brain
      See Lea Graff the German midget who sat in J.P. Morgan's lap
    • "The Black Rider" mentions "I'll drop you off in Harlem with the Black Rider", a reference to the jazz song "Drop Me Off In Harlem" by Duke Ellington.
  • Smoking Is Not Cool: "Gospel Train":
    Well, this train don't carry no smokers
  • Special Guest: "It Ain't No Sin" is "sung" by William S. Burroughs, which makes it sound all the creepier.
  • Spoken Word in Music: William S. Burroughs' singing is closer to talking than anything else.
  • Stop and Go: "Gospel Train Orchestra" is an instrumental piece which drags along and often halts, only to keep on going immediately afterwards.
  • Stripped to the Bone: "The Black Rider" and "It Ain't No Sin".
    When it gets too hot for comfort
    And you can't get an ice cream cone
    It ain't no sin to take off your skin
    And dance around in your bones
  • Tick Tock Tune: "Oily Night".
  • The Tragic Rose: "The Last Rose of Summer":
    I'm taking out my winter clothes
    My garden knows what's wrong
    The petals of my favorite rose
    Be in the shadows dark and long
  • Train Song: "Gospel Train":
    Listen to me, come on people
    Cause it's starting to rain
    Get on board
    Ride the gospel train
    Don't listen to the devil
    He got ways to fool you
  • Villain Song: "Just The Right Bullets" and "Flash Pan Hunter", sung by Pegleg the devil. "Oily Night" goes along with a satanic ritual.