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Music / Tom Waits

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"I'm not a percussionist. I just like hitting things."

"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", and "troubadour".

With that out of the way, Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949 in Pomona, California) is an innovative musician, generally classified as alternative but borrowing heavily from European and American folk music, Dark Cabaret, gospel, lounge music, pop, the blues, 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 distinct eras: his jazzy, lounge singer period, lasting from the '70s to the early '80s, and the reinvented, experimental sound of 1983's Swordfishtrombones album on, and his shift to a mysterious, Carnival-and-Sinister-Junkman persona. This shift was caused by his abandonment by Asylum Records, his breakup with Rickie Lee Jones 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 Swordfishtrombones 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 guest-starred As Himself in an episode of Fishing with John. 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, and starred in a segment of the Coen Brothers' anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a grizzled 18th Century prospector.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

References to Waits were a Running Gag on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and continue on RiffTrax, mostly because Kevin Murphy is a big fan.

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

Albums with their own pages:

Selected filmography:

He provides examples of:

  • 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 instrumental piece, also on the Closing Time album.
  • Animated Music Video: Tom Waits For No One is a rotoscoped animation short film around Tom singing "The One that Got Away".
  • Anti-Love Song: Several examples. The most on-the-nose is probably "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You".
    • 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!"
  • Author Appeal: His musical world is full of drunken and dejected vagabonds, murder, creepy carnival imagery, and the just plain weird. Lyrics about barking dogs, the moon, shipwrecks, and spoons are common across albums.
  • Badass Boast: "Goin' Out West" from Bone Machine 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. In a twist, he's mostly bragging about the appearance of being a badass; if you listen closely you'll realize it's all about being a movie star ("I ain't no extra, baby, I'm a leading man").
  • 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" from Swordfishtrombones "Dirt in the Ground" from Bone Machine and "Way Down in the Hole" from Franks Wild Years. "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" from Rain Dogs.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: He started recording in the 1970s and still releases new albums as of this day, but his music is more reminscent of old 1930s, 1940s, 1950s Jazz, Blues, Folk Rock and Country Music than of music of this day. He uses a lot of traditional instruments and his lyrics refer more to topics from that era than late 20th and early 21st century imagery. Interestingly enough, it does make his work more timeless.
  • 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 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. You know how some people can make reading the phone book sexy? Tom Waits can make reading the biology textbook sound like the diary of a deranged serial killer.
  • 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.
  • Creepy Jazz Music: He is an interesting case: he started off as a straight-up jazz crooner/pianist who just happened to have a husky voice. Then, in the early eighties, he married Kathleen Brennan, who introduced him to Beefheart. Once he heard that, he decided to adapt those musical ideas to his existing sound, leading to such classics like "Oily Night", "Dave the Butcher", "Hell Broke Luce", and "What's He Building in There?", among others. However, some of his creepiest songs eschew the jazz elements entirely.
  • Creepy Monotone: Many of his songs are whispered in a creepy, almost tuneless mutter bordering on spoken word, which generally makes him sound like a deranged Conspiracy Theorist. Especially in "What's He Building in There?"
  • 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 "Heartattack And Vine" from Heartattack and Vine 's "There ain't no Devil, there's just God when he's drunk."
  • Double Meaning: At the end of "16 Shells from a 30.6," the narrator finally catches the crow he was hunting at the start of the song. The last line of the final verse is "I strum it loud just to rattle his cage." Earlier he mentions he trapped the crow in a "Washburn jail," Washburn being a guitar manufacturer. So if one kept a crow in the soundhole of an acoustic guitar, it would not only "rattle his cage" in the idiomatic sense (i.e.: annoy/anger him), but the vibration produced from strumming the guitar would literally rattle his cage as well.
  • 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.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: "The Earth Died Screaming".
  • 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.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Inverted. When Tom sings in a deep pitch, the song is usually more idealistic - such as "All the World is Green" or "Hold On". It's when he sings in a higher register that things turn dark - consider "In the Colosseum" or "Murder in the Red Barn".
  • 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: One of the most famous examples. Lampshaded at least once during an interview.
    Interviewer: How does a guy with a voice like that decide to be a singer and succeed?
    Waits: It was either that or a career in air conditioning and refreshment.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The various-artists compilation album Son Of Rogues Gallery has Tom and Keith singing "Shenandoah" together as a duet.
  • 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."
  • Improperly Paranoid: The narrator of the poem "What's He Building In There?" is paranoid of his neighbor, with increasingly weird (maybe imagined, maybe not) details that present the neighbor as evil such as never waving as he passes, never watering his lawn, sending a lot of packages, supposedly working before in Indonesia, and the narrator swearing he heard someone moaning inside the house. The poem ends with the narrator saying "we have a right to know", meaning he's about to barge into the neighbor's house and get answers (whichever they are, of course, remains a Riddle for the Ages).
  • Job Song: "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (and See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)" is sung from the perspective of a man who does odd jobs about how he wishes he was at home with the woman he misses.
  • Laughing Mad: After Frank of the song "Frank's Wild Years" has murdered his wife and doused his house in gasoline, he parks across the street and watches it burn, laughing.
  • 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.
  • Lyrical Tic: Often interjects his more percussive songs with a guttural "Hah!"
  • Metaphorgotten: When teasing Bad As Me, he calls out people who leaked the album before its release by using metaphors. Being Tom Waits, these metaphors somehow segue into "would it be safe to jump rope with a live electrical wire."
  • Mockumentary: Several of his performance arts pieces and interviews are in this style.
  • New Sound Album: Waits' wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, whom he met in the early 80s, influenced a radical change of direction. Swordfishtrombones (1983) was the point at which stock descriptors such as "barfly" gave way to allusions to carnival freaks and the Devil.
  • Nightmare Face: The album cover of Bone Machine.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Just look at him. There's a reason Terry Gilliam cast (typecast?) him as The Devil.
  • Nosy Neighbor: "What's He Building In There?", described by Waits as "a story of the neighbor we all become."
  • Older Than They Look: Tom's never looked young, and yet shows no signs of looking old.
  • 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.
  • Prospector: His character in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • 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.
  • 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!"
  • Real Song Theme Tune/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,note  and season 5's version is by Steve Earle.)
  • Reconstruction: His music since Swordfishtrombones revives outdated Vocal Jazz of the likes of Louis Armstrong, but with a strong influence from rock and even industrial music.
  • Rock Opera: The Black Rider, Blood Money, Alice, and the Frank's Wild Years trilogy are the most obvious examples, but he dabbles in it a lot from time to time.
  • 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), the One from the Heart soundtrack (Crystal Gayle) and Bette Midler on I Never Talk to Strangers from the album ''Foreign Affairs'.
  • 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: Usually his music is more on the horror side, with the odd exception. If he's on a talk show or in between songs at a concert, however, he'll leap over to the comedy side with his surreal and sarcastic sense of humor.
  • 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. À 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".
  • Suicide by Sea: Subverted Trope in "The Ocean", where a man wants to drown himself but the ocean "doesn't want [him] today" implying he's unsuccessful.
  • Sunglasses at Night: "Burma Shave".
    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.
  • Surreal Humor: One of his other specialties, especially during talk show appearances or when teasing his new albums.
  • 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."
  • Title-Only Chorus: Of his songs that have traditional/identifiable choruses, a surprising number have these.
  • 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.
  • Vocal Evolution: His trademark harsh style wasn't exactly what he started with, but he quickly began to adopt it after his first two albums in '73 and '74.
  • 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.
  • Weird Moon: Mention of the moon, usually in a peculiar epithet like "grapefruit" or "blood-soaked", is something of a motif throughout his work.
  • Younger Than They Look: Tom Waits is one of those people who's looked like he was about forty for most of his life, so at the beginning of his career (especially combined with the "I've been smoking since Atlantis sunk" voice) this trope was definitely in effect. Nowadays, it's the opposite.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: "The Piano Has Been Drinking." Justified in that the singer is schnockered out of his mind.
    • "Step Right Up" is a cross between this and Patter Song. The words and even most of the sentences are not exactly nonsense per se, but it's very clear that the narrator of the song is just stringing words together as rapidly as possible to keep your attention. For example, "We need your business, we're going out of business, we'll give you the business, get on the business end of our going-out-of-business sale"