Tom Waits (YGtCTO Music #57)

Innocent When You Dream


Song written and performed by Tom Waits

The revelation of pop music for me was not the Beatles or the Stones or even the Who- none of the Brit invasion. Psychedelic rock, punk and new wave were all wonderful. Even disco had a point that could be felt. In so very many ways, every change to rock and roll has relied on visceral appeal. It just reached right into your body and grabbed one or more organs.

No, the shock was the unapologetic intelligence of Tom Waits. That first exposure was like an inoculation. It prepares you for more, though you’re not really sure what you’re in for. It might be really good, but your ears were not really expecting what they just heard. No matter what your steady diet of music had been, this is not expected.

Smart kids have always been attracted to music. Plenty of brains have gone into the past century of recorded music, from Giorgio Moroder and Christoph von Dohnányi to Joe Strummer and Madonna Louise Ciccone. But nothing like the lyrics and musical settings feels like Tom Waits. Except…

Tom Waits

Something about his songs feels like moments of 20th century literature distilled through Kurt Weill. I don’t know if you need to like the Threepenny Opera before you can enjoy Tom Waits, but I don’t think many people dislike only one of them or vice versa.

So, a light went on.
I wanted to ascribe terms like “epic” and “poetic” to those first doses. But that was not really the case with the works of William Burroughs or Kurt Vonnegut or Raymond Chandler. Moments felt important because they touched on the personal. Perhaps the minutes of our lives could be epic, but really that was subjective.

If the printing press and mass productions taught us nothing else, it was that we could all create art for group consumption and people would, in fact, consume it. While we grapple with the implications of the direct delivery systems now in place for art, people like Tom Waits presaged the struggle of the subjective and the objective in popular art.

The playful word games of Bob Dylan became dense images about non-traditional subjects. The musical arrangements incorporated sounds (including that voice) which required surrender from the audience to a newfound beauty. The style appealed to those with a taste for the unusual- the very audience who had made all those odd books so popular in earlier decades.

What’s it all about?

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 131 more to go.

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