Bootleg Country: Tom Waits - Live in Hamburg, 1977
My brother and I have always had something of a strained relationship. He is four years older than me which means he was always way ahead of me in everything – when I entered high school he graduated, when I went to college he had finished his term in the Navy and was well into the work force. Beyond the age difference we’ve never had much in common. We’re just two different people him and me. Sometimes I am amazed that two such amazingly different personalities came out of the same gene pool, yet here we are.
One thing we do share is a love of movies. Whenever we get together (which is an all too rare thing) we always find common ground in the movies that we’ve seen. Music is something we also share but for whatever reasons our conversations rarely turn in that direction. Sure, once in awhile we’ll talk about concerts that are coming to town and we often banter about whatever happens to come on the radio. I remember one memorable moment when we both gave high praise to Queensryche after hearing “Jet City Woman.”
The last few times I have been in town my brother has brought up Tom Waits, and the conversation has always gone something like this:
My brother: “You ever heard of Tom Waits?”
Me: “Yeah, he’s a good song writer, but I just can’t get past that voice.”
Brother: “I know, it is like a sad clown gurgling rocks underwater. A friend of mine swears by him, but I just can’t take it. I’d rather listen to my ex-wife give me a detailed account of what’s wrong with me.”
That’s not verbatim mind you, but it is somewhere in the ball park. The conversation is weird not only because we’re talking about music, and we usually don’t, but that we’re talking about a not that popular artist without provocation. It isn’t like Mr. Waits comes on the radio much in Oklahoma, or is played heavily on MTV to prompt our conversation. But there it is, us talking about him.
For my part I am not as adamant as my brother and I mean what I said. When I hear his songs I typically think the craft is really interesting, but his voice just tears out my lungs. I have several of his albums, and try as I might to get through them I usually stop short somewhere before the end.
I heard an interview with Waits on NPRs “Fresh Air” program where he admitted that he had groomed that voice. That he actually tried to make it sound like that. I was taken aback. I could understand being given a crap voice and making the most of it. I can deal with someone not being able to sing a note, but writing some songs and having a go at it anyway. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would intentionally sound like that.
Then I listened to this show from Cold War Germany the year after I was born, and I got it. I get it now.
That voice is part of the point. It might even be The Point.
Tom Waits isn’t singing a pretty love song. He doesn’t create religious arias. He’s singing about the seedier side of life. The back alleys, the other side of the tracks, the places and things not talked about in polite company. And his voice fits.
He’s a carnival barker for skid row. He’s the strip club MC. He’s the guy standing outside the porno theatre shouting “Live nude girls! Come inside and see it all!” He’s the uncle who’s lived hard, and if you talk to him when he’s outside smoking a cigarette he might just tell you stories you ought not hear, and probably shouldn’t believe.
The music from this show is a stripped down affair, but fits perfectly into the concept. There’s the piano that sounds like it comes from a cheap hotel bar. The saxophone is straight out of something playing late at night on Cinemax. The drums slink a beat just begging for some girl to come take her clothes off. The players are good, but it sounds like something I should be ashamed of in the morning.
Waits maintains his dirty old man persona throughout, even when he’s announcing a fifteen minute cigarette break, or taking song requests (most of which he promptly doesn’t play.) In the songs he growls and grunts and gets down into the muck. He has a storytellers eye for detail, and a hustler’s ear for timing. While his songs are often dirty, they are usually brilliant and at times hilarious.
On songs like “The Piano Has Been Drinking” Waits sounds like he has been drinking an extraordinary amount himself and is making the song up right there on the spot. Then on songs like “Emotional Weather Report” you can hear the great care he has taken in creating the music. In every case there is a sense of his genius. He’s created a character and invented a persona that allows a certain amount of ludicrousness, but have no doubt that Tom Waits is in control of the situation. He is a performer of the highest regard, and with this show is on his way to making one more fan. Me
I’m not quite there yet. I’m not yet ready to dive headlong into total fandom. I don’t suspect any of his albums, or this bootleg will make it into heavy rotation any time soon. I’m glad to say I finally get it though, and I can truly appreciate what he’s doing. I look forward to digging through his work a little more to see what other dirty treasure he has in store.
Now if I can only figure out how to tell my brother all this.
View the show setlist.