DITH co-host Sam Whiles mines the eclectic, dangerous and downright weird videography of Waits
Tom Waits’ music videos have always been fittingly odd affairs. The way a video can pigeonhole a song’s interpretation is no doubt something that doesn’t appeal to Waits’ recalcitrant musical vision, so the few we do have are predominantly style over substance. Offerings of poignant, eclectic imagery that avoid ever being bogged down in fringe concerns like context, plot or even a sense of cohesion.
Indeed Waits’ music videos can be seen almost as anti the genre as a whole, seeking to mock the establishment of what we expect. There is no magnum opus, Thriller-esque filmmaking here. The videos detailed below are cheap and clearly all shot in one day, perhaps even one take – something which gifts them all a real, incidental energy. The productions are typically made in-house with Waits’ trusted circle of friends (Jesse Dylan, Andres Lövgren et al.), all of whom utilising Tom’s natural acting and performance talents.
Overall, the one thing that unites all of Tom’s video endeavours is their inventiveness. No two are the same and they are always a delight to revisit and rewatch. It’s just a shame then that you will never see them on television.
- ‘Temptation’ (Dir. Betzy Bromberg)
Our first foray into Franks Wild Years finds the dream world of that album in full effect. Tom is dressed in full Frank regalia, complete with Ferrari red lipstick and fireworks exploring behind. The fireworks themselves pair suitably with the videos varied and styled primary colour palette of light effects.
One of the shots from the video looks like it was used for the Beautiful Maladies album cover. It’s just fun enough for a mid-eighties experimental video, but don’t expect to rush back it. If you’re yet to see it though, any excuse to see Tom wielding an accordion is enough for me.
- ‘Lie To Me’ (Dir. Danny Clinch)
Rather than adhering to the stand 42 frames per second format, what Waits offers us here is a series of photographs of himself maniacally jumping around a warehouse space whilst playing his guitar. Oddly enough these still images seem to infer more exuberant oomph than film ever could.
The interesting concept sadly gets a little stale over this slightly stale song. Why was this chosen from all the classics that populate the mighty Orphans? We should’ve gotten at least a ‘You Can Never Hold Back Spring’ video, but maybe that’s just me.
- ‘Blow Wind Blow’ (Dir. Chris ‘Big Time’ Blum)
In a delightful twist on the ungodly demands of lip-synching, Tom decides here to have a marionette just do all the singing for him. The creepy Waitsian twist to this baffling visage though is that it is actually a real woman, with this inference forcing some uncomfortable questions of morality and reappropriation into the mix with this Franks Wild Years ballad.
Again like the aforementioned ‘Temptation’ there is a mocking element to the showbiz staging here with Waits planted on an empty stage. There is also a cute little reference to the heartbreaking short film ‘The Balloon’.
- ‘Satisfied’ (Dir. Jesse Dylan)
The first entry by the son of some famous folk guy is a dirty pleasure for me purely because I get a real kick from seeing Waits dancing a cheeky jig (quite decently I may add) well into his sixties.
It is enjoyably simple and, indeed, satisfying, because it has a real vigour behind it. Despite the fact that it’s just ol’ Tom Frost in front of a dilapidated fence with a strobe light, we have fun watching it because Waits clearly had great fun making it.
- ‘What’s He Building In There?’ (Dir. Anders Lövgren)
I genuinely though this was fan-made for 5+ years until a simple Wikipedia search proved me wrong. Waits is noticeable absent from this affair, but that only serves to add to the ratcheted tension of what may be going on behind closed doors. Very much in the vein of The Blair Witch Project the shaky hand-held camerawork acts either as the POV perspective of a peeping Tom or even perhaps the camera of a nosey neighbour trying to get the scoop on the mysterious sounds of construction he can hear.
The fact that we see very little in this track again helps emphasise the dual tension/humour of the lyrics. The footage is old, it is grainy and perhaps hints at an evil older than mankind itself.
- ‘Come On Up To The House’ (Dir. Anders Lövgren)
Lövgren’s second Mule Variations video is another with a definite fan-made feel. Tom again too makes no appearance; rather instead we have a close-up of an unknown figure (perhaps an attempt to represent all humanity), as they are plastered in the timeless words of this incredible track.
- ‘Goin’ Out West’ (Dir. Jesse Dylan)
Out of all of Waits’ music videos, this is perhaps the most parodic of them all. A number incredibly telling of his dealings with Island Records and their misguided attempt to flog Tom to the then burgeoning alternative rock scene.
Ever the watcher, Waits was of course aware of this and proceeds to stick up his finger middle to all of it. Full of menacing steam and spreading darkness, ‘Goin’ Out West’ is a vibrant, chugging beast, driven by aggressive, restless energy.
Whilst it may try to mock videos as a whole, it still ends up delivering something extremely entertaining, and who can resist Waits in those silly goggles?
- ‘In The Neighbourhood’ (Dir. Haskell Wexler)
Here we have Waits’ very first outing into the music video format. Shot behind his house on a shoestring budget, it’s a great little precursor of all his videos to come but as with anything Swordfishtrombones it is anything but normal.
There comes an interesting warping of the lens endowing an off kilter feel to the whole affair, along with the monochromatic, historical sepia filter. As the warped P.T Barnum style circus ringleader Tom is unsurprisingly perfect.
- ‘Hell Broke Luce’ (Dir. Matt Mahurin)
This piece not only heralded the excellent Bad As Me in full force, but also marks Tom’s entrance to the digital age. The wild video a cornucopia of mind-bending imagery that truly shows how oddly politicised Waits can be. An assault on the corneas in the best possible way.
- ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ (Dir. Jesse Dylan)
Emblematic of the great song itself, Tom seems throughout this fantastic video to have literally gotten too big too fast for his liking, masterfully yet subtly illustrating his feelings of entrapment and enclosure. I just love the way his body is contorted into weird shapes no man in his late forties should ever have to commit too. Like the aforementioned ‘Goin’ Out West’ too, Waits again mocks the notion of playing a guitar ‘falsely’ for the purposes of a music video, though this time he rather appropriately and hilariously strums a child’s miniature guitar.
The clip starts oddly enough not with the song as advertised but with little excerpts from ‘Let Me Get Up On It’, whilst Waits fools around in his horned, caped, and goggled Bone Machine regalia. It is always satisfying to know that Tom doesn’t, and has never, taken himself all too seriously and his display of pure child-like, wild abandon whilst being utterly endearing also links perfectly with the songs themes of a reluctance to ever mature. May Tom never grow up
- ‘God’s Away On Business’ (Dir. Jesse Dylan)
Judging by the viewing figures on YouTube this may be many people’s first encounter Waits, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing – no one’s ever going to say start with Blood Money are they?
Where to start, well again it’s in monochrome and it is mostly just Tom singing into the camera. Yet here it is where the regularities cease. What follows is a fantastic cavalcade of bizarre and outlandish imagery that would make Carroll blush. Tom dancing on stilts with emus? Check. A set dressing of black balloons? Check, the list goes on. There’s a great little shot where he plays around with manipulating the image of his mouth through a magnifying glass, which he does also in ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’.
And for astute Mule Variations fans, there is a subtle sly cameo from the octopus umbrella, from the album sleeve art. Who knew Tom had a metatextual canon to his imagery?
Which Waits songs do you feel deserve a video but never got one? Let us know in the comments.
- Rain Dogs
- Cold Water
- Road To Peace
- Hoist That Rag
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