Tom Waits seems to have gotten into God later on. Though he first namechecked Jehovah fairly early, during the brilliant Heartattack And Vine, ‘Don’t you know there ain’t no Devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk’. Waits was more deflective on the topic during interviews, admitting a year prior to John Hamblett of NME that, ‘The only trouble with going to Heaven is that I’m scared that there’s no nightclubs up there’.
It was not until the early 90s then, a time of fertile experimentation for Waits and his lapsed Catholic wife & collaborator Kathleen Brennan, that God and religion would prefigure heavily within his music. Perhaps it was the freedom from the mythological baggage of ‘Frank’ throughout the entirety of the 1980s that set Waits off to find battle with another giant, or maybe his constant orienteering to older genres such as Gospel Blues embedded within him the confidence to tangle with deities and scripture. Regardless, for the past 25 years now God has provided a fantastic source of inspiration for Waits’ songwriting and for that we should all praise hosanna. Here’s a short chronological of Waits’ songwriting with the Lord:
Our first extended taste of Waits’ ‘testamints’ then comes through the seminal Bone Machine. An album where Waits finally define and cements his own God vision. An apathetic, omniscient mascot for apocalyptic drudgery.
Down amidst the gloomy, bone thunk of Earth Died Screaming we enter a world both of familiar religious visions, such as ‘Jacob’ and ‘the devil shovel[ing] coal’, but also one of a more metaphorical, Hieronymus Bosch plane, where beneath ‘crows big as airplanes’ there roams a three headed lion whose fellow inhabitants of this Earth who soon ‘will eat the skin that he sheds’. Clattering in with a gloriously phlegmy guile, the chorus confirms the absence of any higher being’s presence teased in the first. Our own death is falling on deaf ears amidst this ‘great day of wrath’.
In a double gut punch of an opening couplet, Dirt In The Ground continues the premise of promised redemption revoked and harsh truths confronted, ‘our spirit don’t leave knowing your face or your name. And the wind through your bones is all that remains’. Interesting too that in this this song that Waits makes direct use of the Bible to spell out his own message of doomed existence:
‘Now Cain slew Abel, he killed him with a stone
The sky cracked open and the thunder groaned
Along a river of flesh, can these dry bones live?
Take a king or a beggar, and the answer they’ll give’
The most oblique reference to this removal from belief on Bone Machine comes ingrained in the groovy mockery of Jesus Gonna Be Here. A song that continually attests with conviction to the existence of ‘my Lord’ whilst also seeming to revel in what seems ultimately foolish obedience. ‘Well, I got to keep myself, I must keep myself faithful. And you know that I’ve been so good, yeah’ claims Waits throughout. Finally conceding in the final verse that there has been no blemish on his steadfast awaiting, ‘Except for drinking. But he knew that I would, yeah’.
Intriguingly though at the close of such a nihilistic album, the closer That Feel (co-written with Keith Richards) seems to offer some hope beyond the strictures of theological deference. Whatever precisely ‘That Feel’ actually is remains unexplained and unnecessary, though we’re told both that it’s, ‘the one thing you cannot lose’ and that ‘you say that it’s gospel, but I know that it’s only a church’. The soul perhaps? A form of eternity from within? Regardless of the actual definition of ‘That Feel’ the proposition it offers at the end of such a bleak album is welcomed and invigorating.
Bone Machine’s grammy winning follow-up Mule Variations continues to tackle God in a number of interesting, if less aggressive forms. There comes a sense of somber exasperation, in particularly within the lovely, haunting ballad Georgia Lee, whose chorus depressingly asks a question to which the answer is all but known:
‘Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
for Georgia Lee?’
Take It With Me is equally measured, recalling That Feel in its confrontation of death and comfort that it finds within memory as opposed to eternal salvation, ‘There ain’t no good thing ever dies. I’m gonna take it with me when I go’. Sung at barely a whisper, this piano ballad is one of Waits’ very best.
Amidst all these heavier emotions there is of course always time for disjunctive levity within the work of Waits. And here in Mule Variations it comes in form of Chocolate Jesus, a song both sacrilegious and delicious, taking delight in the defamation of idols, reimagining the all holy lord as a contemporary of ‘Abba Zabbas’ & ‘Almond Joys’.
Again as with Bone Machine, the heavy heart of the album is remedied somewhat with a hopeful close. This time arriving with the sweeping thrum of Come On Up To The House. Wherein much like its spiritual ancestor That Feel, there is a recognition within the song of a spiritual realm unfettered by theology. Waits’ croaky voice is warm and inviting, it feels at times, like nowhere else perhaps through his back catalogue, that he is appealing directly to the listener,’ Come down off the cross, we can use the wood. You gotta come on up to the house’.
Back to being all out combative is Waits’ rallying nihilistic creed of 2002, Blood Money. ‘If there’s one thing you can say about mankind, there’s nothing kind about man’ he dolefully intones on terrific opener Misery Is The River Of The World. The follow-up Everything Goes To Hell is equally nightmarish, with Waits’ faith now being tested not in a supreme creator but even in the very morals of those around him. Forget God, Tom is struggling to even believe in:
‘A woman when she weeps
A merchant when he swears
A thief who says he’ll pay
A lawyer when he cares’
Perhaps the later addition of ‘A snake when he is sleeping’ is a biblical reference, or maybe just a volley at the very nature of animals also being suspect in such a damned world.
Most explicit on the album though is the fantastic paddywhack trundle of God’s Away On Business. The familiar themes of both the world being without salvation, ‘Join the mob, join the mob. It’s all over, it’s all over. It’s all over’ and the real leaders of the world having little care but for themselves in mind, ‘Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers!. What’s new is the direct invocation of God never returning, not that he is chocolate or isn’t going to be here soon, rather than he has left forever, an apt metaphor for the world we live where somewhere will always be willing to ‘sell your heart to the junkman baby’ and of course there’s always ‘free cheddar in a mousetrap baby’.
There comes a plurality of experience later in Waits’ career. The great Real Gone track How’s It Gonna End for example seems more concerned with the literal physical death of a person rather than the spiritual aspect promised after.
‘Behind a smoke colored curtain the girl disappeared
They found out that the ring was a fake’ Waits intones before returning to the searching, questioning chorus. ‘I wanna know the same thing everyone wants to know’ he croaks over a choked backing, ‘How’s it gonna end?’
Throughout 2006’s incredible Orphans triple-disc collection there are several mention of higher tangos, and though perhaps it’s slightly disingenuous to credit to them to any overall narrative as many of these rag-tag rarities date back to earlier days, the songs are still interesting.
Songs such as the aforementioned Take Care Of All Of My Children and Book Of Moses, an unusual track that derives directly from scripture, conjuring a canted spin on Moses delivering the tablets. This one is really worth checking out.
And finally there is the tremendous Lord I’ve Been Changed. A roaring track with no disdain or disbelief, rather it’s just Waits clearly having a ball hollerin’ gosep. And for that, we can all be grateful.
Have you heard our Tom Waits centric podcast yet? Hosted by long-time friends/fans Sam Whiles (@sidwidle1) and Tom Kwei (@tomkweipoet), ‘Down in the Hole’ explores the entire oeuvre of the American singer songwriter, album by album every fortnight.
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