Friday, May 23, 2008

Why Waits?

I can't say for certain when I became a fan of Tom Waits. I remember being at a party at a friend of mine's house around '93 and he was drunkenly trying to explain to me why Swordfishtombone was not only the best Tom Waits' record, but one of the best records of all time. "Fuck the Beatles," I believe he said, "This is the real shit."

But I was into Tom before that. No doubt it was probably the way most people get into Tom Waits. You're attending university and someone plays Closing Time and you think this quite possibly might be one of the greatest things you've ever heard in your life. And why had it taken until you got to university to hear something this Goddamn brilliant.

Closing Time tends to be the alpha and omega for many people and Waits. It's not that his later stuff is bad. A lot of it, lyrically speaking, is much better. But the voice is what gets a lot of people. Waits voice gets progressively gruffer and more raw as he gets older. Now, I have no problem with that. I've always liked my male singers to sound like their vocal chords have been put through a meat grinder - Robbie Robertson, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, etc. No idea why, I just do. They're as far from pitch perfect as it gets, but they all have character. The voice tells the story almost as well as the lyrics they're singing.

So I like Waits a lot. Not all of his stuff is genius, but he hits more than most. One of my favourite recordings isn't even out as a proper CD as far as I know. He did a VH1 Unplugged special a few years ago. I found a copy of the audio online and it's magical. A lot of great Waits songs, done unplugged, obviously, but in-between songs he's telling all these great and strange stories. It's worth it if you can hunt it down.

So why am I mentioning Waits? Well, while I like him, Cathy really doesn't care much for him. She likes some of Closing Time and a smattering of other songs ("San Diego Serenade" comes to mind), but other than that, can't listen to him. She calls him "goat boy" because, well, his voice reminds her of a goat. Sacrileige, I know. But I guess I'll stay married to her.

(I kid, I kid)

One of her long standing theories is that she knows Waits is a great songwriter, but maybe his songs would work better for her if they were sung by someone else. I have to hunt down a copy of Holly Cole's Temptation at some point and see if she would like that. But on a whim, I thought perhaps Scarlett Johansson's new CD Anywhere I lay my head might be all right. I figured her voice would be about as far removed from Waits as possible, so perhaps that would make the music more palatable.

Dear God, I could not have been more wrong. What a hideous disaster. Waits' voice might be gruff, but by God it has character. You can sense the pain, longing, bemusement or anger when he sings. Johansson's voice is just empty. It's like listening to air try to sing. There is an absence of character and feeling when she sings these songs. It's like she doesn't understand, at all, what she's singing. Or simply doesn't posses the voice to be able to show those emotions.

It's a terrible record that will shortly be purged from my iPod.

Then again, I'm trying to think of how many artists have been able to successfully cover Waits. I'm open to suggestions, but I can't think of any. Cole's record, if I recall, was a noble failure. Natalie Merchant tried to cover "I hope I don't fall in love with you" and managed to miss the point of the song completely by trying to turn it into a pretty little pop song.

And I will personally hunt you down and harm you if you suggest Rod Stewart's "Downtown Train" as it as Abomination before God. Stewart will probably have a lot to answer for when he dies. Butchering this song will surely be high up on the list (his version of "People get ready" with Jeff Beck almost makes up for it. But not quite).

So there you go. Do not buy Johansson's album. I admire the guts. I really do. That doesn't mean I have to admire the album.

Top Five Current Favourite Tom Waits songs
1. Beautiful when you dream
2. Bottom of the world
3. San Diego Serenade
4. Hang down your head in sorrow (live)
5. I don't want to grow up


Anonymous said...

How about Rod Stewart doing Downtown Train? I kid, I kid. I remember thinking when it came out "How can anyone prefer this over Waits?" Big
Waits fan, since I first heard him, 1983 in Thompson Mb.

Mireille Sampson said...

Sarah McLachlan covered Ol' 55 and did a god job of it. I prefer Waits' version, but Cathy might like Sarah's.

colette said...

Saw Dylan last night (neener, neener). Unfortunately, I couldn't snag Cohen tickets. Great show, great evening, excellent musicians all.

towniebastard said...

I'd forgotten about McLachlan's cover. I remember liking it when it first came out. Just relistened to it on iTunes. Not so much anymore, but I think I'm just done with Mclachlan. So's Cathy as it didn't do much for her either.

But nice try.

The one artist I'd like to hear take a crack at Waits wold be Neko Case. I think she would do a good job.

Anonymous said...

Must have been tired last night, seeing as I used your words to leave a comment.

There is/was a Tribute album to Waits' songs called "Step Right Up" with the likes of 10,000 Maniacs, Violent Femmes etc. I've never heard it though so I can't make any sort of recommendation.

Scarlet said...

Holly Cole and I had a conversation about how most artists are not only digitally enhanced on recordings now but that they lip sync 90% of their songs when live. Her comment was... how stupid am I for singing every song live?
I'm pretty sure Johansson's singing is just more fake and bad fake at that.
Wait's Chocolate Jesus is my all time favourite. I love that man. I get to see Cohen on June 8th and I am counting the minutes.

towniebastard said...

Yeah, I know that people have been using digital enhancement on vocal tracks for years. But I think the difference is that they tend to become flashes in the pan. The ones with longevity, they tend to have real voices.

You should find the VH1 recording if you can. There are two versions of "Choclate Jesus" on it (one was marred by feedback) so you get double the storytelling from Waits.

Scarlet said...

Found it and ordered it. Thanks!
Did you see Waits in Coffee and Cigarettes? The little scene with Iggy? Priceless.

Oh btw, I had to laugh out loud while reading the article about blogger Emily Gould in my NYTimes Mag last Sunday. I thought I felt like a stalker. Apparently I am an extreme amateur.

towniebastard said...

You're minor leagues when it comes to stalking compared to some of the people out there. I've visited some of the comic book and politics blogs out there...dear God, but they're horror shows.

I've only had to deal with one abusive person on this blog, and it hasn't returned since I put up moderation.

And where did you find the VH1 disc? Admittedly it's been ages since I looked, but I never could find copies for sale.

Scarlet said...

What freaks. I noticed my Blogger profile has been viewed 10 times. I only set it up 2 weeks ago. The stalker becomes the stalked... lol

"Dollar" Bill at Atomix Records in St.Catherines says he knows how to lay his hands on the VH1. And I believe him.

He also sent this link along. How can you not love a man who says things like "when you die you float up to the surface like a big carp"?