Sixty years ago today – the day after Leadbelly died (for those of you who believe in reincarnation, this could be regarded as auspicious), right here in southern California, lightning struck a bottle of moonshine, shattering it into thousands of tiny shards, one of which pierced the pregnant belly of a school teacher, opening her up wide enough for her newborn son to step out into the light. He was born walking – he made a bedroll from his umbilical cord and set off on the road that very day, bumming smokes, bread, and beans as he went. He got a few gigs here and there crooning country/jazz in shitty little bars; no great shakes, but it kept him in cigarettes and whiskey until the early 1980s when he took folk, jazz, rock, beat poetry, Kurt Weill, and everything else, threw ’em in a blender with some stale beer and train smoke, and became one of the foremost songwriters in American music history.
I’m talking, of course, about Tom Waits. Happy birthday, Mr. Waits. You are an American hero; you are, in fact, both a folk hero and a maker of folk heroes and not even Bob Dylan is that anymore. And, in all seriousness, thank you, sir, for the music you’ve been making for most of my life. Thank you.
But to get down to business: live albums, if we’re being honest with ourselves, are almost always treats for diehard fans and no one else. You don’t generally put on a live album as a way of introducing someone to your favorite band. The live album is typically “Greatest Hits with Cheering” but every so often, you get a live album that is a treasure for fans and newcomers alike. Glitter and Doom, by our Birthday Boy Tom, is one such album. There is everything Waits fans love on this album and an energy that is only adequately described as a force of nature. One spin through Glitter and Doom and you will understand why the man doesn’t go on long tours anymore. He puts everything he has into every show he plays, and Tom Waits has a lot. I can confidently say that, if you’re going to like Tom Waits, you’re going to like Glitter and Doom. If you love Tom Waits, you’ll love the album’s second disc, which is Tom Waits bullshitting for half an hour. I know I love it.
One of the bigger problems live albums face, in my humble (ha!) opinion, is that the songs sound like the recorded versions, but there are more assholes singing along. Waits is not content to leave his songs alone, and that creates a very compelling argument for seeking out his live shows. Ideally, you’ll get to see the man in concert but, if you’re like many people who cursed the ill luck of living in a city that Waits didn’t visit on his “Glitter & Doom” Tour last year, you’ll grab a live Waits album and revel in its awesome weirdness, its blustering theatricality, and its distorted beauty.
Tom Waits avoids the pitfall of sounding like “Greatest Hits with Cheering” because he doesn’t have any hits. The radio is not ready for Tom Waits (except for National Public Radio, which is just college radio for college-educated grown-ups – and that’s clearly not driving our culture right now. If it were, you’d hear more Waits and Flaming Lips on American Idol and Sarah Palin would have no supporters) and he steadfastly refuses to let people use his music for commercials. Despite being the only guy I know of to win both the Best Alternative Rock and Contemporary Folk Grammys, Waits has what I consider an extremely healthy disdain for awards. Having said all that, Glitter and Doom does cover some familiar territory to Tom Waits fans. But the songs do not remain the same. “Singapore” ends with Waits simulating a bombing, while “Such a Scream” becomes a chugging funk number (it’s like a Bizarro Prince tune) and “Goin’ Out West” becomes a twisted homage to T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).”
Waits was surrounded by incredible musicians (all the bass on this album is upright bass, played by Seth Ford-Young) for this tour, including his son Casey on drums and percussion (Casey also played the ass-beating drum part on Waits’s cover of “The Return of Jackie and Judy”), but Waits’s voice remains the most versatile instrument in the ensemble. Whether whispering, howling, or growling, Tom Waits has one of the most distinctive voices in music, and he uses it to inhabit his characters fully. On “Lucinda/Ain’t Goin’ Down,” Waits brings William the Pleaser to life as a wounded, terrified, and haunted man who “left Texas/ to follow Lucinda/ Now I will never see Heaven/ or home.” Glitter and Doom tends to mine from Waits’s darker stuff, relying heavily on Blood Money, Bone Machine, and Real Gone for the bulk of its material. The only song that is a repeat from Waits’s other live album, Big Time, is “Falling Down” which was a studio track on that record. It’s nice to see Waits take that tune back after that uber-dilettante Scarlett Johansson mangled it on her ill-advised album of Tom Waits covers (it’s called Anywhere I Lay My Head, for those of you who think I’m making it up. Johansson commits the cardinal sin of thinking that prettying up Tom Waits songs will somehow 1) pay fitting tribute to them and 2) please fans of Mr. Waits. Her album, of course, does neither. I listened to the album shortly after starting Bollocks! and hated it so much that I couldn’t find the words to give it a sufficient review).
Though the album is cobbled together from the fistful of dates Waits played across the American south and parts of Europe last year, it’s sequenced like a proper Waits concert, with all the roaring loud moments (“Lucinda,” “Metropolitan Glide”) and low-moaning soft moments (“Trampled Rose,” “Fannin Street”) that entails. It’s surely no substitute for an actual ticket, but Glitter and Doom is still a nice bone to throw me for not making the road trip to Phoenix to see him in person. I can’t really blame Waits for not wanting to come to L.A., but if he can make it as far as Bakersfield, I’ll be the first in line to see him and I’ll even bring him dinner.