There are a couple of things that even Pitchfork and I can agree on. #1: the Hold Steady is awesome. #2: you won’t “write a song as good as Tom Waits’ very worst song. Sorry, you just won’t.” They wrote that about the first Tom Waits album I ever heard, 1999’s Mule Variations. And, to this day, it’s the one sentence in all of Pitchfork’s history with which I agree word for word.
I first encountered Mr. Waits on an episode of VH1’s Storytellers and I was immediately struck by how awesome his stories were and how little they had to do with the songs he was performing. And the songs! Sweet Jesus, the first time I heard “House Where Nobody Lives”, I think I had an experience like the Mormon missionaries try to sell you about divine revelation. Here was a dude who was speaking the truth in a way I’d never heard anyone speak it before. I ran out and purchased Mule Variations immediately. That was ten years ago and my copy has seen better days, but it spins just fine and still resonates just as deeply.This album, like many Tom Waits albums, is the real shit – the deep down, bloody, muddy, messy, broken, gospel of sinners, whores, bums, ruffians, ne’er-do-wells, and basically everyone else.
What is it about Waits that’s so goddamn impressive? His songs are journeys, for starters. And, though they are full of specificity (including street names and weather, things Waits views as essential to good songs), they strike a universal chord. Take “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, for example: you don’t have to have actually been somewhere where no one speaks English and everything’s broken to understand exactly how he feels. Right? Waits intuitively understands broken-hearted, busted-ass loneliness and the anguish he howls from the rooftops is our anguish – a friend of mine in college said that Waits is crying so that you don’t have to. You couldn’t do it that well anyway. And that’s due in large part to his voice. I know, I know, a lot of people are all “Tom Waits can’t sing” or “his voice sounds funny” or “he sounds like Cookie Monster” but what they don’t understand is that for what Tom Waits is trying to tell you (about you, about us, about nasty, brutish, and short fucking life), ordinary voices are useless. I’d go so far as to say that they are insultingly inadequate. For the heartache and, yes, the joy that Waits is bringing on his tunes, you need a voice that’s a still-beating heart being tossed into a wood chipper in the middle of a nuclear war. You need a voice that took a stiff shot of whiskey and chewed up the glass. You need exactly the voice that only Tom Waits has. Do you really wanna hear Josh Groban inviting you to come on up to the house when “the only thing that you can see/ is all that you lack”? No. No, you don’t.
Mule Variations is full of some of Waits’s best busted-ass moments, too. On “Get Behind the Mule” (this is how Waits encourages perseverance – he’s not gonna tell you you’re beautiful no matter what they say and that words can’t bring you down; there’s no time for that in the Tom Waits universe. You’ve gotta get up and get to work, just like the rest of us), he gave me a line that resonated through pretty much every failed romance of my life since I first heard it: “Big Jack Earl was 8 foot one/ and he stood in the road and he cried/ he couldn’t make her love him/ couldn’t make her stay/ but tell the good lord he tried.” Again, a lot of people have probably stood in poor Jack Earl’s giant shoes. On “Cold Water”, Waits feels the pain of “pregnant women and Vietnam vets/ out there beggin’ on the freeway/ ’bout as hard as it gets”. That’s a line Bruce Springsteen would’ve sold (and/or had sex with) his mother to write.
But Mule Variations isn’t all gritty, bone-tired heartache, either. It also features a fair amount of that magical Tom Waits weirdness. “What’s He Building?” reads like a list of rumors Waits’s neighbors might cook up about him. “Eyeball Kid” is a circus-freak anthem complete with a telling autobiographical element: the Eyeball Kid was born on December 7, 1949, the same day as Thomas Alan Waits. Like the Eyeball Kid, Waits came here to show us how to really see. And “Filipino Box-Spring Hog” is a recipe for awesome disaster and possibly also a terrible dinner.
The thing (if there is indeed only one thing, which I kinda doubt) that makes Mule Variations a masterpiece (in a career full of them) is how easily the oddball tunes sit along side some of Waits’s finest ballads: “Picture in a Frame” features a line that I find so honest and so simply romantic that it has caused me, upon reflection, to give up writing love songs myself: “I’m gonna love you till the wheels come off.” Maybe that doesn’t grab y’all the same way it grabs me, but when the radio is crowded with people singing about how someone is their whole life or their everything or whatever, Waits’s lyric cuts me to the quick. I want to love someone till the wheels come off and, luckily, I get to. Sorry, Portugal. The Man fans, someone out there really loves terrible ol’ me. No one said life is fair.
And then there’s “Georgia Lee”, a piano ballad about a girl who was murdered. I love that Waits doesn’t just make a tug for your heart strings here. He does nothing less than call God out for dropping the ball: “Why wasn’t God watching?/ Why wasn’t God listening?/ Why wasn’t God there/ for Georgia Lee?” It’s clear, then, that Tom Waits doesn’t just understand romantic loss. He understands the feeling of being massively, cosmically fucked over, and he can howl that pain for you too. Is it overstating it to suggest that Waits is out there, strolling the universe, absorbing some of the hits for all of us? Maybe; but when I listen to his stuff, I’m not so sure. This is my gospel music, kids – and Mule Variations closes with a kick-drum stomping spoonful of raw spirituality called “Come On Up to the House,” where Pastor Tom tells us to “come down off the cross/ we can use the wood” and reminds us “the world is not my home/ I’m just passing through.” Is that corny? So be it; after my sister died last year, this was one of the songs that picked me back up, that let me laugh and cry at the same time. So for me, Tom Waits’s music has real healing power, the kinda stuff some people find in church and other people find in a bottle.
If a major criterion for being the voice of your generation (or any generation) is being able to tap into the hopes, joys, loves, and fears of that generation with a profound understanding (is that a major criterion? I should hope so), then it might be time to consider that Tom Waits is the true voice of at least one generation and probably of many generations. Sure, he’s not as glamorous as Kanye West and he doesn’t want the job nearly as bad as Kanye does, but his music is 9000 times more honest. In my lifetime, Tom Waits has made some of the most heart-wrenchingly meaningful music I have heard and Mule Variations is my favorite of his albums not just because it’s amazing, but also because it was my gateway into the man’s entire body of work. It has shown me the way to songs that have seen me through pretty much every high and low point of my life for the last ten years.