Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

I Can’t Review the New Hold Steady Album

Why, you’re wondering, can’t I review Heaven is Whenever, the new album by the Hold Steady? After all, they are my favorite band. It would seem to be a natural fit: they put out an album and I tell you all about how wonderful it is.

But that’s exactly the problem. I’m not going to pretend that Bollocks! is ever (or has ever been) even remotely objective, but at this point me reviewing a Hold Steady album is like an alcoholic reviewing beer. Except the Hold Steady won’t fuck up my liver.

So there’s no point in me telling you that Heaven is Whenever, despite the departure of Franz Nicolay, is probably the best Hold Steady album yet (someone on the interwub claimed that Separation Sunday was the Hold Steady’s “peak” but that’s probably the drugs talking. The best Hold Steady album seems to always be the latest one, which is really an achievement. Almost Killed Me is a great record, and they’ve only gotten better since then. I keep waiting for the Hold Steady record that’s going to disappoint me and they keep not making it). Of course I think that. At this point, it’s in my blood to think that.

If you’ve read Bollocks! much at all over the last two years, you probably expect me to say that Craig Finn’s lyrics are sharper than ever (standout lines include, “You can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth”; “Heaven is whenever/ we can get together/ lock the door to your room/ and listen to your records”; and the simple, probably true, “In the end/ I bet no one learns a lesson”) and that Tad Kubler is still the most underrated guitar player in the world (opener “Sweet Part of the City” even features slide guitar and it sounds sweeter than honey dripping from the vulvas of angels*) .

So maybe you should find another reviewer to give you the nitpicky stuff. Someone will try to accuse the Hold Steady of making the same album over and over (which they haven’t) and someone else will say Craig Finn can’t sing (he’s gotten a lot better since Almost Killed Me and Heaven is Whenever is his strongest vocal performance yet). Pitchfork thinks “these new songs just don’t hit as hard,” so you can go there and try to figure out what about Heaven is Whenever warrants a score of 6.2. (Parenthetical rant:  I’ve got serious beef with scoring systems in general. If someone can’t tell how you feel about a record by what you wrote, you did a shitty job of writing. Almost every website rates things with numbers, stars, or grades like “A-“, which is bad. But Pitchfork’s numbered rating system is by far the most pretentious, goofiest bullshit ever. What the fuck are they judging, figure skating? Did the Hold Steady not land their Salchows and Lutzes to your liking? I suggest a new motto for you, Pitchfork: “No One Skates a Clean Program. Except Radiohead”) Perhaps Pitchfork didn’t notice the additional (and quite welcome) harmony vocals on nearly every track or the fact that Heaven is Whenever is heavy on chord-based riffs but not as heavy on Kubler’s guitar pyrotechnics (though those do make some appearances as well) .

You know who you should read? Probably that Robert Christgau guy. He’s a real intellectual about this shit and he’ll probably give you some good copy on Heaven is Whenever. He’ll probably tell you all about what’s wrong with it, from start to finish. But I won’t. Because I love it. Would I sit here and tell you all the bad stuff (which is far outweighed by the skull-crackingly awesome stuff) about my fiancee? No. Because I love her and I’m going to marry her and if things don’t work out, I just might marry Heaven is Whenever.

On the bright side, Heaven is Whenever has done some brilliant housekeeping for me here at the imaginary Bollocks! office. I no longer feel compelled to compile a list of my favorite albums of 2010 this December. Heaven is Whenever is my favorite album of the year – I listened to it six times the day it started streaming on NPR’s website and at least twice a day since then. That was before the fucking album even came out! Now that it’s out, there’s not gonna be a lot of time for me to listen to other albums in my car. I might as well roll out a little red carpet that leads to my CD player and forget that my other albums even exist.

So does this make me a Hold Steady fanboy? Possibly. Hell, probably. But I’m not gonna run to your blog and tell you to kill yourself if you don’t like Heaven is Whenever (this happened to me once when I had the temerity to not like an album. I won’t say which album, but the band’s name rhymes with Shmortugal. The Pan). Whether or not you like this album is immaterial to the fact that to my refined, devilishly handsome ears, this album kicks several buckets of ass.

So what is it, you might be inclined to ask, that makes me like the Hold Steady so damn much? Glad you asked. They consistently scratch an itch that I have for fun (listen to “Rock Problems” and “Our Whole Lives” and tell me those aren’t fun songs), literate rock ‘n’ roll music. Craig Finn’s musings on death and religion are not that far from my own – I believe, as he has mentioned before, that we are our only saviors. In a godless universe, we have two powerful things to help us out: each other and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not Nietzsche, but it’s not the worst ethos in the world either. But more than that, the Hold Steady has taken the music I grew up hating (I call it Alcoholic Stepdad Music, which should let you know everything you need to about where I’m coming from), music I thought was for dead-end buffoons in dead-end towns, and they’ve spit it back to me as something uplifting, positive, and goddamn entertaining. “Beautiful” is not a word that a lot of people would use to describe the Hold Steady’s music, but it’s beautiful to me.

So no pretense here. In an era of completely bullshit objectivity, I came here to praise Heaven is Whenever. There is nothing I don’t like about this album and if that ruins whatever credibility you were lending me, I can live with that (what the hell were you doing lending credibility to a blog anyway?). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only listened to Heaven is Whenever once today and that’s not nearly enough.

*If you’re unsure as to exactly how sweet that is, why not ask your reverend when you’re at church next Sunday?

Best Albums of My Life #6: Separation Sunday

Anyone who has read more than one post on this blog is certain of two things. 1) I love the Clash and 2) I love the Hold Steady. So it should surprise no one at all that a Hold Steady album would make it onto my list of the 29 Best Albums Released in My Life (a list which was supposed to be completed by the time I turned 30, but better late than never, right?).

Separation Sunday was the very first Hold Steady album I heard. And for those of you who think it was love at first sound, it wasn’t. I thought this Craig Finn fellow might be shouting about something worth hearing, but I wasn’t that interested in finding out. My favorite song upon first listen was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (still one of my favorites) and I didn’t really think much of the other ones. I got that the album was trying to tell me a story, but it took me a few months of owning the album (I got it for free – one of the perks of working for the now-defunct Tower Records) to really sit down and try to listen to that story.

Once I did, though, I was duly impressed. Not only was the story of Hallelujah’s disappearance and “resurrection” a compelling listen, but Tad Kubler’s guitars and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards had wormed their way into my brain, creating a boiling soup of classic rock and literature, two things I would not have thought to combine on a regular basis (largely because some of the most offensive Led Zeppelin songs are the ones where you can tell Robert Plant had been getting high and reading Tolkien).

That was 2005 in Boston and now, five freaking years later, I still love this album. I listen to at least one Hold Steady album a week and lately, I’ve been coming back to Separation Sunday a lot. Not just for the mind-blowingly badass guitar work on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Banging Camp” (I ask you: what kind of world are we living in where people think John Mayer is a great guitar player but only a fistful of lucky souls know and recognize Tad Kubler’s mad skills? Kubler is like  a dragon who breathes awesome riffs instead of fire) or the lyrical awesomeness of “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (“I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dudes blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ and I heard things ain’t never been the same since”), but because of the feeling that I get from Separation Sunday. Like the feelings I have toward a lot of albums, I get a very specific feeling from this album.

When I was a supervisor at Tower, I opened the store on Saturday mornings (a good shift – I was off by 6pm and able to go to shows or out drinking with my friends, most of whom worked at the same store), which meant getting to work by 9am. So I was on the train by 8:30. So every Saturday morning, I’d walk through my little Boston suburb and I loved the way the town felt that early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was like the whole city was sleeping off a hangover and I was tiptoeing through the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I’d march from my awesome basement apartment with my headphones on, listening to Separation Sunday more often than not, and sip coffee while I waited for the train. I’d get to work to be greeted by Baby Boomers with too much disposable income waiting to purchase tickets for whatever shitty show was going on sale that day (part of the joy of being a supervisor at Tower, you see, was running the Ticketmaster – or Ticketbastard, as I called it – counter). And when I look back at my time at Tower Records in Harvard Square (best retail job I ever had – among the top five jobs of any kind that I’ve ever had), the whole thing is soundtracked by Separation Sunday.

The album itself tells the story of a girl named Hallelujah (“the kids, they call her ‘Holly'”) who gets strung out on the Twin Cities drug and party scene and disappears for a while, only to crash into an Easter mass some months later (“Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”). She has a junkie boyfriend who cheats on her with her little hoodrat friend (Hallelujah is a hoodrat too, but you don’t find that out until the end of the album), and she finds some junkie revivalists camped on the banks of the Mississippi River who will give you a full-immersion baptism after a hit of nitrous to give you that “high as hell and born again” feeling. Along the way, she has visions of St. Theresa, sings a song to St. Barbara, and gets involved with a sweat-pants clad drug-dealer named Charlemagne (who, like Hallelujah, is a recurring character in many Hold Steady songs). The combination of the story and the hard-charging rock music that propels it serves to solidify Craig Finn’s underlying musical thesis: that you’re as good a savior as you’re likely to get and that, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is historically the least disappointing religion you can join. Though Separation Sunday depicts a druggie scene in all its puking glory, the album never becomes a morality play about the dangers of drug use. For Finn, drugs are just another self-made obstacle on Holly’s way to her self-made resurrection. Being high isn’t the problem, it’s why you get high that’s the problem (“I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story/ because when we left, we were defeated and depressed/ and when we arrived, we were rippin’ high”).

Finn’s voice is not great – most people know this. But, like Bob Dylan’s voice (yes, I did just make that comparison), Craig Finn’s voice strikes me as uniquely suited to telling the stories he has to tell. The ongoing story of people fucking themselves up and redeeming themselves is not a story to be told in the clean, polished, octave-scaling timber of a Josh Groban; it’s a story meant to be told by a guy who has lived through something. Finn sounds like he’s lived through a war – hell, like he’s sung through a war – and come out the other side. But his voice (and myriad references to early punk, early hardcore, the Bible, and John Berryman) might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people and that’s just fine by me. I can’t say for certain that I’d like the Hold Steady as much if I thought they were for everyone.

Glitter and Doom

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.

Best Albums of My Life #2: Mule Variations

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.