David Smay's 33 1/3 book on Tom Waits will be coming out in the autumn. What follows is from the book's introduction - enjoy!
IF YOU THINK YOU CAN TELL A BIGGER TALE
"It's just one guy who leaves the old neighborhood and joins the Merchant Marines, gets in a little trouble in Hong Kong, comes home, marries the girl, burns his house down, and takes off on an adventure, that kind of a story." - Tom Waits (Source: Unpublished Swordfishtrombones era interview, 1983, Tom Waits Library.)
Don't expect me to tell you the truth about Tom Waits. I know you want the truth, but Tom has no use for it. Yes, the truth looks fetching in her cut-off Ramones t-shirt and her breath smells like Yoo-hoo. I get the appeal, but you can't even sneak up on Swordfishtrombones without a committed air of dissembling. If I were to claim, for example, that Tom Waits wears plows for feet you should understand that I'm lying. But I promise to lie to you artfully and thoughtfully. Tom lies with great purpose and you shouldn't trust that quote under the chapter head even a little bit. "Just one guy"? The doughboy in "Swordfishtrombone" is Frank with his self-cleaning oven who happens to live in an underground mutant dwarf community when he can't get a beer in the Australian outback? These liberties with the truth, these inconsistencies, are not Tom's concern. He intends to confound you.
It's what you can't know about Swordfishtrombones that makes it work. His metaphors swallow entire songs and he bends the negative space between what's said and meant. This irony isn't a cool, distanced stance, but a larger strategy, a sleight of hand that conjures real mystery. You don't explain an album like Swordfishtrombones so much as you travel with it. It's a very companionable record and will accompany you on your train trips across Europe, your road trips across America or backpacking through Indonesia.
While I'll relate the relevant facts about the record's genesis, this won't be an insider account of its recording. I can't think of anything more perverse than trying to clarify Swordfishtrombones. It's built to contradict itself, to dispute its creator, to cup little pools of ambiguity. I am filled up to my armpits with a gurgling black regret that I have to report anything to you about Tom Waits. If I were faithful to Swordfishtrombones, I'd rewrite Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds with Tom as The Pooka MacPhellimey. I'd repurpose abandoned carousels into lewd carnival mechanisms cued to the band organ's jaunty Sousa march. I'd build dioramas of taxidermied mice playing out louche literary scenes: Vaughan!Mouse with his wee scrabbly claws on the wheel of his scale model Lincoln Continental, glass eyes fixed on HelenRemington!Mouse. These are worthy tributes to Swordfishtrombones.
Unfortunately, abandoned carousels are less common than Tom's lyrics might lead you to believe, the O'Brien estate is very free with the C&D letters and handling dead mice skeeves me out. So I am contractually obliged to tell you stuff.
Swordfishtrombones doesn't lack for fans or critical cachet, but it's gotten a meager share of ink over the years. For a variety of reasons, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years drew more press than the record where Tom Waits radically reinvented himself, and reshaped the musical landscape. Swordfishtrombones stretched so far beyond the expectations of anybody who had followed his career that there didn't even seem to be words to describe it when he pawned his tenor sax for a bass marimba.
And yet, Swordfishtrombones wasn't unprecedented. There are hints in his earlier work that point toward it. You need to hear it as the pivot in his career, as part of a trilogy and know its echo in his later work. There are fascinating parallels with artists and works as various as Joseph Cornell and Krazy Kat. It is both wholly original and a dumpster bin of references and mangled slang.
There's a lazy tradition of Waits reportage that paddles along in his wake, quoting his shaggy dog tales, and rolling over for his sly, evasive charm. He's copy on the hoof. This approach has left a lot untold. His peer group through the early seventies included a number of vintage pop dilettantes, all swimming upstream against the hippie effluent. At that point his career looked similar to that of Dan Hicks, Leon Redbone, Randy Newman. His early beat/jazz/Bukowski persona (and full commitment to that lifestyle) became an unexamined endpoint. Everybody underestimated Tom Waits.
Similarly, the myth of his reinvention floats free of the eighties, and the influence of the downtown New York scene on his music has gone largely unreported. The noise and skronk of No Wave, the bang on a can aesthetic, the arch cabaret and the avant garde of the Lower East Side seep into the foundation of Swordfishtrombones as much as the known influence of Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch.
The first ground rule in this book will be forbidding the stale Waits cliche about his "gravelly voice." If you dropped a cherry bomb down a fiberglass clown's painted mouth, that would sound like Tom Waits. But that's just one of the voices he inhabits. There's also his Prince fan's falsetto and his gargle of glass and turpentine shaken in a bullhorn and his confidential wiseguy aside and his Beefheart bellow and his pensive whisper. Musically his voice is limited. As an instrument to express character and language? It's vast.
Tom's language is distinctively allusive, playful, and mythic. He has a gift for braiding metaphors out of nursery rhymes and carny barker spiels and blues tropes and Mississippi brags . On Swordfishtrombones he traded in his Edward Hopper imagery for something closer to Brueghel, if Brueghel had worked for the WPA.
Tom Waits writes famously beautiful melodies and lyrics. Without abandoning either talent, on this record he built a sexy, lurching, inexorable groove chassis out of washtubs and wagon wheels and bedsprings. He's a serious rhythm slut. It's easy to hear Swordfishtrombones as a fistfight between Kurt Weill and Nino Rota with xylophone keys flying out of the orchestra pit while Howlin' Wolf announces the bout. But there's also a delicacy in that mayhem, restraint and melancholy.
I sense that you're still hungry for the truth. Do you really need to know whether a Swordfishtrombone is a smelly instrument or a musical fish? Can't I just buy you off with parcel of facts? I admit the truth looks fantastic in her red silk tap pants and wrestling boots, tucking a curl behind her ear and putting down her copy of Pater's The Renaissance to pat the bed invitingly. Do not be seduced by the truth! Demand the facts about Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones.
FACT: Swordfishtrombones is Tom Waits' ninth album.
FACT: You really can rewrite At Swim-Two-Birds as a Tom Waits adventure. Consider: "Tom Waits, a dues paying member of Musicians Local 173, sat in his shack deep within the pines, mulling over music theory by divvying up the black keys from the white. He sat at his piano, an old upright with inlaid abalone mermaids. His long, raw-knuckled fingers drummed a shot glass still rinsed in Bushmills and through his pursed lips he whistled "Ruby, My Dear." He carried himself with an odd dignity and accepted his late career accolades with a shrug or a frown. "Alternative to what?" he famously groused after his first Grammy."
FACT: Tom Waits has been married to Kathleen Brennan for twenty-seven years and they have three children together, Kellesimone, Casey Xavier and Sullivan.
FACT: Tom Waits was born September 8, 1683 during the siege preceding the Battle of Vienna - on the very day that Turkish sappers breached the Nieder Wall, but four days before King Sobieski lead the glorious charge of the Polish Hussars and drove the Turks from the field, forever blunting the Ottoman Empire's ambitions in the West and preserving Christendom. (It is important to clarify that Tom Waits was not born during the better known 1529 Siege of Vienna. That would make him 487 years old today! This confusion stems from the popular depiction of the Siege of Vienna in Robert E. Howard's short story "The Shadow of the Vulture" which introduced the character Red Sonja, later to be adapted into the Conan comics continuity and portrayed onscreen by Brigitte Nielsen who went on to toy with Flavor Fav's affections in Season Three of The Surreal Life but relevant here because Sylvester Stallone is Brigitte's ex-husband).
FACT: The previous fact contains falsehoods. Consequently it is an excellent example of Tom's working method, combining biographical detail with wild digressions into true history and wild fancy.
FACT: Sylvester Stallone cast Tom in his first movie role, as Mumbles the drunken piano player in Paradise Alley.
FACT: The lead character in Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player was modeled on Tom Waits. This was particularly prescient on Truffaut's part since Tom was only eleven when the film came out. But Tom's aversion to being shot was well established by that point.
FACT: The first song on Swordfishtrombones is "Underground."
FACT: Tom Waits wears plows for feet.