Good morning America! Why is today unlike any other day? Because today, I am commanding everyone who reads this sentence to click the YouTube link and listen to “Underground,” the first track from Tom Waits’s exceptional 1983 LP, Swordfishtrombones.
I wonder what they’re looking at so androgynously
Of those of you who have enough time and attention span to obey what some self-righteous blogger tells you to do, I suspect that many of you stopped the video after about fifteen seconds—if that. I go further to suspect that those of you who stopped the video were motivated to do so by the decidedly unattractive sound of Waits’s voice, and/or the eerie, raw instrumentation. You might be asking yourself such questions as: Why would anybody make sounds like that? Or perhaps, Why would anybody want to listen to this? You might even be so bold as to criticize it for its undanceability—for which I have no retort.
If you do indeed fall into that category, you have fulfilled Tom Waits’s mission.
What? What do you mean? Does he not want listeners?
Almost: he doesn’t want a particular type of listener. Instead of attempting to tailor his weirdness to endorphin-addicted massive audiences, Tom Waits built his career on going to every length to undermine those expectations. If you listen to the remainder of Swordfishtrombones, you’ll understand what I mean. Sore thumbs include “Frank’s Wild Years,” the tale of a peaceful suburban man, in whom, one day, something bubbled over, so he burned down his peaceful suburban house and drove a nail through his peaceful suburban wife’s forehead; and “Dave the Butcher,” a creepily bare instrumental, the backbone of which is a descending chromatic organ line, played on an instrument that sounds as old and used up as its song’s supposed protagonist. Aided by the title, the wily melody and asthmatic wheeze of the keys evoke the gut-churning moment just before the slaughter.
Right—why would anybody want to listen to that? Why would anybody willfully subject themselves to something so disturbing?
He takes his drunkenness very romantically
For precisely the reason that it’s disturbing, for precisely the reason that it’s strange. This is music made for people who have been disillusioned by pop music’s fundamental characteristics. Namely: its shininess, its consumability, and its dreadfully short shelf life. Because the majority of today’s radio-pop is produced to eliminate nearly every possible human element—that is to say, the dreaded mistake—it sounds as if it’s really truly perfect. Like a Snickers bar, or a photoshopped Vanity Fair model, Each one has enormous industry backing: teams of people analyzing sales trends to tailor their product to the precise needs of the basic human consumer. This, to many, is harmful. In the best case scenario, it makes you want to consume the product endlessly, which, in the case of Snickers bars, is merely sickening. In the worst case scenario, it presents you with some unattainable ideal, inducing deep-rooted, almost unavoidable psychoses: body image/eating disorders, in the case of photoshopped cover girls.
Tom Watis’s “Underground,” to most radio-pop consumers, sounds as if it’s one big mistake. The voice is the farthest thing from a “good” voice. The production, apart from its rhythm, has no discernible pop elements. The subject matter and delivery have nothing uplifting or recognizably melancholic to offer. It’s one massive, all-encompassing mistake. To which the Waits admirer says, “Perfect.” Undermine my naive ideals. Don’t feed me popular myths. Don’t appeal to my tastebuds; nourish me. Swordfishtrombones, my beautiful, faithful readers, is a full-course meal.
I’ll be clear: I’m not trying to insult anybody’s music taste. Music serves different roles in different people’s lives. I know that I study it with a perhaps needlessly exacting/academic eye. I know that a lot of people—maybe most people—use music as casual escapism from an extremely demanding work/school/family life. I have nothing against that. We all use what we need to use to suit our ends.
I consider all of this because I feel as though, despite its being so early, I’m at a crucial point in my own music career. In this nascent phase, I’ve already faced an enormous amount of disappointment, frustration, and rejection. I’ve seen the successes of my idols and contemporaries, and felt like I’m about three inches too short to ride the coolest roller coaster at Six Flags (Kingda Ka, obviously). So, naturally, I’ve had the thought to, perhaps, make somewhat more accessible music, as that might accelerate my growth rate. It would mean compromising on my principles—but that roller coaster looks like so much fun. I’ve even made somewhat constipated efforts to write pop-friendly music, only to be pressed and gradually overwhelmed by the truth that really, this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. I then criticize this thought: “Supposed to be doing? How can anyone really know what they’re supposed to be doing?”
In answering this question, I must call upon principles of faith and principles of pleasure alike. Faith must be unshakable, immune to external bitterness and fearmongering—or at least highly proficient in eradicating them. As for pleasure: what turns you on is what you should focus on. The strangeness, the contrarianism, and the resounding legacy of Swordfishtrombones, for all these reasons, appeals to both my faith-based and pleasure-based principles. At a point in his career when he had yet to make a truly major statement (though admittedly, done some inarguably high quality work), Tom Waits dug into the most slithery, unkempt parts of his psyche, and came out with an unprecedented and most inimitable document. It’s a freak show, a horror story, a critical sneer and a myth; and its message, for someone in my position—perhaps any position—is to stay weird.
In a career, and in a world alike, where most roads lead to the matting crowd, Swordfishtrombones reminds us that the more interesting things are happening in smaller rooms, with lower lighting. Go ahead—pull on trouble’s braids. Trouble might think it a flirt rather than an affront.