Tiggerlion on Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits
There’s only so many albums you can make sitting on a bar stool, staring at the bottom of a glass of whisky. By 1980, Tom Waits had stretched out a good run with Asylum to a full seven albums, developing his performance character as he went along. Daniel Durchholz described his distinctive voice best; “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” He made a name for himself as a writer of intriguing songs, a great raconteur and an occasional thespian. Who could fail to be moved by Tom Traubert’s Blues as it stitches Waltzing Maltilda into its forlorn fabric? He thought The Eagles cover of Ol’ 55 had secured a good income and Bruce Springsteen’s adoption of Jersey Girl had added a little more. However, it turned out he didn’t own the publishing rights to his own songs. He wasn’t making much money at all. Disillusioned, he left Los Angeles and moved to New York.
Then, Francis Ford Coppola came knocking, the greatest film director of the time. He’d been drawn to the duet I Never Talk To Strangers and the contrast between Bette Midler’s knowing naivety and Waits’s world weariness. How could Waits say no to the offer of a Coppola soundtrack and film appearance, even if it trapped him in the straight jacket he’d designed for himself, a low-life barfly playing the piano in the corner, observing the characters passing through and adapting beat poetry for lyrics?
If he felt any reluctance, you can’t tell from the product. One From The Heart is a summation of everything good he had done to date, drawing a very satisfying line under the past. Bette Midler was unavailable, so Crystal Gayle stepped in, her voice as clear and as luxuriant as her first name, an ideal foil for Waits’s own ravaged baritone. Writing for another voice made him take care and focus more. There are only four duets but all are complex and intimate. He coaxes Gayle to the most emotional performances of her career in melancholy songs like Is There Any Way Out Of This Dream and Old Boyfriends. Waits, himself, seems more committed on I Beg Your Pardon and You Can’t Unring A Bell. Even his musical interludes are beautifully poised. With a big film budget, he was able to hire the best lounge jazz musicians he could find, but it’s his own gentle caresses of the piano that cut through.
On set, he met the love of his life and collaborator for the rest of his career, who introduced him to Captain Beefheart and gave him the courage to reinvent himself. Kathleen Brennan was a script analyst and a writer herself. She had an imagination that Waits wanted to live in. In a blink of an eye, he was married, at the Always and Forever Yours Wedding Chapel at 2am, and had sacked his producer, manager, and record company. It was sink or swim. The number one priority was to break free of the persona he had developed and presented to the public for years. That meant changing his sound palette radically.
Throughout his Asylum years, Waits had been inspired by the Beat Poets, including Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs. He was especially impressed by Jack Kerouac and avidly read everything he wrote. His fascination with the wandering hobo living the harsh reality of The American Underground, the antithesis of The American Dream fantasy, led him to Harry Partch. Partch was a self-taught musician and composer. He rejected conventional musical theory, created a 43 note octave and built instruments from found objects to play his pieces, objects found on the road, when he lived nine years sleeping rough and travelling from town to town. He used shell casings, bottles, tanks, string, wires, boxes and bits of wood. His pieces were theatrical and ambitious, incorporating mime, dance and rituals. Francis Thumm participated in Partch’s ensembles and witnessed his working practices first hand. Waits recruited him to assist in the making of Swordfishtrombones and, besides playing angklung and harmonica, he adopted the mysterious role of arranger.
Underground introduces us to an entirely new community. This is a strange, dark place full of noises alien to Waits’s loyal following. Fred Tackett’s guitar blinks tentatively in the light. Its rhythm staggers uncertainly until a rap on a snare snaps it into a march. Victor Feldman’s bass marimba creeps around the bass drum. These two musicians, plus Waits himself, make up the so-called ‘junkyard orchestra’ responsible for the fecund soundscape of Swordfishtrombones. In fact, Feldman’s versatility with percussive instruments is the album’s secret ingredient. Larry Taylor on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums provide sterling support and there are a variety of horns. It’s a sound untainted by eighties production, sepia-tinged and difficult to pin to any particular era, a sound that suited Waits perfectly.
The album’s apogee is reached early on with Shore Leave, a beautifully constructed song, written in the first person. The verses are strings of wonderfully evocative phrases, capturing the thoughts of a sailor ‘squeezing the life out of a two day pass’ as he explores Singapore. Thumm’s exotic angklung makes its appearance and Waits is credited with playing a chair, but the eerie and disquieting atmospherics are provided by a simple shaker, a banjo and rice
scattered on a drum. The heart of the song is the chorus, the letter he writes to his wife back in Illinois. Waits’s vocal aches with loneliness and longing. It feels like the real Tom talking to his new wife. The anguished cries of ‘shore leave’ towards the end bring a chill to the spine.
Dave The Butcher is one of three instrumentals. Waits stabs away on a Hammond organ while Feldman adds bass boo bams. It’s deceptively dissonant and random. Scratch the surface of the piece and you hear it tell its story. You can picture big Dave smearing blood and guts on his apron, wielding his cleaver, his fingernails short and his left hand scarred.
In the space of a few lines, Johnsburg Illinois speaks volumes. It’s personal and universal, lasts but a moment and yet is timeless. At only ninety seconds, every word and every note is chosen with extreme care. It is composed in a major key but sung as if a lament. Its simplicity disguises its complexity. It’s an extraordinary love song. Plus, is there a note as beautiful and poignant as Greg Cohen’s first pluck on his bass?
16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six is the album’s blockbuster. Waits turns his holler up. Hodges’s drumming is relentless and enhanced by Feldman whacking a bell plate with a hammer, as well as trilling on a snare. The strangest sound is Joe Romano’s low moaning trombone, deployed as a background texture, almost like a locomotive passing by in the near distance. The lyrics may as well be in an alien tongue. Waits is in the character of a farmer, angry as hell, living as far from the city as it is possible to be, repurposing the junk around him, losing his mind over a crow and raging at the sky. At least he’s not alone. Lionel, Dave and The Butcher are there too.
There are then two songs about communities that live on the fringes. The first, a Town With No Cheer actually exists in southern Australia, so isolated that Victoria Railways stopped providing a service. The clanging bell captures the breeze blowing tumbleweed along the street, too weak to unsettle a thick layer of dust. Anthony Clark Stewart’s bagpipes wheeze wearily. Waits impresses with his homework; Paterson’s Curse is a violet wild flower indigenous to the area. In The Neighbourhood is as peculiar and as mind boggling as Penny Lane. Soundtracked by a mutant Salvation Army Band, it’s a place where the market has burned down, newspapers are used as sleeping bags and a jackhammer is forever digging up the pavement.
Just Another Sucker On The Vine provides no real respite to the misery, an instrumental that gently nurses a hangover, bruised ribs and the loss of a week’s wages. Frank’s Wild Years is a spoken word piece of beat poetry reeking of Bukowski. An entire life is summarised in less than two minutes. The details shine vividly. Sometimes, the words trip over each other. A cough is timed with devastating precision, punctuating the irony in ‘They were so happy’. Ronnie Baron’s Hammond playing is exemplary, especially jaunty as Frank drives off onto the highway listening to the radio. There is a bit of Frank in us all. It just takes something minor and any of us could break.
There are three further songs featuring men on the edge. Swordfishtrombone is about a Vietnam vet with shell shock, Down Down Down a deadbeat in a pact with the devil, and Trouble’s Braids a convict on the run. Feldman is the lead musician with just a bass for support: marimba, congos, dabuki and bass drums on the slinky title track, and magnificent talking drum on Trouble’s Braids. His tambourine and snare drive Down Down Down but it’s Eric Bikales’ uninhibited organ solo that really gives the relentless momentum a push. Gin Soaked Boy could be a throwback to the spit and sawdust of the bars of Asylum Waits, wherein a man discovers his wife is cheating, except Tackett’s guitar transforms it into a dirty blues played out in a remote, rural setting.
The emotional crux of the album rests in Soldier’s Things. The mournful piano suggests there has been a funeral. The lyrics are a simple list of possessions being disposed of in a yard sale. Each object is weighed by what it meant to the old soldier and what it says about his life. He had a couple of musical instruments. His boots were probably never worn again after he left the army. They still contain the rocks to keep their shape. Even his car, with its dented hood, is for sale. The voice strains under the burden of the medals. ‘This one’s for bravery. This one’s for me.’ At least the narrator wants to keep a memento. Otherwise, ‘Everything’s a dollar in this box’ as Taylor’s bass taps into a well of grief.
The finale, Rain Birds, is another love song to Kathleen, an instrumental. The scene is set by glass harmonicas dispersing the clouds. Waits’s piano and Taylor’s bass duet. As with every track on which he plays piano, any lack in technique is more than compensated for by feel and considerable charm. The loving couple sound so at ease, together at last, enjoying the quiet and a little warmth from the sun. They are so happy.
The cover is a piece created by Michael A Russ who chemically toned, solarised and hand coloured his own black and white photographs in a technique he called TinTones. Waits and Brennan saw his Prussian Blue exhibition at the Los Angeles China Club. The photo features Waits, strong man Lee Kolima and Angelo Rossitto, an actor with dwarfism, the so-called mayor of Hollywood because of the number of films he appeared in, posing just as he did in his best known movie, The Freaks, from 1932.
Swordfishtrombones is an uncompromising album that envelopes the listener in its own world. There are fifteen tracks, each very different to the others, yet all hanging together as one. There are instrumentals, dirty blues, African rhythms, exotic noises, bizarre marches and delicate piano. Without any consideration of commercial viability, its trademark sound catches the ear. It is an album of beautifully burnt bridges, the flames dancing, reflected in the water, an uncertain future full of dreams and possibilities, just like Frank in the song Waits built a whole other album around. Nevertheless, his success at shaking up his writing is the album’s most impressive achievement. Eight songs are less than two and a half minutes long but these aren’t fragments. All of them are complete, their length barely relevant. They say everything they want to say, unhurried, taking up all of the time they need. In some, Shore Leave, Johnsburg Illinois and Soldier’s Things, the lyrics are incredibly concise and hard hitting. In others, 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six, Swordfishtrombone and Trouble’s Braids, the imagery tumbles in a colourful torrent. Tom Waits is a masterful storyteller and these stories are dramatic and theatrical, too strange to be fiction and too powerful not to be true. Clive James turned a phrase until it caught the light. Waits likes his phrases rough, ready, scuffed with dirt and smeared with diesel. The fact of the matter is that this is an album of love songs, strange and wondrous love songs, but love songs nevertheless: love of language, love of making noise, love of Kathleen and love for the unfortunates in the songs. He puts the lonely, the dispossessed, the downtrodden at centre stage. Waits believes in them and feels for them. He’s not observing them with a sly wink. It’s as if he sees something of himself in every one of them. At last, Waits found his family, his tribe, his asylum, his home.
Swordfishtrombones, initially, was like the runt of a litter, unwanted by anyone. It finally found a home on Island Records over a year after it was made and has grown to become Tom Waits’s best and most complete work. It effectively allowed Waits to do as he pleased, alongside Kathleen. By the time it was released, he and Kathleen had had their first child. Coincidentally, his acting career also reached a peak in 1983 with The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Swordfishtrombones forged its own path, one that few dared to follow. Even in Waits’s own catalogue, there is little as whole and as satisfying. The follow up, Rain Dogs, nearly repeats the trick but doesn’t quite match its diversity and unconventionality, the bonus being Rod Stewart’s cover of Downtown Train that kept Waits in business for several years. Frank’s Wild Years, Bone Machine and The Black Rider are more extreme sonically at the cost of losing some of Swordfishtrombones’s warmth. At the turn of the millennium, he spread its elements across three separate, very fine albums: Mule Variations got the junkyard, Blood Money the rock and Alice the love and affection.
If you have the least interest in Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones is the one to turn to. Even if you are normally put off by his mannered eccentricity, you will learn more about the man here than anywhere else. Just listen to his vocals. His singing is the best he ever achieved, a pathos and genuine empathy supplementing his signature bellow and growl, its tone and texture perfectly matching the stories of a disparate cast of characters. By creating a unique sonic landscape, Waits found where he belonged as a performer and rejuvenated his career. Swordfishtrombones has a big heart. It’s an album brimful of the best and the worst of humanity, warts and all. Most of all, it glows with hope. It never gets old.