The World of Tom Waits

If I had to choose one musician who has influenced me the most as a listener, as a musician, and as a person, it would be Tom Waits. I first learned about the wandering madman of a musician about three years ago, but it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that I really managed to sink my teeth into his repertoire. Any fan of Tom Waits can tell you that a major part of the man’s appeal is the persona that is intertwined with his music – whether that be the lonesome barfly, the heartbroken traveler, the shady salesman, or a madman locked in some kind of dream, Tom Waits has always had a persona, specifically the persona of an outsider.

The more one listens to Tom’s music the more a kind of mythology begins to emerge, characters fade in and out of the fog, seedy dens and mysterious carnivals become more familiar, both inside and outside the music. Fan favorites like Frank, the Eyeball Kid, and Singapore are the first to stand out in Tom’s rogues gallery, but even unnamed characters and locations – ones that have no indication of returning – will find a way to sneak back into the songs. The moan of the singer in “That Feel” from Bone Machine might return in the inebriated chanting of “Goodnight Irene” on Orphans (which, being a cover, makes me think of the original recorder Lead Belly).  The themes in “Day After Tomorrow,” “Road to Peace,” and “Hell Broke Luce” form a shared landscape of war, one that I can’t help but image the characters share – at different times and at different places, perhaps, but share nonetheless.

The more Tom records, the more his work seems to connect back to itself, forming an intricate web of characters, locations, and motifs. Digging through his music one can find Jack Kerouac, Edward Mordake, Wonderland, William S. Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Faulkner, The Ramones, numerous back alleys, bars, and cafes, and maybe Hell itself. Digesting the mindscape of  Waits’s music is like reading Ulysses – there’s always more to be discovered, and Tom’s Persona is always at the center of things when you get lost. Across the various mediums that Tom has worked in – music, stage, screen, and page – he always brings an element of that strange madness he carries within him. Sure, Tom didn’t direct Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that doesn’t mean that his portrayal of Renfield isn’t as much a part of Tom’s world as, say, Falling James, or even Martha herself. Similarly, the music for The Black Rider, Woyzeck, and Alice were composed for Robert Wilson’s shows (and were all inspired from other sources at that), but they are still Tom Waits music – no wonder he released his own recordings of them!

This universe of Tom – branching across history, mediums, and even into other artist’s work – is, in its own way, a sort of transmedia narrative, or perhaps a collection of them. At the center of it all is that element of the Outside, carried by Tom himself, and we are only allowed access to his world bit-by-bit, song-by-song, tour-by-tour, interview-by-interview. We may never fully map out the geography of Tom’s World, but then again, would we really want to? I certainly hope not, and I look forward to the next tantalizing morsel of shadowy streets and bourbon-soaked heroes to devour.

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