Updated: Apr 14, 2020
I know exactly where I was when I first heard Tom Waits. It was 1976. I was staying with a band in Boston (the Massachusetts one) and they insisted I listened to Nighthawks at the Diner. Then the very next day they insisted I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park.
Double whammy. I’ve been listening to both ever since. And I probably have more Tom Waits albums that I have Bob Dylan. Or Guy Clark.
They’re endlessly rewarding. Even the musically antisocial ones. There are plenty of them, but there are an equal number of heartbreakingly tender ballads. And there are at least four incarnations of Tom Waits so you can dip in and out of his albums at will and it’s always something different.
I read somewhere that at least one critic has pointed out that Waits is more of a performance artist than an honest songwriter. That’s partly true - so many characters, so many voices - but I don’t mind and in any case I don’t buy it. Because for every theatrically contrived Tabletop Joe or in your face Eyeball Kid there’s a song like Kentucky Avenue.
‘Write what you know’. That’s the standard advice to any writer. And that’s what Kentucky Avenue is: Waits writing what he knows, direct from the deepest wellspring of human experience.
It’s powerful juju, your earliest past. And there’s no doubt Kentucky Avenue is autobiographical - at least in the sense that it takes us right back to the street where Waits grew up, and the people he knew. But like all the great songs, there’s mystery here. Childhood experience is loving and dark all at the same time, and it seems to me that in Kentucky Avenue all is not what it ought to be. It plays out like a Doctorow novel written on shattered glass: the adults are all strange and threatening violence, and friendship means jumping off the roof, and kids have got switchblades and scabs on their knees and boysenberries smeared on their faces.
The details, you see? It’s detail that makes great songwriting. So by the time Waits promises to take a rusty nail and scratch his friend’s initials in his arm (just as the strings start flowing up from the mix) we’ve got a cinematic kaleidoscope in our mind’s eye. And we’re ready for it to be shattered in an expression of loyalty and impossible dreams that only kids will ever understand.
Yet they stay with us, those dreams. Long after normality has grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and made life grey. Dickens knew this; Tom Waits knows it too.
By the way, if you ever catch anyone telling you he doesn’t have a great voice, unfriend them. They’re way wrong.