Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 1: Tom Waits - Rain Dogs

Welcome to My Back Pages, a new collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike--most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

But for now, without further ado, we present our first installment, a look back at Tom Waits' 1985 seminal classic,
Rain Dogs.

Chris Collum: Welcome to the world of Rain Dogs.

First, however, let’s take a moment to talk about the man whose name is on the cover of this record. Tom Waits cut his teeth as the most gruff-voiced backroom barfly crooner you’ll probably ever hear, putting his first album out in early 1973 through Asylum Records, and then putting seven more out over the course of the next ten years. When I say he “cut his teeth” playing this style of music what I really mean is that he was damn good at it. In the '70s, Waits cut such classic albums as The Heart of Saturday Night and Small Change, and some of his songs from this period stand out among his best, such as “Ol’ 55” or “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me).”

Waits’ main draw for many listeners during this initial, more commercial portion of his career was his unique voice. Critic Daniel Durchholz famously described it as sounding "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." I personally prefer to refer to Waits as the only known human with a distortion pedal in their voice box. Either way, while his singular voice fascinates some, it is also not exactly his most marketable aspect. So while his folk-influenced, often piano-driven songs spinning tales of urban nightlife and misadventure, replete with “in vino veritas” moments and memorable characters certainly should have been the kind of thing that got huge in the mid-70s, Waits never really took off commercially. To this day his biggest hits have been as a songwriter rather than as a performer, with other artists (everyone from Springsteen to Rod Stewart to The Eagles) covering his original material.

For his eighth studio LP, also his first with Island Records, Waits made the decision to do all the production himself. The resulting album, Swordfishtrombones, was hailed as a classic, albeit a bizarre one. Waits left behind the more simplistic piano-based arrangements for a cacophonous symphony of woodwinds, bells, organs, and non-traditional percussion. The album marks a turning point for him as an artist, and really also marks the beginning of a career of sonic experimentation that is almost unrivaled and has spanned almost three decades now. Many fans of his later work--those who find his work in the 70s to be of less interest--consider the record to be Waits’ “great leap forward.” Waits himself has discussed the sea change that happened around that point in his career. "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been," he said in an interview. "You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone."

If Swordfishtrombones was Waits taking a step out of the barroom and into the street, bassoon in hand, Rain Dogs is Waits taking up a permanent residency in the gutter and trading not only the piano but the bassoon in as well, this time for a child’s pots-and-pans drum kit. The sounds that you hear on Rain Dogs do not add up to traditional rock instrumentation in any sense of the word. The gritty, dirty street characters of the songs on the album are backed by gritty, dirty street sounds. Waits supposedly went to great lengths to create a sound that was as “organic” as possible for this record, even doing such ridiculous things as bashing a chest of drawers with a 4x4 board or “banging on the table with an old tin cup,” as he tells us he is doing over clanging and shuffling percussion in “Gun Street Girl.” Waits also took to the streets of Manhattan themselves to record traffic noises, running water, hissing sewer grates, and other such ambient sounds that give the album texture and its signature “street dweller” sound.

In terms of the stories on the record themselves, they run the gamut from a sinister one-eyed sea captain shooting dice in “Singapore” to a wistful would-be lover watching out for a familiar face in “Downtown Train.” Waits attempts to encapsulate the street-dwelling populace of New York City into a fifty-three minute record—or as he refers to the album’s subject matter, the “urban dispossessed” of the city. These stories seem very timeless too, something that is intentionally aided by production aspects that run from creaking pre-Civil War banjo and hand claps to very noisy, avant-garde arrangements, to more traditional blues-driven numbers--often aided by Keith Richards’ signature guitar style. Rain Dogs marked the beginning of a long-running collaboration between Waits and Richards.

Craig Manning: Thank you Chris, for that terrific introduction. You're definitely more knowledgeable in this particular arena than I am, so good of you to start us off on the right foot.

Concerning the vast and varied catalog of Tom Waits, I have to admit a couple of things upfront. The first is that I have never been a die-hard Waits fan: he’s very hit or miss for me, and I think he’s got some idiosyncrasies as a songwriter (and as a vocalist, but that goes without saying) that make him one of the more inaccessible artists in the “classic” realm. The second is that, if I had to pick a favorite Waits album, it would unquestionably be The Heart of Saturday Night (hence its inclusion on my half of the list). Upon my initial attempts to get into Waits, I could never quite understand why Rain Dogs was considered his best album. The more I time I spend with it, the more I understand the appeal, and I guess that’s a piece of what is going to be so great about doing these features every week: they’ll give me an opportunity to delve into some albums I’ve more or less dismissed. But I digress.

At his best, Waits has a lot of that ragged, street-poet sensibility that Springsteen channeled on his first two records. And that sensibility is definitely evident on Rain Dogs, from the carnivalesque visions of “Singapore” to the tipsy back-alley jazz of “Tango Till They’re Sore.” You’re right that he romanticizes this entire street-rat community, this entire way of life, but he does more than that: he condenses this world into its barest essentials, and then folds it completely into these fifty-three minutes. So the ballads are warm and welcoming, the more cacophonous numbers almost nightmarish, but either way, Waits is always fully in command of the thematic thread. He’s our guide through the gutters of society, and while he sometimes seems as unhinged and upside-down as the world he’s showing us (“9th and Hennepin,” like all of Waits’ spoken-word bits, has never worked for me), that world is still never less than beguiling.

But Rain Dogs is also a chameleonic musical display, and when Waits allows himself to bask in more traditional songwriting textures, it’s beautiful. “Time” is the album’s centerpiece, a gorgeous feat of musical restraint that showcases its songwriter’s knack for stunning lyrical imagery. “Well things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl/The boys just dive right off the cars and splash into the street/And when they're on a roll she pulls a razor from her boot/And a thousand pigeons fall around her feet,” Waits sings late in the song, perfectly poetic and cryptic in a way that modern street-rat rhapsodists and barfly bards like Brian Fallon and Craig Finn are still working to imitate. And when elements of American folk music and whiskey-soaked alt-country rear their heads in “Hang Down Your Head” or “Blind Love” or “Downtown Train,” the results are both poignant and nostalgic.

As Chris noted above, there are a lot of harsh sounds on display on Rain Dogs: some of that comes from the unorthodox instrumentation, some from the way Waits performs vocally, but mostly, it’s because he’s a self-confessed adorer of “weird, ludicrous things.” And because of Waits' left-of-the-mainstream leanings, along with the more experimental path he was following at this point in his career--Rain Dogs becomes a very difficult record to categorize, stylistically. I know, Chris, from our past conversations, that you are more open to such experimental sonic textures than I am, and that divide in our tastes is symbolized perfectly in the Waits albums we chose for this feature. I took the more accessible, melodic record, you took the one that covers the most musical and thematic territory. Arguments could be made either way on which is better—and they certainly have been—but I think there’s little doubt over which is the better starting point for uninitiated parties, and that’s Heart of Saturday Night.

With that said though, it’s hard to deny the power of Rain Dogs. Last fall, as members of this website debated the merits of new albums contending for “classic” status, someone brought up the concept of “world building” as a prerequisite of sorts for such a classification, and few albums are more adept at world building than this one. Rain Dogs is one of those albums that sweeps you up in its vortex and doesn’t let go until the final note of the final song dwindles to nothing. And albums like that are intoxicating. So while I’d recommend that our readers take a listen to The Heart of Saturday Night before they dive into this one, Rain Dogs remains an album that must be experienced, and I would imagine that most--if not all--of the users of this website could find something to love therein.

Chris Collum: Craig is right that the sounds on this record are not easily classified, and the record is definitely influenced by--and has in turn helped influence--the Americana, industrial, blues, folk, post-rock and noise rock traditions. However, despite such disparate influences, Rain Dogs absolutely adds up to a unified whole. As Craig alluded to in his portion, few albums do a better job of “world building” than this one does. The album is simultaneously claustrophobic and cacophonous, yet poetic and romantic and melodic as well. I would take Craig to bat not only about The Heart of Saturday Night being a better entry-point to Waits’ catalog, but also about it being a more melodic record. I get songs from this album stuck in my head constantly, and to me at least it seems that Waits did not lose or sacrifice any of what made his stuff in the '70s so great. Rather, he picked up the furniture long enough to rip out the lavish carpeting and replace it with hardwood floors, but the furniture remained untouched, if that dumb metaphor makes any sense.

I, for one, consider Rain Dogs an excellent place to start for Tom Waits because it his most unique and (in my opinion) his strongest work. This is the kind of record that will make a mark on you after one listen, and is likely to kick around in your cranium for some time to come afterwards. I think it is also a great place to start for someone who wants to listen to something that is a little weirder--or, most likely, a lot more off-the-wall--than whatever they listen to on a regular basis. Also, however, I think there is a poetry and beauty to Rain Dogs that is difficult to put into words. So if you have never heard this album, change that today!

And let’s talk about it.

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