Tom Waits – Artist In Focus


Alongside Live In Concert, I’m Talkin’ Here is going to play host to some musings on my favourite artists. No, it won’t be weekly (I’m only human) but I’ll try my best for some regularity. First up is the man who has presented the most divided opinions amongst my peers, that man is of course Tom Waits.

It’s an obsession, for those who get hooked. If you don’t, you probably never will and I can safely say I’ve never badgered anyone to listen to him after their initial refusal. My first introduction came to him via Julie Turner and Brian Kennedy who covered “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” as a tribute for the victims and families of the appalling Omagh bombing of 1999. From there, Waits’ first album “Closing Time” entered the house and I listened to it but outside the track in question I paid little heed to the rest.

It wasn’t until 6th year of secondary school, when a certain aforementioned English teacher assigned us a task to answer some questions based around the emotional symphony that is “Martha”, that the obsession began. I’ll be honest, I completely misinterpreted the song on first listen, taking it more as reminiscence rather than the semi-plea that it really is. To this day I maintain that I was just too blown away by the fact that these words and voice were coming out of a 23 year old to notice anything else. After this experience I revisited Waits, starting back with “Closing Time” where upon first listen for the second time I truly discovered “Ol ’55” for the classic it is. Within a week, I was headed for HMV.

“Rain Dogs” was the next purchase, mainly because the name “Downtown Train” rang a bell, though I shuddered when I eventually remembered the Rod Stewart connection. I was a terrible album person back then though, much happier to skip to songs with intriguing titles rather than listen as a whole and so from “Rain Dogs” I took “Gun Street Girl”, “Time”, “Downtown Train” and “Hang Down Your Head”. You know, the “hits”. It was months before I got back to “9th And Hennepin” and “Cemetery Polka”, by which stage I’d been broken in by “Swordfishtrombones”

To me this is the album that makes or breaks you as a Waits fan. It is the beginning of him crafting the type of music he would go on to become synonymous with. This was when he met Kathleen Brennan, whom he would go on to marry and unlike most musicians, remains married to to this day, his muse of the highest order. Aside from the song written for her, “Johnsburg, Illinois”, “In The Neighbourhood” and ” Soldier’s Things” there’s very little remotely conventional on this album. I made it through the “weirdness” though, and came out the far side to “Frank’s Wild Years”, “Bone Machine”, “Real Gone” and more.

I’ll admit to not being too keen on “Alice” and “Blood Money” as albums, both derive from theatre works that just don’t pique my interest. There’s some great standout tracks on both however. What had me completely sold on Waits however is that unlike most artists who took a server detour in their careers, he never has let go of the work weary piano man we saw on the cover of “Closing Time”. For every “Hoist That Rag” there’s a “Day After Tomorrow”. For every “Chocolate Jesus” there’s a “Hold On”. With any other artist on any other record, the booking bourbon tones of his more abstract songs would never sit side by side with the delicate poetry of his more intimate work, yet somehow he pulls out off. Expectancy helps him here, as no track is ever really a surprise, but he has got a talent for this weaving manoeuvre no question about it.

And that’s that, the story of my obsession (Part one of many!) and that’s why I can’t get enough of this man’s music. Sure, over the years he has attracted a fan base that can be a slight turn off, much like his peers Dylan and Cohen, but step outside the college students a second, ask opinions of others who are fans. I guarantee if nothing else you’ll hear passion in their voice when they talk about him, passion he gave to them.

Next (week’s?) Artist In Focus : Freddie White

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Bachelors Degree in Arts from NUI Maynooth. Double Honours English & Philosophy.

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