Thoughts From the Dead: Tom Waits and Metal Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Metal

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Being dead gives me a lot of time to think. I think about a thing, and then that turns into an opinion, which then turns into fact, and then I give it to you. Find out your new opinion on Tom Waits in this first installment!

Tom Waits is a fairly divisive artist. I don’t mean that he once ate a cat onstage while wearing a Nelson Mandela mask, I mean that people are either going to get or not get the appeal of this gravelly-voiced weirdo. I remember hearing my first Tom Waits song and immediately thinking “I must possess every second of music ever made by this human.” Many others, however, have heard his music and immediately thought something along the lines of “kthxbye.” Much like metal, I’ve witnessed people nod along in appreciation when listening to the instrumental portions of his songs, only to spit out their Cheerios when he starts singing. Or hooting, hollering, yelling, barking, or whatever else he decided to do in that song. I get the feeling that his gruff, raspy, unsettling vocal style may hit people in the same way a growl from a death metal singer does. Before I go any further, let me say this: while there may be some parallels, I’m not going to try to force metal characteristics into all of his music. At the end of the day, he’s not a metal artist, and his music needs to be taken on its own merits. However, I would like to point out traits and qualities that I think fans of metal can appreciate.

If I really knew how to write op-ed pieces, I’d probably find a logical thread to unravel right around now, trapping you in my devastating analysis and dreamy eyes. But I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I’ll hook you with this massively awesome song.

In addition to being a fantastically creative music video, how friggin’ heavy was that?? It may be lacking blast beats and down-tuned guitars, but there’s no getting around how massive that song is. An assortment of percussion and claps lurch around in no specific direction, a broken riff works itself out in the background, and then he just starts yelling at you. “What did I do?” you sheepishly ask. “MY STANCH WAS A CHIN FULL OF SOAP. THAT RANCID DINNER WITH THE POPE,” he yells back, and you decide that it’s much to better to rage along with him rather than figure out what’s going on. “YOU’RE RIGHT, TOM. SERGIO IS DEVELOPING A REAL BAD COUGH.”

Metal nerds clearly have no problem with harsh vocal styles, and that’s a huge plus when diving into Tom Waits. Ultra nerdy metal nerds clearly have no problem with eccentric instrumentation and bizarre sounds, and that’s an even bigger plus when diving into Tom Waits. Both of those traits are essential to his sound; every song on every album has its own feel and instrumentation, making for some truly unique and standout tracks. Let’s all take some time to enjoy this whacked-out tune, “Kommienezuspadt” off the album Alice.

I’m not sure if Tom Waits knows German, or if he’s just good at yelling in what sounds like angry German. Speaking of yelling, I’ll throw one more of his fantastically eccentric tracks at you, then get down to some serious discussion about something or other. Here’s “Spidey’s Wild Ride” from Orphans: Bastards.

That song is a good segue into Waits’ ability to take a single idea and run with it for a song, without that idea getting stale by the end. When you dig into his song structures, he doesn’t really deviate from his tried-and-true method. He typically uses a pre-rock format of verses that lead into a short refrain rather than a proper verse-chorus layout, and the instrumental parts chug away without much change as the song goes on. Contrary to my love for metal with twists, turns, and varied sections, I love the simplicity of Waits’ song structures. “But wait!” you probably didn’t interject, since you stopped reading a long time ago, “how can he be creative and engaging if his songs don’t develop at all?” That’s a great question you didn’t care enough to ask, and here’s my answer: as I said before, every song of his has such a unique and different feel that I want to hear that particular thing for the duration of each tune. There is a fantastic amount of diversity from track to track, so when the same groove happens for 4 or 5 minutes, the listener can groove right along the whole time. Let’s take a look at how that concept applies in few tracks off one my favorite albums, Real Gone: “Top of the Hill” swaggers along in a ragged, obscure hip-hop-inspired groove; “Hoist That Rag” lurches like a wounded anthem, leaning heavily on the backside of the beat; “Shake It” launches out of the speakers and tangos dementedly around the room; and “Green Grass” rumbles softly and directly in your ear, so close that you can hear the room noise from Waits’ mic.

If you like gritty, raw metal, this is the Tom Waits album for you. I get the feeling that he hired a guy to stand in the recording booth and slap the engineer’s hand every time he tried to turn the gain down or get the signal out of the red. As soon as “Shake It” kicks in, any sound engineer within a five-mile radius probably has an unreachable itch in the back of his or her brain, but our lo-fi appreciation comes in mighty handy when listening to this album. Like a black metal musician recording on a crappy mic in the middle of the woods, Waits eschews a drumset for a pile of junk that he smashes around in a clangy concrete room. Or he barks out a rough approximation of a vocal percussion idea in his bathroom, and uses that on the actual album.

Like many metalheads, I find myself with a certain amount of contempt for popular music. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy certain pop artists or newer trends in music, but one of my favorite aspects of the metal I like is that it does what it does, and people will listen or they won’t. Dedicated metal musicians surely don’t choose the genre for the money; an artistic vision gets stuck in their heads and it must be realized. Similarly, I love that Tom Waits has never cared what’s going on in the rest of the musical world. “Oh, synth-pop is all the rage right now? How about I write a crazy carnival tune from hell?”

That was “Cemetery Polka” off his 1985 album Rain Dogs. Waits released 4 albums in the 80s, none of which sounded even remotely like the musical trends of the time. Additionally, the first two albums of that decade marked the biggest shift in Waits’ career to date. 1980’s Heartattack and Vine held the last vestiges of the jazz orchestra-type accompaniment of his first period, and 1983’s Swordfishtrombones was a different animal altogether, where all bets were off and he even had to find a new label to keep up with his new fangled ideas. I believe that the idea of risk and artistic integrity resonates well with fans of underground metal, who love having their ears pushed and pulled in different directions while the music remains fundamentally metal. Now appreciate how well I transitioned into the song “Underground” off Swordfishtrombones.

Like I said earlier, Tom Waits is not a metal musician. For all the gritty and raucous similarities to metal that we can find in some of his music, he has a marvelous talent for crafting soulful, deeply emotional ballads and softer songs. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” from Small Change, “Widow’s Grove” from Orphans: Bawlers, “No One Knows I’m Gone” from Alice, and “Kiss Me” from Bad As Me are all vastly different songs that display his smoother side, as well as what he’s capable of across the board. For a real glimpse at his musical range, listen to the back-to-back tracks of “A Little Rain” and “In The Coliseum” from Bone Machine. Or “Fannin Street,” then “I’ll Be Gone,” then “King Kong.” I’ll stop myself, because let’s be honest, I’m talking to myself by this point.

So there you have it. Is Tom Waits metal? While we love to use that word as an adjective for everything from movies to beer to cats, the answer is no. However, I hope I at least got some points across that can be appreciated by metalheads: gritty, unusual sounds, unique ideas in structure, and a bucking of musical trends in the name of artistic vision. There’s no possible way to cover all of Tom Waits in a single article, but trust me when I say he’s a fascinating dude. He’s notorious for avoiding the truth in interviews, giving wildly different answers when asked the same question in different interviews. NPR has a great archive of lengthy and fascinating interviews with Waits. So the bottom line is this: dive in to Tom Waits, and be ready to Get Lost.

What do you guys think? Is he just a whacked-out old guy? Is he totally irrelevant to our tastes? Are there tracks I should have included? Does anyone care? Discuss below!

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  • Cock of Steele

    I noticed that alot of guys who decide to write songs totally against the grain, generally last longer than those lolbuttz who completely give in.

  • Metaphysical Anus

    Rain Dogs just has to be one of my favourite albums ever!

    • W.

      You’re alright in my book, Anus.

      • Metaphysical Anus

        Can you fucking make up your mind? Last week I was dead to you because of that Golden Eye thing.

        • W.

          Life is dynamic. Just sway with the changing tides, my man.

          • Metaphysical Anus

            I feel like I have finally won the acceptance of a distant father.

          • Janitor Jim Dvggan

            Do you hate Manfred Mann’s Earth Band? If so you’re the greatest man on earth.

          • Metaphysical Anus

            I don’t hate hate them, but neither do I like them

          • Janitor Jim Dvggan

            I love you. They’re so bad and they are not prog.

        • Lacertilian

          Just by calling it ‘that Golden Eye thing’ you may invoke the hate brewing deep inside.

    • Stockhausen

      I will heartily admit the reality of Finland for this comment.

      • Metaphysical Anus

        Thank u bae!

  • I don’t think I’ve ever actually listened to Tom Waits, will check out tonight after work. I’m excited.

    • Metaphysical Anus

      You go and do that mate!

    • Stockhausen

      Well…?

      • It’s interesting, and I like it, but it’s not really the type of music I’d listen to for fun, I guess. I really like how different and purely creative his stuff seems, almost like he made it stream-of-consciousness style.

  • God

    Wow, this is some good shit!

    • God

      playing “hell broke luce” for the 4th time now.

      • Metaphysical Anus

        This is one of my favourites from him.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTlkVTwMLFs

        • God

          Ok how have I never heard this guy before? I need to download his discography now.

          • Metaphysical Anus

            Proof that god is not omniscient!

          • God

            shhhhh keep it down. I dont want people to know.

          • Guacamole Jim

            Anus > God

          • Metaphysical Anus

            Guacamole Jim > God

          • Guacamole Jim

            Awww thx bb <3

          • Metaphysical Anus

            Even though you hate John Cage. I can live with that, just because you’re so handsome.

          • Guacamole Jim

            To be honest, I actually like John Cage. I just think 4:33 should never have been performed. The idea is cool, but to perform it is moronic.

          • Metaphysical Anus

            2deep4you pleb!

          • Stockhausen

            Ooooh, that would be a fun debate.

          • crazytaco_12

            My exact thoughts on this issue. I’ll see covers and shit on youtube and it’s just idiotic. I saw a whole orchestra cover it and I was like “dude, I’d be pissed if I spent my money to see this shit”

      • Stockhausen

        That song clutched my face and tore it from my body the first time I heard it. Glad to spread the love.

    • Dëpütÿ Dïpshït

      I’ve always felt that Tom Waits is fuckin’ metal as all hell. I dare someone to say otherwise so I can dust off my trusty, officially licensed and branded Toilet ov Hell so I can flush those hack posers immediately with rest of the jabronis of the world! m/

      BACK TO THE BOWL! m/

      • Stockhausen

        If you hear any posers say otherwise, give me a call.

        • Dëpütÿ Dïpshït

          Flushpocalypse will be upon us!

      • DeeSnarl

        Metal or no, he spent some time on Epitaph offshoot Anti, which was decidedly not a punk label, but still, he made an appearance on Punk-O-Rama 4 (I think), so there’s that….

        • Stockhausen

          He’s still technically on Anti-, but who knows what the future holds for Tom. He’s at the age where he could be like, “Eh, I’m good,” or just bust out an amazing new album in a week.

          • DeeSnarl

            No shit? Wow, that’s been a lot of years. ..!

          • Stockhausen

            It really is, he’s been on Anti- since Mule Variations in 1999. I doubt he’s looking to shake things up these days, and I would imagine any label Tom Waits has enough sense to let him do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

  • CyberneticOrganism

    Great article, I love Tom Waits but I’m familiar with so little of his output.

    • Stockhausen

      There’s SO much to dive into. Hopefully this helps!

  • Tyree

    I knew this was your write up from the first sentence. “Being dead gives me a lot of time to think”. Tom Waits for the win!

    • Stockhausen

      Woo! High five from the dead!

  • This is my ringtone. Tom Waits fucking rules, and you should see him live if you ever get the chance. Alice and Blood Money are my two favorite albums by him, but I don’t dislike any of them.

    http://youtu.be/W9mhsW5aWJM

    • Stockhausen

      For a music video that doesn’t really do anything, I’ve always loved that one. He’s just an entrancing dude.

    • Stockhausen

      I absolutely love this tune. That whole first half of Orphans: Brawlers is a must.

  • Tyree
    • Leif Bearikson

      His appearance in Mystery Men is incredible. BLAMETHROWER!

  • Xan

    I can dig this. I like strange obscure sounding music.

  • W.
      • W.

        Either one, Cristiano!

    • Dëpütÿ Dïpshït

      From (probably) my favorite Primus album. m/ Love this track.

      • TrickleDownTacoRiff

        Love me some Primus! And welcome back back Deputy! Course you’ve prob been back around for a while, i just missed it, lol!

        • Dëpütÿ Dïpshït

          Hey brother! Been lurking ever so slightly on the RHRC, it’s been a pretty crazy few weeks, but glad to be back around these parts. One does not simply bode well with separation from the throne!

          • TrickleDownTacoRiff

            amen bro!

      • Janitor Jim Dvggan

        I enjoy Primus. They came near me in 2012 and I missed it. I regret missing their show as I heard they were good.

    • Stockhausen

      Love that tune and his appearance!

  • Guacamole Jim

    Honestly, I haven’t listened to enough Tom Waits. I’ve been a huge fan of Swordfishtrombones for years now, and this article is a good kick in the ass to get on more of his material. I’ve loved everything I heard.

  • God

    HOLY SHIT I KNEW I RECOGNIZED THIS GUY!!! If you have seen the movie “the imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” Tom Waits played Mr. Nick! (aka The Devil)

    • Spear

      He was also in Seven Psychopaths, which was also excellent.

      • Edward Meehan

        Also, The Book of Eli.

        • Stockhausen

          I saw that when it first came out and I wasn’t really familiar with him. I saw it again after I went full fanboy, and almost dive through the TV during his scene.

          • Edward Meehan

            Lol, he tried stealing the Ipod.

    • Stockhausen

      Yep. He shows up in random parts in a bunch of movies, his characters are always awesome.

      • he was great as Hellboy

        • Stockhausen

          Like, the Hellboy movies? Or was he in a smaller adaptation?

          • (Tom Waits looks like Ron Perlman)

          • Stockhausen

            You look like Ron Perlman!

            I guess I never noticed, but he does a little bit. I’m always hearing of random movies he’s in that I wasn’t aware of, but we were about to go to fisticuffs if you thought that was actually Tom Waits.

  • Howard Dean

    I was to believe that there would be peanut butter involved?

    • Dëpütÿ Dïpshït

      So was Barack Obama’s dog.

  • The Flying Scotsman

    My favourite artist of all time. Genius amongst pretenders.

  • KJM

    Wish he’d tour a little more.

    • Stockhausen

      I would do some pretty questionable things for the opportunity to see him live. He’s (understandably) slowed way down over the past several years, and I never got the chance.

      • KJM

        Once every 5 years or so he plays Boston, but it always seems to happen at a bad time for me.

        • Janitor Jim Dvggan

          I have never seen him perform anywhere near me. I’m not sure of the last time he performed New York City. I saw Bob Dylan perform near me back in 2010 and he rehearses for his shows at a venue near me. He was good even though his singing was incomprehensible. I did not understand anything he said except for one word. That one word was windows.

  • Beunhaas

    I’m very lucky to have parents that exposed me to the Tom Waits at a young age. Good article.

    • Stockhausen

      Thanks dude! I hope to be a cool latent like that one day.

  • Leif Bearikson

    I’m torn on what song to post, so I’ll go with Going Out West because I always feel like a badass when I listen to it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27LLPANAgzw

    • Mook Styfawker

      My friend had a great comment for this song. “The sound of pure masculinity.”

      • Stockhausen

        I LOOK GOOOOOD WITHOUT A SHIRT.

        • Leif Bearikson

          Trve story. I also know karate and voodoo, too.

  • Mook Styfawker

    Tom Waits can most likely go with any genre or style of music seamlessly.

  • Mook Styfawker

    Also, this is easily not only my favorite Tom Waits song, but my favorite song of all time, no contest.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo4Y0TxW41g

  • Janitor Jim Dvggan

    Tom Waits and Bob Dylan are more metal than anything on Rise Records or any of those poser metal labels. They sing of brutality that even Slayer can’t match. the brutality of personal problems and other soul crushing subjects.

  • DeeSnarl

    Nice. I’d already been thinking of throwing on Rain Dogs here soon….
    /I see that he was in the freakin’ Outsiders!

  • DeeSnarl

    Also, I think Tom Waits is best heard at 4 in the morning, with whiskey….

  • TrickleDownTacoRiff

    “I must possess every second of music ever made by this human.” (or band) lol! ahhh yes…

    • Stockhausen

      Such a frustrating yet awesome feeling…

      • TrickleDownTacoRiff

        totally!

  • Ellipsis

    I listen to this about once a week…

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=cvMy1xOh6cw

    • Stockhausen

      Interesting! That wouldn’t have been my first pick off Rain Dogs, but I still love the song.

  • JWG

    Here. I’ll be explicitly political so you don’t have to. THIS is my favourite song from the album you mentioned. And yes, mostly that’s because of the message.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_mLxEw6XGE

  • Gurp

    I can’t really say much for the other songs, but “Hell Broke Luce” is downright FIERCE.

  • Fritz

    My favorite breakfast routine; Eggs, Bacon, Beans, Sausage, Black Tea while listening to “Nighthawks at the Diner”. No newspaper, no books and no phones or computers. Just eat and listen all the way through. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYh9OdAAaCE

  • Fritz
  • Renan Ribeiro