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Tom Waits was bound to sound a bit old. He grew wearier with each new film and each new recording project, and could play hip no more. When he acted as the lush limo driver in Short Cuts, some folks sensed that it marked the end of Waits’ creativity; his drunk-lug routine had become a shtick he could perform in his sleep. Waits had grown up; he had let his hair grow thick as a carpet, his voice go reedy as a carnival barker’s, and his suits get black as soot. It was like Red Skelton bringing out the same bag o’ gags all over again. The audience knew it was over.
Toward the end of his career, reporters would gather at diners and listen to him just talk. Just rasp in his old scarecrow’s voice about any topic that fit his fancy: Elvis decanters, his lawsuit against Frito-Lay for replicating his rasp to pitch corn chips, a travelogue of America’s best hotels and motels. Sure, he wouldn’t discuss his family lifethat was privateor his recordings too much. No one seemed to mind. He told the music scribes to order from the dinner specials. No one cared even when he started ordering decaf.
This guy had been there. He was born in ’49, as the legend goes, in a taxicab right outside a California hospital. He eventually fell in love with the Beats, got his ass behind a piano, and played his heart out. In the great intergenerational game of Telephone, Waits always listened with a deft ear. He’d riff off old rhythms and thematic roots without plagiarizing. He danced around Billy Joel, Billie Joe, and Boxcar Willie. He channeled Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the ghost of Ted Hawkins. Waits could talk to Elvis Costello and fall in love with Elvis. That’s why he made such a convincing DJ in Mystery Train and Down by Law.
He learned to drive his roots soul into more esoteric strata. He howled into a megaphone before Michael Stipe learned to sing in front of people. He banged on pots and pans before Stomp turned the idea over to the middle class. He did opera a few times without anyone laughing. He had his wild years, and by the late ’90s, his family life, too. His wife, Kathleen Brennan, became a permanent studio mate, helping out on Swordfishtrombones, and full-fledged partner on ’99’s Mule Variations.
Around the same time, Waits’ cellmates in Down by Law, a film that cemented his hipster image, were coming into their own: Roberto Benigni won two Oscars, and John Lurie got his own TV show about fishin’. Waits continued to make films and musicall still variations on his themes of forgotten, drunken dawns and sideshow freaks. Folks like Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen covered his songs, and had hits, even. Waits took his kids to Disneyland and hated the experience. He vowed never to let his kids return until they were 18.
Waits eventually settled in with his final record label, Epitaph, known for putting out punk rock by the likes of Bad Religion and Pennywise. He had gone West Coast, like Johnny Cash and Tom Petty before him. But unlike them, he wouldn’t let Rick Rubin near the studio dials. He kept that chore for himself and his wife. He was still mad as hell at Jon Spencer for stealing his trademark howl. Waits thought about collaborating on a lounge record with Combustible Edison to be called the Wino Cocktail Hour, but decided not to hop that gravy train. So he retired to VH-1 and told stories.
Waits will always be remembered as a musical Lone Ranger…his wife, his Tonto…a nighthawk at Hopper’s diner sitting next to Jimmy Dean and Marilyn, taking notes on the strength of the coffee and the flash of the neon….
If the foregoing reads like an obit, it is. As sure as those diners would go corporate and those old flophouses become lofts for the Microsoft set, Waits would eventually grow into this: a museum piece fixed for a good waxing. Rolling Stone has hailed him as an “eccentric,” which is as good as calling him a fossilif it were still true. The tag may come from the fact that his new album, Mule Variations, his first in six years, is essentially a blues album; it contains neither an electronica bubble beat nor a Y2K reference. Indeed, Waits always was a curious cat and auteur, one who created and hoped for the best, whether it be German opera with Burroughs or tortured guitar twistups with Keith Richards. But this album marks the end of all that. He is now an Elder Statesman.
Welcome, Tom. Say hello to Neil and Bob.
Waits is now entitled to all the perks that come with emeritus status. He gets the benefit of the doubt and an extra star in a Rolling Stone review. The LA Weekly lets him ramble on in old diners (where else?); he gets a gushing lead review in Ray Gun. If Lollapalooza weren’t dust, he’d headline.
What we get is not an eccentric’s album, but an old master marking the end of his creative life. Mule Variations is a self-aware roundup of his stylistic successes: the hollers (too few), the late-nite Hopper-scene ballads (too many), and the crazy Minguslike stomps (not enough Mingus). The mood is still Jarmusch-cool, with a little Cormac McCarthy thrown in. The problem is that there’s nothing eccentric about self-awareness. Produced by Waits and his wife, the album is the equivalent of a glamour shot.
For elder statesmen, the rules are different. Once you’ve reached that musical heaven, you can relax and play the stuff that got you there. Waits is still guided by desolate details, the same ones he’s always been concerned with: food, cards, booze, Bibles and deadbeats. He remembers when the weeds outgrew a neighbor’s garden and then takes you inside their house.
The house, for this album, is planted in a backwater town. And Waitsplaying the dimestore anthropologistknows how to wear out a place until he finds the creepy stuff. Waits tells the listener how to cook a hog on a box-spring spit (“Filipino Box Spring Hog”), how to serve a chocolate-confection likeness of Christ (“Chocolate Jesus”), and where to watch TV for free (“Cold Water”). It’s as if he’s opened a gift shop for the curious, the wiggy, and the forgotten.
The characters in his stories all have the usual old-timey namesMr. Sticha, Zerelda Lee, Beaula and Beatty, and Bill Bones. He doesn’t so much embody his characters as frame and haunt them. He wouldn’t like to thank the little people; he writes about them. There’s the “Eyeball Kid,” the little fella who’s “not conventionally handsome,” and “Georgia Lee,” a young runaway who is murdered. “Georgia Lee,” the most effective ballad on the album, presents Waits at his humblest, alone ‘cept some spare piano, bass, and violin.
As an elder statesman you can get away with sounding comfortable in your old age. Waits comes across as a bit too much like Randy Newman (even a little bit like Oprah) in softie tracks like “Hold On” and “House Where Nobody Lives.” Maybe he was saving himself for the closing track, “Come On Up to the House.” It’s a fine plea, with Waits in his perfect scruffy self. He bellows: “Come down off the cross/We can use the wood.” Waits had better remember that line when he’s inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has to duet with the Boss. It’s the only surprising line in the whole record.
The Latin Playboys, with their latest album, Dose, pick up Waits’ game of sonic Telephone. Playboy Tchad Blake has produced for Waits, and like Waits the group understands the value of well-worn found sounds. The Playboys, a side project of Los Lobos members David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez, continue the sonic textures from their main band’s groundbreaker Kiko.
Los Lobos has always been a bit shackled by its hit cover of “La Bamba,” cast as a retro, earnest, and somewhat dull rock band destined for Wolf Trap. As roots rockers, its members were decidedly apolitical; making music was enough. They were never as outspoken as, say, the hardcore Español of Los Crudos. When you listened to Los Lobos, you knew what you were getting. That’s never been the case with the Latin Playboys.
The band just loves fucking with sounds and genres the way Waits used to. The Playboys work the blues through vacuums and old tubes; the guitars sound as if they had sat out in the sun too long. The drums and percussion pop up in almost random rhythms, like catch phrases picked off the streets of East L.A. The whirl of cars, bird chirps, and subterranean keyboard programs form a collage. Whereas Waits comes off as labored, the Playboys go all twitchy with the ice-rink keyboards on “Toro,” the rusty mariachi of “Paletero,” and the pixellated strut on “Paula y Fred.” The lyrics are just as scratchy; some are in Spanglish, others in plain, simple English, all sung with an ease that comes only with age. The Playboys’ trick is to keep sounding like curious teenagers in the basement. CP