"Hold On" / Tom Waits
God bless your crooked little heart, Tom Waits. I first fell under his spell years ago, when Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night were all he had to show for himself; a friend from California played those LPs for me (late at night, of course, the best time for listening to Tom Waits) in a unheated student flat in England, as we sipped Scotch and listened to lorries rumble past, rattling the windowpanes. We homed in on those albums like a beacon, too young ourselves to realize how young Waits was too, despite the vintage porkpie hat and soul patch and world-weary shrug. Over the years since then, he's grown into his beat persona like a big-shouldered overcoat, his voice ever more gravelly, his lyrics more evocative; he wears his spastic, spacey weirdness like a badge of honor.
I know Tom Waits isn't for everyone. That voice, for one thing -- it's a raspy growl, really, like the guy hunched over the end of the bar, tapping his cigarette and sharing hard-won secrets about life. It's not music you can dance to, either, given the odd syncopations and draggy tempos he gravitates to. You have to listen to the words too much, and they are NOT the kind of words that call for singalongs. If you like your rock straight up, you'll get impatient with Tom Waits' reflex for jazz riffs, mournful blues licks, and honky-tonk struts. You can practically see the neon signs flickering over the boozy horn sections, fumbling piano, and bongo drums.
But when I sit down with Tom Waits I feel like I'm with a friend -- a friend with a deadpan sense of humor, a taste for back alleys and cheap whiskey, and a wounded romanticism straight outta Raymond Chandler. Over the years, Tom has become incredibly soulful, as if picking up a new radio frequency that reveals the tears at the heart of things. His 1999 album Mule Variations is so goddam melancholy and wise, I have to ration my listenings.
A number of songs on there slay me -- "Get Behind The Mule", "Chocolate Jesus," "The House Where Nobody Lives"-- but the most haunting of all is this (sorta) love song, "Hold On." It skips along lackadaisically, like the cockeyed grifters and misfits it describes, with acoustic guitar strums like rain trickling down a gutter. Tom's gruff, yearning voice wrings poetry out of the situation, and what poetry -- who else could turn out lines like "With charcoal eyes and Monroe hips /She went and took that California trip"; "I miss your broken-china voice"; "He gave her a dime-store watch / And a ring made from a spoon"; or my favorite, "Well go ahead and call the cops / You don't meet nice girls in coffee shops."
Tom Waits knows those coffee shops, he knows those not-nice girls -- and he knows that their affections are just as true as anyone's. He makes me want to hitch up my dangling bra strap and stub out my lipstick-filtered cigarette and try love one more time.