Looks Like Me But Isn't

Looks Like Me But Isn't

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tom Waits: The Prism of American Music

If you have never listened to Tom Waits you are missing one of the greatest of American performers. He is also a singer / songwriter and an awesome one but he is what the Brazilians would call an interpreter. There is a theatricality to his songs. Not only do the lyrics and the music but also his voice create as close to a visual sensation as music can. This is something that the people who cover his songs generally can't do, although, to name a few, Norah Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan have done wonderful versions none can bring the song alive like Tom Waits' own voice can.

As a matter of fact, all those mentioned above have good singing voices, much better than Tom's. His voice is unique and very radio unfriendly. There is a drunken deep rasp in his vocals, even though he doesn't drink. He sounds like someone we know and at the same time his voice belongs along side of Paul Bunyan. Or maybe his voice comes from a Mark Twain character that has left the page and come to live among us.

There is an omniscient peculiarity about him. Perhaps he is a medium. He knows our secrets, our tribulations, our hopes and he sings them alive thus revealing ourselves to us. Our lives are also rather radio unfriendly yet, like a movie, he captures the interesting parts, slows them down so that we can experience them or at least remember them.

The fact that such a wide variety of other musicians cover his songs brings up the question as to what style of music does he play. Americana would have been a good option if it weren't so narrow. He is rock, folk, traditional, country, blues and in some of the songs from his last albums there is even some scratching, loops and beatboxing. His music encompasses all of American music like his lyrics deal with life in America. There is only one music category that he fits in and that is the Tom Waits one.

This country has a sound and Tom Waits is one of the few prisms we have to see all the colors and beauty of that sound. One other contemporary musician that I can think of as being in the same league with Tom Waits is Bill Frisell. I'll save him for a later post, for now, go out and find some Tom Waits to listen to.

She's whiskey in a teacup
She gives blondes a lousy name
She's a Bonzai Aphrodite
And a ticket back to Spain
She's a hard way to go
And there ain't no way
To stop
Every time you play the red
The black is coming up

She's my Black Market baby
She's my Black Market baby
She's a diamond that
Wants to stay coal
Wants to stay coal

Now playing: Tom Waits - Black Market Baby
via FoxyTunes

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