Tom Waits has remained a mysterious character on the fringes of popular music for over 40 years. One of the small drawbacks to his persona is the lack of critical and analytical interview content on this strange and wonderful musician. Thankfully, the Under Review documentary series has produced two, 80-minute films which offer a surprisingly in-depth examination of the man and his music.
The first segment is titled Tom Waits: Under Review 1971-1982: An Independent Critical Analysis, and the second bears the same title but replaces the years with 1983-2006. The films feature rare interviews, footage, unusual photographs and criticism from many different experts and acquaintances of Tom Waits.
The most revealing insight is presented in the first of the two films, which examines the context and collaborations resulting in Waits’ always unique but ever-changing sound. Speaking about his earliest downtrodden troubadour era, it observes that:
If you were the kind of person who was going to walk into the seedy bar and say, “oh… there’s a drunken bum over there,” and walk out, you weren’t going to be sitting there listening to Tom Waits.
But if you were the kind of person whose imagination started to think, “Well what was that guy’s life like? How did he end up here? What happened here?”… if there was an element of “who washed up on the shore of the promised land… L.A. being the ultimate destination and the final burying place of western culture… Tom Waits is interested in finding out where the body is buried. And that’s where those guys were.”
There is also a detailed analysis of Waits’ atypical approach to lyricism which favored narrative over confession.
This was a guy creating theater pieces in a way, in a song. These were characters he was either inventing or finding and expanding upon in his own mind. This was not the kind of diary writing that a lot of singer/songwriters were doing. This was more like short story writing – there was a highly theatrical – an element of artifice (used neutrally) in his music that was not what the singer/songwriters were supposed to be about.
Tom has always maintained a style unlike any of the artists of his day. What was particularly fascinating about the album Swordfishtrombones was that a listener couldn’t point to other records from that decade and say, “I see where he got that from." And that unlike his contemporaries of the 1980s, the album hasn’t become embarrassingly dated to its decade.
Still, there are more subtle stylistic influences to Waits’ work. His music mirrors the wit of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Kerouac. His songs also embrace the atonalism and avant-garde compositional form of Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, and most certainly German composer Kurt Weill. But perhaps most apparent are the vocal influences of Howlin Wolf. The film humorously describes his more self-parodic songs as falling “somewhere between an imitation of Louis Armstrong and Oscar the Grouch.”
This outlandish and extreme vocal quality was met with criticism from the listening public.
Speaking about Nighthawks at the Diner, the film observes:
I think it’s more about authenticity. People began to wonder whether this bohemian bar stool philosopher was a real character or whether it was just a theatrical construct.
Until you got to know Waits and you started to really believe in the character and see the depth of what he was doing, it kind of looked liked a pastiche. There was initially some suspicion that it seemed a bit phony. [But really] all artists are self-created in some form or another.
They go on to examine his vocal characteristic further, noting that “Nighthawks was nearing self-parody, but with Small Change Waits transcended his own influence.”
They described the peak of the boho barstool character thusly:
It’s like an anti-operatic, opposite of belle canto – the opposite of beautiful singing and we understand it. And it’s certainly not natural – it’s an assumed voice – it’s a put on vocal persona. But it’s the key to why the [sentimental] / schmaltzy things work.
But it is Waits’ juxtaposition of innocent lyrics and melodies with his Nighthawk performances that really make his character memorable.
A key analysis presented in segment one outlines the importance of this quality:
When Tom Waits plays around with songs like Waltzing Matilda and Silent Night – those songs represent a communality and sense of you in the famiy bossom and the bossom of your community and faith – all of which has been lost to his character. So when his character is groaning out Waltzing Matilda and growling Silent Night – that is their [Samuel] Beckett style poignant memory of what once seemed possible. They stir the emotions that those songs typically do but only by way of trying to demonstrate their absence. And that’s what’s so affecting about it.
It’s a way of re-contextualizing that music to dramatize the desperation of the characters who are singing it.
And finally, another layer of context is added to Waits' music when the culture of his listeners, (particularly American audiences) is added to the mix. Speaking on the value of the album Heartattack and Vine –
Only American capitalism could have produced the songs of Tom Waits. There’s a sense of this human debt detritus – these people who are just cast off by the system here that I don’t think exists in most other industrialized countries where there’s more of a social net…Those characters could only exist here. This is the anti-story – the other story of America that he’s interested in. And not from a social protest, Woody Guthrie standpoint but from a human narrative
standpoint. Who was that person? What was possible for that person? What was his/her dream? There’s not a lot of tolerance in America for losers. Tom Waits made art of that possibility.
Under Review expertly illustrates the depth and consistent quality of Waits’ music throughout his career with this fantastic critical analysis. For any listener growing bored of the superficiality of taking music at face value, Under Review will be an inspiring breath of fresh air.