Magazine article The New Yorker

Gravel Pit

Magazine article The New Yorker

Gravel Pit

Article excerpt

There is a cliche about Tom Waits, or, as he described it to me, an "oversimplification." In his words, the received version is that he "growls about booze and gargles with nails and screws." In keeping with this perception, an affectionate illustration called "Visible Tom Waits," by the artist Jim Lockey, was posted on Tumblr about a month ago. Waits's body, with fedora, is depicted in cross-section, like a scientific chart, with his brain tagged "Here be monsters," his throat filled with sandpaper and "gravel & spiders," and his lungs noted simply as the location of the furnace.

Waits's new album, "Bad as Me," his twenty-second, has plenty of stone gargling. It was made with a vast constellation of new and old friends, the most prominent of whom is an often overlooked collaborator, his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who has been writing songs with Waits since his album "Swordfishtrombones," from 1983 (for which she was uncredited). "She responds to things like she's in an opium dream. I'm more of a sticks-and-wire guy," he said. (Much of what he says in conversation could, with little intervention, become lyrics.) "Bad as Me" also features the guitarist Marc Ribot, whom Waits called "the Lon Chaney of the guitar--there are so many voices he's able to conjure," and high-profile guests such as Flea and Keith Richards. Central to the album are Clint Maedgen and Ben Jaffe, reed and brass players from New Orleans's Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who appear on many of the tracks.

Since his 1973 debut, "Closing Time," Waits has been part of a continuum that either predates or runs parallel to rock and roll. In the era of Elvis Presley, Waits preferred Gershwin; he also chose the piano over the guitar, and Mose Allison over Chuck Berry. In the beginning of his career, his work leaned toward the acoustic and the emotionally patient, averse to flash and speed. (Waits has talked about the difficulty of opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, trying to make his audience listen to a man with nothing but a piano and a voice.) Though it's fruitful and appropriate to see Waits in the lineage of traditional songwriters, it's also worth noting two experiences that Waits has cited in his development. In 1962, when he was thirteen years old, he saw James Brown perform, and two years later he saw Dylan. Of the latter, according to Barney Hoskyns, author of "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits," he said, "Here's a guy like Dylan onstage with a stool and a glass of water, and he comes out and tells these great stories in his songs. It helped unlock the mystery of performance."

Neither of these influences is unusual, and it is easier to spot the imprint of Kerouac, a debt that Waits doesn't hide. But there is one significant sense in which both Brown and Dylan gave him a template. Brown was not a particularly personal songwriter, and for Dylan the pronoun "I" is a deep, dry canyon best observed from a distance: who knows who many of his characters are? Waits mentioned the "stories" in Dylan, not a sense of prophecy or vision. Waits is big on characters, stories, and punch lines. He is often portrayed as a late-night troubadour, but he avoids easy sentimentality by favoring images over confessions, and by privileging hidden artistic connections over the Taser of novelty. "If you break open a song, you'll find the eggs of other songs," he told me. "Misunderstandings are really kind of an epidemic and acceptable. I think it's about one thing, but someone else will say, 'That song is kind of a rhino in hot pants on a burnt rocking horse with a lariat shouting, "Repent, repent! …

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