The inescapability of alienation in Tom Waits

by Talha Minhas

As a starting point, a poet must shed the skin of an ‘actor’ and put on the ragged robes of a wanderer, a homeless observer, a timeless traveler — this is what he needs to be an ‘outsider’. As a poet first and then a performer, Tom Waits is compelled, even propelled, by this reclusive (as well as reflective and intuitive) protest against non-creativity and reckless damage to the human society. In his compilation ‘Beautiful Maladies’, he sketches a time when man desires to be alone – this alienation is a reminder for him to slow down; because struggle against it will only make it worse. Yet he fights a raging battle – his only weapon: jazz and his ‘rotten-tomato-run-over-by-a-truck’ vocals. In this battle (which he increasingly feels he is losing) he pushes his limits to carry on. In Temptation, his condition is starting to develop as a helpless maniac who knows no bounds and is only seeking pleasure. This leads him through most of the album. He doesn’t seem to go far with it; pushing nonetheless.

As the album progresses, his style takes over his conception of jazz as a medium — he bends the rules, breaks them in between, and before long, he lets them go altogether only to return and take refuge in them. He asks us to ‘clap our hands’ as we struggle to give ‘meaning’ to his protest, while we fail in doing so. Many generalizing characteristics of interpretation are inapt in this album, such as the post-modern distinction between ‘form’ or ‘style’ and ‘content’ or subject-matter as well as the perceived motives and artifices. Take the example of Clap Hands: although, familiar elements of poetry are observed (rhyme, meter, metaphor and irony), it is hard to say that the artifice alludes to the ‘larger than life’ sensibilities, or simply to bring together the poetic narrative. It is also (in Sontag’s vocabulary) ‘camp’ as it is unaware of itself. However, not all of Waits’ work can be characterized as camp.

One also senses in this album a longing for lost times; although time is not referred to in the historical sense, rather in the metaphysical sense. ‘Times’ that were never past or present, and certainly never becoming. They are lost because they never occurred in history. And so he paints them for us, notwithstanding the test of common sense, of course, but exceptionally exceeding expectations. He continues.

He creates many characters to carry his ‘timeless’ protest against the diminishing value of human conduct. Frank, for example, is a psychopath. To describe Frank’s plight, Waits uses his candor and bold expression, though not telling but showing us what it is like to be Frank. He is not simply a reckless maniac, but has a painstakingly sensitive (certainly destructive) character guided and perpetuated by the ‘absurd’ environment around him – absurd from his perspective, for he fails to put his surrounding in his romantic ideals. He tends to keep it, despite that it is not pleasant to his taste; in that, he is a prisoner of his self, his own thoughts and concepts. He brings the darker shades of what it is to be a prisoner of one’s own: it bears the burdens of only one instead of the shared burden of many. Such a distinction is perhaps important in Waits’ view, particularly in the socio-political context of the 1980s in the United States.

More about alienation, now. Waits is not alienated in the sociological sense. At the least, it is not the only kind of alienation he ‘suffers’; it is psychological; sometimes, it is also religious because it is impossible to relate with a morality derived from religion or religiosity. It becomes less clear, as he progresses through his musical career, to say whether he started due to the unbearable intensity of lacking a more accepted way of expressing his discontent for society or the other way. It is this lack of clarity that becomes the ironic ‘mask’ of Waits’ expression; he becomes exceedingly soft and blurred in quite the cinematic way, his music wilder and more experimental. All this, perhaps, to cover up the storm raging inside. For this very reason, it is often misleading to take his music as a reflection of his alienation process.

The concept of ‘time’ is very important as it appears frequently in his work. It is ‘time’ that he believes in, and yet rejects its influence on his psyche. The internal conflict of being in the wrong ‘time’ is disturbing to his work, in my view, as he is blinded by it as well as motivated to move away from it. This results in some of his performances making no sense to ‘ordinary’ jazz enthusiasts. But is he really playing for the ‘ordinary jazz enthusiast’? I don’t know, is he?

In Cold Cold Ground, he paints a repressed and alienated society, doesn’t matter which. There are elements of contrast, dissociated and even random lines:

Now don’t be a cry baby when
there’s wood in the shed;
there’s a bird in the chimney
and a stone in my bed.
When the road’s washed out,
we pass the bottle around,
and wait in the arms of the cold,
cold ground.

At this point in the album, the desolation and the beating of a morally degraded society starts appearing in detail. It is this state of alienation that he cannot escape.

This leads to the painful revelation that the individual is fading into the shadows of the cold November evenings (here, “November” is the metaphor for the post-modern sensibilities of arts and ethics). In November, Waits awaits the climax of a stretching battle. When there is ‘no moon and no cars’ around, among the ‘pile of dead leaves’ there is no hope of returning to a time hopeful for (and faithful to) a better life. Time has come to embrace the death of a homeless man on a lonely night of despair. As we try to make a final push to grab life’s ‘fruits’, November takes us away with its ‘firing squad’.

Then, in Downtown Train, Good Old World and I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, there is retrospection of the ‘good life’ and a flight from sorrow when one has embraced failure. At this point in the album, we are introduced with the highs of life – love in its glory. Here, confusion is beautiful and games of love are cute and anticipated. It is an escape from self-centrism by choice: the highest kind of sacrifice. However, as a sweet dream, it is short-lived but a delight.

In a display of his musical and lyrical genius, in Time, Waits performs his most mature protest. This time around, he touches an important human dilemma: the incompleteness of youth wasted on hedonistic pursuits. He alludes to having little to no regrets about living a life of an alienated person. Love is only a simple effect of such a life. We put so much effort in a small point of our emotive life of perception, deceit, desires and facts. It is in this conflict that he finds his true expression. Without much complaining, he blames time to be the burden upon the frail shoulders of man. He dives into the heart of the traveler, the homeless man, the inactive protester, the poet, to dig out the ‘facts of life’. He anticipates a lost time that never was; and realizing that it will never be, he writes and ‘performs’ the acts of the unfaithful women, orphans, reckless boys, and old people full of regrets.

Tom Waits is an exceptional point in American jazz. He has succeeded, I believe, in painting the picture of a lifetime of many people, detached from humanity, living on the sidelines of love and life: the travelers, the wanderers, the dreamers, the philosophers, the poets and desolate jazz musicians to name a few. His musical style has earned him the respect and notoriety that he may need to keep ‘protesting’ for decades, if he so wills. The poet beyond time in Waits will pull him inside while he fights to break free from the poet he is bound in time.

Bielefeld, 5.6.2016.