Monday, May 07, 2007

God and Tom Waits

This one left me scratching my head a little bit: a Jesuit journal hailing Tom Waits as a champion of the “the marginalised and misunderstood.” Although I agree this describes Waits' work perfectly, it has led some to ask: Is Tom Christian?

I think some ask this question with trepidation, as if their feelings about the man and his work will change depending on their own feelings about God and religion. If someone listens to "Down There By The Train" or "Lord I've Been Changed" and thinks, A-ha! Tom's been born again! I think that is just wrong. Really, it's just a TW persona -- the Revival Tent Preacher. Does this have anything to do with the "real" Tom Waits? Maybe, maybe not. After all, it "World Keeps Turning," he wrote: "They always say: He marks the sparrow's fall / How can anyone believe it all?" And as Waits once said about Charles Bukowski: "We know what we have read, and what we’ve gathered from the work and what we’ve imagined. Essentially, there’s backstage and there’s on-stage, when you’re a performer. You know what we allow you to know." (Source: "My Wild Years And The Woman That Saved My Life", Word magazine (UK), November 9, 2006. By Mick Brown)

I think that more than being a Christian, Tom Waits is humanist with a deep empathy for the forgotten, the innocents, the victims. In Tom Waits musical world, God is there, but Tom doesn't see Him as an active participant in the day-to-day for the same reason many people struggle with God's existence: Why do bad things happen to people? For instance, look at the song "Georgia Lee" from Mule Variations: "Not to make it a racial matter, but it was one of those things where, you know, she's a black kid, and when it comes to missing children and unsolved crimes, a lot of it has to do with timing, or publicity... and there was this whole Polly Klaas Foundation up here, while Georgia Lee did not get any real attention. And I wanted to write a song about it. At one point I wasn't going to put it on the record, there were too many songs. But my daughter said, 'Gee, that would really be sad -- she gets killed and not remembered and somebody writes a song about it and doesn't put it on the record.' I didn't want to be a part of that." (Source: "Gone North, Tom Waits, upcountry". L.A. Weekly: Robert Lloyd. April 23-29, 1999) But even then, Waits wants to know: "Why wasn't God watching?" There's also a very similar song on an earlier album, Bone Machine, called "A Little Rain," with the line, "She was 15 years old and she’d never seen the ocean, She climbed into a van with a vagabond, And the last thing she sad was 'I love you mom.' "

Last month when I went to see Joe Ely, he said that there are only two themes in music: going away and coming home. If you look at Waits' themes, these themes are omnipresent. If you want, you can see these in religious terms: sin and redemption, trangression and forgiveness -- it's all the same thing. The album Frank's Wild Years is probably the best example of that. Frank goes out to pursue his dreams, but when he realizes all that he's lost by doing that, he finds redemption impossible to find: "A train took me away from here, but a train can't bring me home." Frank, like many of Waits' characters, must learn their lessons the hard way. It wasn't until years later that Waits spelled it out much more clearly in "The Long Way Home."

I put food on the table
and a roof over our head
But I'd trade it all tomorrow
for the highway instead
Watch your back, keep your eyes shut tight
Your love's the only thing I've ever known
But one thing's for sure pretty baby, I always take the long way home

Tom Waits understands that every one of us, no matter how noble and pure our intentions may be, everyone is capable of making mistakes, sometimes horrible mistakes, because of we are trying to follow our star. Sometimes that star is love or fame or just wondering what's around the corner. We don't do it out of malice. We do it because we are all human and we're trying to live the only life we have. To be human is to be fallible.

More often than not, there is redemption available in Waits' universe. I thought it was very appropriate that he wrote "Down There By The Train" for Johnny Cash because The Man In Black also mined this area of the human condition. In this song, redemption is there for everybody:

If you've lost all your hope, if you've lost all your faith
I know you can be cared for and I know you can be safe
And all the shameful and all of the whores
And even the soldier who pierced the heart of the Lord

Cash, however, was more overt about his religious beliefs and I think it is a little easier to tie a bow around his life. Waits is much more elusive. The idea that redemption is there for everyone without going through Jesus would drive a born-again Christian nuts. When Cash sings this song, you know in the back of your mind that this is a guy who sang tons of gospel songs -- you can listen and insert "God" or "Jesus" without even hearing the word. When Waits sings it, its seems much more ambiguous, more humanist. Grace is there for everyone. Period.

So is Tom a Christian? I don't think anyone other than Tom himself can really know how Waits feels about God, but this often-repeated story sheds a little light on it:
WORD (2006): There have always been a lot of religious allusions in your records, both musical and lyrical, of a salvation army band, revival tent variety On this record you’ve got a traditional gospel song, "Lord I’ve Been Changed," and a gospel song you’ve written yourself, "Down There By The Train." Is it the music you love or the sentiment?
Tom Waits: "I don’t know.. I always thought religion should be more visceral and that you should get beat up a little by it, you know? I was hitchhiking through Arizona, it was New Year’s Eve and I got stuck in a little town called Stanfield, Arizona. You think Arizona’s hot — in January it’s 10 below zero — and I’m not getting any rides. I’m about 17. And an old woman named Mrs. Anderson comes out to the sidewalk and I’m with my good buddy Sam, and she says, “It’s getting a little cold, it’s getting a little dark, it’s New Year’s Eve, come in the church”. And they sat us down in the back of the church, and it was all Pentecostal. They had a band up there; two Mexican guys and a black drummer and an old guy on the guitar - very weird — and a boy about seven playing piano. And they did this talking in tongues. I had never experienced anything like this before, so as far as I was concerned it was like scat singing; they were just going crazy. We were in the back, starting to laugh because it was unusual, and we were young and naive. And at the end of the service they took up an offering and they gave all of the money to us. They said, “We want to honour our wayfaring strangers, our travellers in the back who’ve come a long way to be with us tonight”. They gave us a basket of money, and we bought a motel that night, warm with a TV, trucks out the back. And we got up next morning, and we hit a ride and went all the way to California. That was probably the most pivotal religious experience I’ve had. If I was going to join a church, I’d join that church." (Source: "My Wild Years And The Woman That Saved My Life", Word magazine (UK), November 9, 2006. By Mick Brown)

I think there there is a God in Tom Waits' universe and his fascination with Christianity and the church has as much so do with his interest in life's big questions as it does a bad-ass Hammond B3 organ riff. There is an authenticity and an honesty than run through Waits' music and I really think is the cornerstone of his appeal. He deals with real human emotions -- heartbreak, loss, anger, joy and doubt. He really wrestles with the questions of what does it mean to be human and what is our place in this world. In spite of everything, in spite of the relentless furnace of this world, there is grace and beauty if you take time to notice the magic.

SOURCE NOTE: Thanks to the Tom Waits Library for its wealth of information. It made pulling together these thoughts easier.


The Stash Dauber said...

nice piece. a pleasure to read some thoughtful writing (rather than rehashed press release-fodder) about music for a change.

Steve-O said...

Thanks, Stash!

Anonymous said...

In an audio bit during one of his interviews, Tom discussed how his "...mother always said that the devil hates nothing more than a singing Christian". That clinched it for me. I wasn't surprised, from his music I sensed a spirituality. I think it wouldn't bother people if it was anything else, but Christianity has a bad rap these days. Stereotyping. The man is a genius, I think it's great that he's spiritual too!