Paul Bryant's Reviews > Swordfishtrombones

Swordfishtrombones by David Smay
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May 11, 2008

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Read in May, 2008

Like Captain Beefheart and at various times Bob Dylan, Tom Waits invented himself a "character" as deliberate as anything you find in a Broadway production and stuck to it, both onstage, in his songs and patter, and offstage, in his interviews. It was a radical idea. In the 70s he was the Last of the Holy Beat Barroom Singers, and if there was genuine melancholy in his art there was also a thick air of affectation hanging like Los Angeles smog over the whole enterprise, from the Edward Hopper album covers to the Bukowski and Lord Buckley jive talk. Me, I couldn't take him seriously for a second. I'd had enough with Captain Beefheart's Mr Natural nonsense, which all the journos lapped up like it was mother's milk laced with bourbon. Beefheart's music is sublime, of course, anyone can see that, he was the guy who could hit targets no one else knew were there, but we didn't have to buy the whole cutesy-folk-sayings and the tree surgery and the never went to school and the seven and a half octaves. Enough.
So anyway, Tom Waits met Kathleen Brennan who wasn't in the music biz and wham, he reinvented his whole thing right on the spot. No more Bukowski. And for three albums everything was better than wonderful - Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years (1983-87). In more benevolent times these three albums would be issued to every child on reaching the age of fifteen by the school authorities. Before 15 they couldn't take it.
So anyway, beginning with Bone Machine in 93, Tom Waits changed again, and whilst I salute him in refusing to rewrite the same stuff, like many others can only do, I couldn't follow him. He appeared to want to make records he thought Captain Beefheart himself should have been making if Beefheart hadn't have been crippled with MS, and if Beefheart had been seized with a mania for Karlheinz Stockhausen, Einstürzende Neubauten and Bang on a Can. It was difficult terrain, the musical equivalent of dragging the carcass of an elk across ploughed fields. It sounded like tuneless noise, like experiments in found sound. It was the parting of the ways for me and Tom Waits.
But two of his Frank trilogy albums are in my all time top 20 and will forever be so. This book is an okay celebration of a great, mad, original, serendipidous dance of delight called Swordfishtrombones.


Well, with buck shot eyes and a purple heart
I rolled down the national stroll
And with a big fat paycheck strapped to my hip-sack
And a shore leave wristwatch underneath my sleeve
In a Hong Kong drizzle on Cuban heels
I rowed down the gutter to the Blood Bank

And I'd left all my papers on the Ticonderoga
And I was in bad need of a shave
I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein
And shot billiards with a midget until the rain stopped
And I bought a long sleeved shirt with horses on the front
And some gum and a lighter and a knife
And a new deck of cards with girls on the back
And I sat down and wrote a letter to my wife

And I said, baby, I'm so far away from home
And I miss my baby so
I can't make it by myself
I love you so

And I was pacing myself, trying to make it all last
Squeezing all the life out of a lousy two-day pass
And I had a cold one at the Dragon with some Filipino floor show
And I talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling
And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair
Could look down on Illinois and find you there

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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by brian (new)

brian   just bought my ticket yesterday. seeing the man in el paso.

dig the review, paul, and yeah the 'trilogy' was the high point, but gotta throw out a voice of dissent and say that all the shit that followed was pretty damn near genius as well.

message 2: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Tom Waits for no man.

message 3: by Taylor (new)

Taylor Tom did not invent his "character." It is a smooth extension of himself. Certainly he controls its ebb and flow and uses it for purposes of performance, but it's never separate from who he is.

I feel the same way - there's always been something painfully genuine about Waits, even when he's not supposed to be, which is part of what makes him so endearing to me.

I'm curious what approach the writer took with this 33 1/3 book - they're all so different. Did he do anything particularly interesting with it, or was it your basic historical perspective, song by song review kind of thing?

Paul Bryant It's song by song but he starts off saying that there's very little written about TW's music which isn't superficial. For instance everyone cites Kurt Weill as an influence, except he demonstrates TW hadn't heard Weill until after he was told he'd been influenced... Smay throws in every angle he can think of, there's a lot about Kathleen Brennan, some loopy cringe making stuff where he writes little stories about TW, some very insightful stuff of course too. These 33 1/3 books are kind of made with me in mind, a fan's dream series, but they're extremely variable and frankly should be a bit better than they are.

message 5: by Trevor (new)

Trevor Waits has been a constant companion since I was 17 and saw him live in concert. Rain Dogs is one of my favourite albums of all time - but then, so is Alice and Blood Money and The Heart of Saturday Night and Small Change and and and.

message 6: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Huh. I'd always thought the Frank trilogy is more challenging than the later stuff. Good assessment though.

Paul Bryant Some people might like bashing bits of metal whilst pretending to be drunk but I will stick to Frank.

message 8: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Ha! Well it's kind of like his music splits in two after Frank – the experimental stuff becomes even more experimental, but the rest is very traditional melodic stuff played in increasingly underproduced, rootsy ways (eg

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