The Tom Waits Listening Club - Mule Variations polls on post 582

Nighthawk origins gets a bad rap, quadruple vinyl makes it hard to take in as a whole I guess, you could streamline it down to just the dozen Bette Midler duets but like Mellon Collie I say embrace the whole thing, warts and all.


I’m afraid I just skimmed through this one, yeah not for me at all, down there with Nighthawks as my least favourite so far. I think I might jump ahead and listen to Swordfishtrombones now just to remind myself why I’m doing this bloomin’ listening club! :grinning:

Fret not @LastAstronaut (and others). From here, the only way is up, right?

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Think overall I preferred this to Nighthawks, mostly because there are a couple of tracks I’d listen to again out of choice (You Can’t Unring a Bell and, bizarrely, the instrumental montage). It’s also 20 minutes shorter, which meant I never got the “oh fuck, what if this never ends?” feeling I got from Nighthawks.

Other than that…yeesh. I’ve found that a lot of his cheesier songs are elevated by his voice, but on here he just sounds so dull. The florid orchestral arrangements don’t do him any favours either, it all ends up just sounding very uninspired and by-the-numbers. Something I’ve learned from our listenthrough thusfar is that he’s a sucker for melodrama and Gershwinesque ballads, but that’s not to say making an album of them was ever going to be the best use of his gifts.


One From The Fart

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Heartattack and Vine finishes with a very respectable 3.55, sliding in just in the top half of the table.

League Table:

Small Change - 4
The Heart of Saturday Night - 3.61
Heartattack and Vine 3.55
Closing Time - 3.47
Foreign Affairs - 2.42
Nighthawks - 2.29

It seems the sha-la-la lovers have propelled Jersey Girl into the playlist along with Ruby’s Arms and, with a whopping 90%, Heartattack and Vine itself.


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Polls for One From the Heart

FYI I will not be bowing to popular demand and adding a score of 6 for this one.

How Good Is One From the Heart Really?
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

0 voters

Best tracks on One From the Heart:
  • Opening Montage
  • Is There Any Way Out Of This Dream?
  • Picking Up After You
  • Old Boyfriends
  • Broken Bicycles
  • I Beg Your Pardon
  • Little Boy Blue
  • Instrumental Montage
  • You Can’t Unring A Bell
  • This One’s From The Heart
  • Take Me Home
  • Presents
  • Candy Apple Red
  • Once Upon A Town/Empty Pockets

0 voters


Can I vote for the silence after I turned it off?


I think you’re looking for the ‘How Good Is John Cage Really?’ thread.

Besides, Barney Hoskins says it enjoys a warm place in the heart of all Waits fans. Are you calling Barney Hoskins, Mr 'Foreign Affairs is better than Small Change ACTUALLY," a liar?

No, just a fool.

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Also, have jumped the gun and listened to Swordfishtrombones en route to work this morning. Shouldn’t be surprised as I know it pretty well to begin with, but jeeping fuck it is a step up.

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Swordfishtrombones (Island Records, 1983)

“I’d rather be a failure on my own terms than a success on someone elses. That’s a difficult statement to live up to, but then I’ve always believed the way you affect your audience is more important than how many of them they are.”

So it’s 1982 and Tom Waits has cleared the decks almost completely. His fans and the record company didn’t know it yet but he was about to undergo a dramatic shift. But there’s no such thing as an entirely clean slate, is there? No matter how radical a reinvention an artist undergoes it’s still the same old pair of eyes staring out from underneath the new mask. As we’ve heard for the past couple of months all the building blocks for Waits most famous records had been put into place across 6 albums and a soundtrack. So the task ahead would be to sift through all the old ideas, bad habits, beloved sounds and favourite clichés and find the bits that really work and are worth keeping. And then finding whatever it was that was missing from that first phase. Easy, right?

“You almost have to dismantle yourself and scattered all around, put on a blindfold and put it back together so you avoid old habits," is how Waits put it, but he wasn’t walking blind: Kathleen Brennan offered a fresh pair of eyes to cast over the world Tom Waits had built and offer council on what needed knocking down and what needed renovating. And she introduced Waits to masses of new sounds he’d never come across before - in particular she brought two artists to his attention who’d become huge touchstones for him on Swordfishtrombones and indeed for the rest of his career: Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch.

Harry Partch - homeless outsider artist and inventor of wild instruments such as the Gourd Tree and Cloud Chamber Bowls - once said of himself, “once there was a little boy who went outside and that little boy was me - I went outside in music.” Waits loved that, and the fact that this outsider had built not only his own instruments but worked in his own scales and developed his own way of writing and understanding music. He went to many recitals of Partch’s work and quizzed the musicians involved on how all these strange instruments worked. For all Waits experimental leanings he’d so far bound himself inside the established western mode of music - whether doing Gershwinisms of nasty R&B it still fell inside very familiar frameworks. He decided it was time to break out like Beefheart did and beat his own path.

But how does one do that, exactly? Well you’ll need some good collaborators for a start. Making One From the Heart may not have been the most enjoyable experience for Waits but along with his new wife he picked up a few more like minded folks who would be key to finding a new way forward. Two musicians who’d worked at Zoetrope, Emil Richards and Victor Feldman, introduced Waits to many percussive instruments he’d never come across before like squeeze drums, Balinese percussion, calliopes, glass harmonica and, crucially, marimba. The use of percussion as melody was an idea Waits fell in love with and they helped him build the rhythmic heart of his new sound., It’s Feldman’s marimba and Thumm’s metal aulongs that make up that strange, beguiling sound that draws you into Shore Leave. Add some strange, shambling guitar (played with a guitar key) and the strangely musical sound of a chair being dragged along the floor and you, apparently, have a masterpiece.

Of all the gifts Brennan gifted her husband - and her influence on this new sound really can’t be overstated - the confidence to do things his own way was probably the most precious. He’d been talking about producing his next record himself and she dared him to do it. Why give some guy 6 points on the royalties to tell you what to do when you know what you want to do and what he’s saying ain’t it? So Waits booked Sunset Sound studios with engineer Biff Dawes and took a bunch of songs he’d written in a frenzy on a fortnight trip to Ireland (he’d aimed for a narrative trajectory for the record: “a guy leaves the old neighbourhood, joins the Merchant Marines, gets into a little trouble in Hong Kong, comes home, marries thegirl, burns his house down and takes off on an adventure. That kind of story,”), set up the studios gym like space like a sort of graveyard for old forgotten instruments, assembled a band and set to work. Thumm and Richards were there along with Larry Taylor (bass), Fred Tackett (guitar) and Stephen Hodges (drums), along with a larger cast who would come and go. Waits set them up in a circle and walked round humming what he wanted to hear and the band jammed while Thumm and Richards played with the toybox of exotic instruments until they found what they were looking for. Waits had decided what he needed to jettison, having, “thought in saxophone and upright bass most of my life” both were banned. He’d had his fill of syrupy strings after One From the Heart and decided he couldn’t take any more. Cymbals were mostly out in favour of the more melodic percussion that filled that part of the sonic spectrum. Once they found something they liked it was either captured in a few takes or they moved on - Waits wanted the innocence of an idea kept intact; if something became rote and boring it was shout out of the proverbial airlock.

Brennan was present for a lot of the sessions, so much so Waits says she deserved (but didn’t get) a co-producers credit. She helped with the lyrics, pushing Waits away from old cliches and towards more visceral imagery. Waits was working with images now - he realised that he’d been trying to write cinema in music rather than capture it, telling the listener all about a scene rather than making them feel it.

When Waits took demoes of Shore Leave, Frank’s Wild Years and 16 Shells from a 30-Ought-Six to the label they were baffled. They said if he wanted to change direction he should perhaps slow down, give the audience a chance to warm to the idea. They let him finish the record hoping for something a little more commercially viable at the end of it. But Waits held firm and went his own way. Album opener Underground really sets the tone for what’s to come, a real statement of intent with the brassy stomp, spiderlike guitar and Waits bellowing, “there’s a world going on underground.” He planned to dig as deep as he could and it’s up to you whether you follow or not.

He kept plenty of things from his old life though - the spoken word of Shore Leave could have come from an earlier album, and even the music wasn’t like anything he’d done before it still had minor chord blues at its heart. He’d still do sentimental piano ballads like Johnsburg, Illinois (where Brennan grew up) and delve deep into sentimentality on Soldier’s Things, a sequel of sorts to Broken Bicycles from One From The Heart, an ode to junk that could only be written by a self confessed hoarder. And 16 Shells From A Thirty Ought Six is just the bruising take on R&B he’d been working on pushed to it’s nasty, natural conclusion. Indeed it started life on Foreign Affairs as a track called Scarecrow before it underwent a grisly mutation into a precursor for the noise he’d go on to make in later decades.

Other elements were entirely new. You won’t find anything like instrumental Dave the Butcher (named for an actual butcher he’d met in Ireland who wore odd shoes and had a house jam packed full of religious paraphernalia. The track is the music Waits imagines plays in his head as he cleaves through dead animals) anywhere else in the Waits catalogue. And it was these experiments that made Elektra/Asylum baulk when they heard the finished album. Representative Joe Smith would later defend his decision not to back Waits by saying his focus was on keeping Freddie Mercury from falling apart and getting Don Henley and Glen Fray into a studio together, but whatever the reason Waits had to tell his band the label didn’t plan on releasing the album. He’d wanted away from the label for a while however, feeling while they treated him as a prestige artist it was nice to have on the books they didn’t want to invest in him at all, and requested he be dropped. And so he was, straight into the arms of Island records who called him as soon as the news broke. The album was going to be a risk for anyone and they insisted on meeting him first – they ended up meeting him and Brennan together and she did most of the talking. They were so impressed with her they decided it was worth taking a punt on.

Which was even more of a gamble for, as much as the band had loved pushing boundaries and wanted to stay together, Waits didn’t want to tour. “The uncontrollable urge to play Iowa has left me” is how he put it but there was another reason: Brennan was pregnant. He was determined to be a good dad in all the ways his old man wasn’t – he felt himself at a crossroads with his dad’s footsteps leading down one road. There was a pull there but he resisted. From hereonin family would come first and they’d be completely off limits. He did a video for In the Neighbourhood to promote the album but that would be it for now. The record would have to rely on the good word of critics to get by. Thankfully they were blown away by it – thanks to legal wranglings over its release the One From The Heart soundtrack dropped not long before Swordfishtrombones, putting the metamorphosis of Tom Waits in sharp relief. And they loved it’s bravery, the sheer audacity of it. And they loved that for all it’s strangeness the songs themselves were so strong. It wasn’t weirdness for it’s own sake, it wasn’t self-consciously strange, it all belonged together. And so the second act of Waits career opened to rapturous applause.





Happy Birthday Countdown GIF by The3Flamingos

Placeholder until I get the chance to write a proper gush

Edit: Oh yeah, we’re doing these out of 5 aren’t we?

It’s still a 10.


94 seconds of absolute perfection. I have a very small list of songs that I consider utterly faultless, and this is one of them. Absolutely gorgeous.


That “…torched it mmphh” in Frank’s Wild Years



So I’m listening to SFT on my big speakers at home and, ho boy, I am living the life! Thoughts while I’m still getting away with it (my wife hates TW so I may need to ditch when she gets in…)

Underground sets things up perfectly. That STOMP throughout: love the stomp.

Shoreleave. Love the marimba! Also love the switch up in his vocal style on the chorus where he goes up in his register. There’s a really sinister low end buzzzz some kind of horn thing is making. Love it so much.

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Dave the Butcher. Feels inconsequential to start with but again really ramps up when the percussion kicks in. It really is all about the percussion this record isn’t it? Love that warped carnival sound.

Johnsburg illinois is just beautiful. Really interesting cos of this listening club I can kind of see the through line from his earlier stuff. This has way more heart though than the crooner stuff. Simultaneously feels more ‘fictional’ and more ‘authentic’ than his earlier senitmental stuff. Yeah that doesn’t make any sense.

16 shells: and the STOMP is back!