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The Moon and Tom Waits | reviews, news & interviews

The Moon and Tom Waits

The Moon and Tom Waits

Bohemian in lunar ownership shock

This week sees the much antipicated release of the Tom Waits live album Glitter and Doom - which almost rhymes with moon. Much has been written about the seismic change in Tom Waits’ music that occurred around 1983 with Swordfishtrombones. Before that date Waits was just a bar-room blues kind of guy: double bass, brushed snare, and fumbled piano were the accessible backdrop to songs of unfulfilled love and drowned Saturday nights. This Tom was always hunched over the stained Formica, swathed in cigarette smoke, waiting for a new lover to walk in, or an old lover to return.

But then the American Romantic got replaced by the expressionistic surrealist. Carnival freaks chased out past-its-sell-by-date sentimentality, and songs got hacked away at, rather than carefully honed into generic jazz-tinged ballads.

But there’s one thing these two Toms have in common, and that’s the ever-reliable moon which hangs over both his sordid tales of  Old Testament doom and his poetic reminiscences of warm hearted prostitutes. Because Waits songs are usually night songs, I suppose it's inevitable that one of their primary motifs is going to be that huge pockmarked grey rock, so devoid of life yet so full of associations.

But no songwriter has ever found as many ways as Waits to bring it to life and make it a conduit for whatever emotions or moods they want to convey. Over more than thirty years of material it has come to represent the protagonist's love, longing, loneliness, worst nightmares, and much else besides.

On his debut album, Closing Time (1973) the moon makes its first modest appearance as a large yellow citrus fruit, as Waits pines for a loved one in "Grapefruit Moon". A year later it returns in the easy listening jazz of  "Drunk on the Moon".  And then in 1976 on "Tom Traubert's Blues" Waits manages to rhyme "wounded" with "moon did", and almost gets away with it. But Waits doesn’t just stick to The Moon. In "Pasties & a G-string" - a homage to a strip joint - a woman's provocatively cantilevered breasts are seen as "baby moons” by Waits’s moon-obsessed eyes.

And the moon is almost the star (you’ll excuse the almost-pun) of the mostly spoken-word "Shore Leave" (1983) as an off-duty sailor finds some comfort in the notion that his girl back home in Illinois is looking up at the same moon he is, in Hong Kong. In some ways this is the transitional moon song as we have the romantic story line of old, alongside the more surreal imagery of billiards-playing dwarfs and downtown detritus, along with the polyrhythmic clatter of junkyard percussion he is still using today.  But one of my favourite Waits moons is the one that "punches a hole in the nightime" in "Downtown Train" - a song which was later brutally murdered by Rod Stewart.                                                                                                                         

By the time we get to 1992’s "Earth Died Screaming" the moon is falling from the sky as part of a vision of epic apocalypse. Or by contrast, on "Good Old World" from the soundtrack to Night on Earth released the same year, Waits reminisces about a more innocent moon of childhood - a simple pearl - a moon devoid of drama or association.

But these moons are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a red one in "Low Side of the Road" (1999), a silver one in "Flower's Grave" (2002),  a yellow-silver one in "All the World is Green" (2000),  a cracked one in "Lullaby" (2000), a frozen one in "Alice" (2002) and the inevitable one with dogs baying at it, in "Red Shoes at the Drugstore" (1978).

2005’s "Real Gone", is positively brimming with moons: There's one rising over a ramshackled barn in "How's it Going To End"; there's a china one contributing to the exotic imagery of "Metropolitan Glide"; a nondescript one illuminates a rainy sky in "Green Grass" and the crowning glory - a big blue one - "with three gold rings” is part of the gothic imagery of "Don't Go Into That Barn". There’s even one hanging over Dog Street in "Top of the Hill" which then intriguingly makes a reappearance at the same location in another track "Circus".

These myriad moons actually show what a versatile and emotive writer the man is. Every one of his moons remains as vivid in my minds-eye as any moon I’ve ever witnessed myself. No, let’s be honest here - more than any I have witnessed myself. And that’s how it should be: great art, while not giving you the moon on a stick, does elevate mundane and, literally, everyday (or rather, every night) and make you truly see it for the first time.

That lifeless sphere, which miraculously gives us reflected sunlight from the other side of the world, and drags our vast oceans in and out, is also a multi-purpose symbol which Waits will probably never run out of uses for. The moon as friend, foe, harbinger of doom, or simply indifferent, unmoved and unmovable witness. Just as the Mississippi River belongs to Mark Twain, or Woody Allen and Lou Reed have joint ownership of New York City, the moon belongs to Tom Waits.

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