Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (1985)
Glenn: Now is the time of the year that Rain Dogs makes it to the stereo and my girlfriend asks me, “Why does Tom Waits sound so romantic?”
Phil: I can’t speak to this one: all I can say is I hate this version of “Downtown Train” as much as Rod Stewart’s. And it’s a great song. You should probably ignore me on this post.
Jordy: I love these Island records. Some time around 1983, Tom Waits must have had some catharsis that moved him from bawling, grisly, gravelly nightclub croonings to surreal but often touching freak show poems. And Rain Dogs stands as perhaps his most “romantic” as Glenn’s girlfriend puts it. But before I get into those schmultzy tunes, I want to mention the edgier songs like “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore.” These songs continue the boozy standard Waits had set with Swordfishtrombones: weird and dubious characters, overplayed horns, solid, stripped-down rhythm section, all under Waits’ yowling.
And then there are the sweeter songs: “Hang Down Your Head,” “Time,” and “Downtown Train.” These are all great songs that would have made Tom Waits a household name were it not for the remainder of the album, which doesn’t have — let’s face it — a broad appeal. And if the sound wasn’t eclectic enough, he throws in a country tune that, I think, is just terrific. “Blind Love” has a bona fide shuffle that ought to have been expanded into a whole album. But I can’t blame the man for not chasing that particular whim.
I would have nominated “Anywhere I Lay My Head” as my essential pick if only it weren’t for that Scarlett Johansson album (ed. – it took all of my editorial restraint not to say something horribly offensive here).
Adam: I’ve heard Waits’ voice compared to that of Cookie Monster, and I’ve been met with laughter upon playing “Singapore” and subsequently asked if it was a joke, on account of his voice. And yet I had a roommate from Iceland who was positively obsessed with Tom Waits. I am partial to Waits’ 70’s oeuvre, but Rain Dogs kicks some serious ass. “Jockey Full of Bourbon” is, hands down, one of Waits’ best songs, and “Tango Till They’re Sore” is up there as well; its lyric “I’ll tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past” pretty much tells you all you need to know about any character in a Tom Waits song.
But the “romantic” songs on this album are its weakest points, I think. I find the Waits+piano combination on albums like Blue Valentine and Small Change far more romantic than anything on Rain Dogs. Perhaps I have different ideas of romance than my fellow bloggers. I say if you want real romance, listen to “Blue Valentines” (the song, from Blue Valentine, the album).
Glenn: Maybe it’s not romance as in love and affection. Maybe it’s romance as in hipsters and drifters and sailors and wannabe drunks and commuters and lonely-but-not-that-lonely lovers. Those who wanted to change the world or at least have an adventure but settled for bourbon and jockeys and trains and time instead. It’s the burned-out romance we’ve IDed in Bob Dylan’s Live 1966 recordings.
The best of these songs could be from the Civil War (clattery percussion on the battlefield) or Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building or a crackhead singing to himself on the bus last week. The best seem not only timeless but specifically timeless. That is, they provide a window into another world — a land of — that could be any world. Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, though not perhaps to the same extent, Tom Waits tries, and often succeeds, in creating a concrete universe that is both foreign and familiar.
At any rate, around 1980 [they married in 1980 – ed.] Waits met “Jersey Girl” and current wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan, who must have freed some latent weirdness in Waits. Perhaps the romance of Rain Dogs is the romance of settling. Settling into a life where you can through baritone sax and skronk guitar over a samba and call it good.
And if you watch or read some interviews with Waits (the ones with Letterman are priceless), it becomes clear that the weirdness of these Island records was brought on at least somewhat by the hectic craze of city living.
Don’t be scared though: Rain Dogs sure ain’t Trout Mask Replica (or even Bitches Brew). It’s a nice sort of weird.
Jordy: Did someone say Trout Mask Replica?!? Is that a challenge for our next post?!
Adam: Jordy, I accept your challenge! And Glenn, Brennan has a co-writer credit for “Hang Down Your Head,” so your hunch there is correct.
4 Essential Songs:
“Tango Till They’re Sore“
“Jockey Full of Bourbon”