No. 8: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
“Experimental” is an interesting word when it comes to describing music. For most, it implies some sort of new technology or new technique for creating music. Either that or the influence of some weird, left-field electronica artist who’d sold about fifteen records. David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy was experimental, so the readers of the music press in the late seventies were told, as was Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys, as well as the most experimental record of the lifetime of my early-thirties generation, Radiohead’s Kid A. All of these records were recorded with ground-breaking studio routines, pushing music into a new sphere. None of them experimented by finding two chunks of debris in a junkyard, banging them together and, if it sounded good, recording it and calling it percussion.
Rain Dogs is the musical equivalent of a jumble sale. It is a bizarre smorgasbord of words and music in which nothing fits together and yet everything works. It is a phantasmagorical circus of a record that features manic polkas, deranged rumbas, heartbreaking ballads and Keith Richards. Your host is a man whose voice sounds like he has swallowed a cheese grater, barking and grizzling away as his guitarist tunes his strings to the tightest they can be without snapping.
Let’s start with the start. Singapore. A rattling sea-shanty that features some of the greatest twisting of the English language ever, a pre-cursor for the rest of the album. When the boys are told to heave away, you don’t even realise what instruments are playing, it’s just relentless pounding, and the line “making feet for children’s shoes” seems either Disney-esque, or profoundly disturbing. Clap Hands evokes the feeling of being engulfed by dense fog, and Cemetery Polka, with it’s hilarious/ludicrous couplets, is, apparently a song about families. “Uncle Bill will never leave a will, and the tumour is as big as an egg. He has a mistress, she’s Puerto Rican, and I heard she has a wooden leg.” Nice.
There are others here, on this, the most varied album ever. Jockey Full Of Bourbon is the best song on the album for me, it’s Latino shuffle and twang conjuring up detective movies, nursery rhymes and a guy who is “full of bourbon and can’t stand up.” It all seems so mysterious and dangerous, purple knives, broken cups and flamingos drinking from cocktail glasses sounds like nothing written down, but Waits whispers it to you in a way that seems both terrifying and completely intoxicating, like all the femme fatales in all the film noirs.
There are the jackhammer blues thumpers, Union Square is basically just a heavy smoker shouting in time to a groove so massive you could put your foot in it, and Big Black Mariah features Keith Richards on wrist-action guitar. Apparently Waits, a relatively unknown artist in 1985, had been asked in an interview who he’d most like to work with, and gave the name of the indestructible Rolling Stones guitarist. He received a communique shortly afterwards that said simply “The time has come. Let’s dance.” Waits and Richards would become regular collaborators from that point on.
There are the ballads, Blind Love, Hang Down Your Head, and the song that Waits would become best-known for: Downtown Train. Not for his own version, obviously, because his voice isn’t an instrument that the common herd find palatable. It was in fact Rod Stewart that made it a hit in 1989, and frankly he murdered it.
The centrepiece of the album is Time, an unbearably sad piece for acoustic guitar and accordion that is simply the most knackered sounding song ever written. Tom Waits is, I’ve always thought, an actor who accidentally became a musician, adopting different characters to perform certain songs. On Time, we actually get the man himself, sighing his enchanting lines over this most delicate of backdrops, and when he groans “Ah, she said she’d stick around till the bandages came off.” You know that she didn’t. And it is a testament to the eclecticism of this record that this most sensitive of confessionals is followed directly by the deranged Bavarian stomp of the title track. He is leading a circus parade in top-hat and cane for the benefit of us, the listeners.
All human life is here. It really is.
Best Tracks: Jockey Full Of Bourbon, Time, Downtown Train
Best Moment: 1:48 into Time, when he lies through his teeth “Close your eyes son, this won’t hurt a bit.” He’s an actor, not a singer.
Like this? Try: If I Should From Grace With God by The Pogues, 1988
Allen Miles is 33 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 3 year-old daughter who thinks she’s Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of This Is How You Disappear, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here. http://tinyurl.com/disappear2014