Icon and Everyman: Three Tracks from Three Albums by Tom Waits

Tom Waits’ voice is truly a great instrument. Described as “soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car” by critic Daniel Durchholz, his rugged timbre manages to heighten and simultaneously transcend his lyrics. There is a sort of American mythology that is evoked by the growl that Tom Waits possesses. His voice encompasses a dustbowl era edge, softened by the beatnik poetry of his words. However, his voice also represents the experience of the classic American “everyman”. iCrates takes a fresh look at the development and versatility of his voice from three examples plucked from the full spectrum of Waits’ extraordinary discography.

The 24 year old Tom Waits who sang “Ice Cream Man” on his 1973 debut album Closing Time evokes a chipper, Puck-ish, mad-bad-lock-up-your-daughters kinda guy. His lyricism maintains the same contrasts; it is both shockingly blunt and pleasantly poetic. “I got a big stick, mamma, that’ll blow your mind” – and no, he isn’t talking about his “Cherry Pop Sickle” …or maybe he is! The beauty of Tom Waits’ lyricism is that, through his voice, the message is left open ended. The role he assumes is one somewhere between flirtatious boyish charm and mature masculine prowess. The music is reminiscent of summer and evokes the familiarity of the Mister Softee jingle, but it is not completely childlike and innocent. His voice takes a simple song about an ice cream man (the hero of so many children in summer) and makes you blush.

While you’re busy being frustrated at the world and blushing over the overly sensual ice cream man, get ready to have your heart ripped out by a Tom Waits head-over-heels in love, singing across the Hudson river to his “Jersey Girl” from the 1980 album Heartattack and Vine. His voice, with its ever present gravel, makes the heart swell and our relationship here is very much to the sound, not the lyrics (“sha, la, la”) carried by Waits’ powerful belt. The words mean nothing, but with the dynamism of Waits’ voice, the words become everything – each complex, torturous, joyous feeling of being in love.

Finally, in “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” from his 2002 release Blood Money, Waits assumes the role of loquacious, pipe-smoking grandfather, telling exciting, mostly fabricated tales of his youth. It is a song where nonsense is both the central focus and the subtext. “Man’s a fiddle that life plays on” is ironic in its truth. It is a statement of fact, and yet it is also a theatrical metaphor. It is a struggle in which we are all equal.

Waits’ uses his gruff voice in a bark-like manner, enlightening the listener to his own struggle for success. While adored by the modern troubadour, beatnik, or self-styled “Renaissance man”, Tom Waits’ commercial success in America has been moderate. For all intents and purposes, Tom Waits is starving in the belly of a whale – and that whale is the U.S.A.. As a listener, whatever your struggle, you can relate to the feeling of being trapped, without hope, living in a “crooked old world”.

These three songs would be nothing if not for the power and vitality that Tom Waits’ voice possesses. The very fact that they were composed and sung by one man shows not only the sheer talent that he possesses, but also the complexity of human kind. Waits’ voice, able to do so much, reflects what we all know – that humans are complicated and contrary creatures. While Tom Waits could adapt his voice to tell many different tales, it is in the quality of his voice that we recognise so much of ourselves. It is hauntingly, beautifully real.

Illustration by Sheila Seyfert-Menzel.