Oct 062004

Tom Waits – Real Gone

I remember bumping into my former college roommate on that campus green in Syracuse. It was the early 90s. He was from Erie, Pennsylvania. We shared a room for two consecutive years, switching sides halfway through to give the illusion we’d moved, and finally we bonded over 40s of Haffenreffer, five-card draw (we played with pennies), the music of Tom Waits of course, and the last days of our teens we so desperately wanted to escape.

So when i ran into him after a long time, there on that green, first thing i told him was i’d heard the brand new Tom Waits, Bone Machine. His eyes widened, thinking glorified sweeping-up sadness, narrators in urban shadows.

To his surprise i said, “I think he’s dying.” I remember this clearly.

That was my take on hearing that record. It was the only understanding i could make of it, the aesthetics of harsh conflict–some kind of electrochem-mechanical asphyxiation–and lyrics about failed attempts to surrender to the ocean depths. It was not good news i felt i was delivering to my old companion. (”Old” seemed justified: we’d hit twenty.)

There had been deformity before, see. In the characters, in the lyrics, in the twisted knuckle guitar lines of Marc Ribot. But never so much in the sound, like the whole record was gasping for its last breath, wrenching the final bit of air out of the stench left over from everything that came before it. I couldn’t handle the sonic deformity then, beautiful sound waves turned into barbed wire. I always wanted to snicker with Tom; i never wanted to bleed.

More than a decade later, Tom Waits is still very much with us, and i’m not in my twenties anymore. If i were i might have a very similar take on first listen to this new record, Real Gone. Though it isn’t an easy listen right off, it is compelling, in part because it is so truthful. I realize now how hard Waits works at expressing a meticulous honesty, even if, at first, the picture presented seems too mangled to be true. He harnesses the acoustic space he’s working in (an abandoned schoolhouse)–as he did with Bone Machine–this time with the help of Mark Howard, who recorded and mixed Real Gone.

Waits notes in a recent interview in Magnet that most of the songs were written a cappella (sound familiar?)–barking rhythms and incantations in the bathroom into a Fostex four-track via a Shure SM58. He likens the process to automatic writing.

“Recording for me is like photographing ghosts.”

I’m not clever enough with words to describe these pictures. You have to look–listen–for yourself. I, myself, will be doing so for a long, long time.

Your take

Oct 052004

For those of you who’ve been nibbling on “Chocolate Jesus” for the last five years (and God knows we’ve all been force fed enough cotton-candy-light Jesus to make us choke since round about January 2001), waiting, as i have, for a certain voice to come forward, like a torch appearing out of the darkness:

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