Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones
I expect to get flack for saying this, but Tom Waits has made no less and no more than three irrefutably classic albums. And they all came right in a row.
Heartattack and Vine comes close to being classic, but largely only because its aspirations are lower. Bone Machine is almost a classic too—but while it shoots higher, it misses by a wider margin.
The three irrefutable classics are of course Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, and Rain Dogs.
We’ll recommend all five of these albums at some point this year, because they’re all amazing. But we’ll start with the first of The Holy Trinity: Swordfishtrombones.
This was the first Tom Waits album I ever heard. 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six was the first Tom Waits song I ever heard. I had the album on the back side of a Mose Allison cassette. I was literally completely blown away the first time I turned the tape over.
I grew up the son of a Marxist English professor, who in turn grew up in the weird old America of country Kansas. We loved the lyrics of Bob Dylan. I wanted to write big, long, literate story songs that spoke a different language, one that wedded the underbellies of city and country in a noir of gutter and pew. But at the same time I knew, even from an early age, that what I loved most in music was The Raw. The rough, the dangerous, the gruff, the abrasive. I didn’t like BB King, I liked Charley Patton. So I swung my musical pendulum back-and-forth year after year, trying to sort it out in search of my own thing. Then I heard Tom Waits. That was an epiphany. He was proof positive it could be done. His lyrics were like a whole new language. It was like Faulkner and Kerouac wrapped into one. I got it. And his voice was a clear point along a timeline I feel I already knew, and understood. I’d already been trying to be Blind Willie Johnson for a decade by then. I’d already been trying to be Bukka White. They were my sound, and I knew it. But theirs weren’t my words, and I knew that too.
What Waits did with Swordfishtrombones was create a genre unto himself.
At that point, I knew nothing about his lounge lizard, piano balladeer shtick. I didn’t know about his jazzbo thing. I didn’t think he was funny, or weird. I simply thought he’d taken some of my gods, and built a new religion from them. And I was glad.