Tom Waits vs. Captain Beefheart in the Battle for my Soul

Tug of War for my Soul

Do I admire the music of Tom Waits? Absolutely! Have I been influenced by the music of Tom Waits? Absolutely again! Do I still listen to the music of Tom Waits, decades after I first discovered it? Actually, not really.

Now, ask me the same three questions about Captain Beefheart‘s music, and my answers to the first two questions will be the same, but my response to the third question will be different. Because I still listen to Captain Beefheart today. Quite frequently, actually.

Why is that?

Tom Waits is undoubtedly the better lyricist, and in all honesty, he’s better with melody as well. And he has certainly contributed more “songs-with-a-capital-S” to the canon. So why do I listen to Captain Beefheart so often, and not Tom Waits?

I think it might have something to do with bravery and risk. There is a genuine wildness, a genuine danger, in the music of Captain Beefheart, that is not present in the music of Tom Waits.

In some respects, Tom Waits is theater. He creates characters for us, then portrays them. He tells their stories and moves us accordingly. I think of Nelson Algren, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Frankie Machine is a real person to me, someone that I know, someone I’ve had real-life experiences with. But at the end of the day, there is something almost workmanlike about Waits. His characters are so well created, and so well portrayed, but they don’t come home with me. I always kind of get the feeling that, after the stories are told, he punches that time clock, and heads home to his safe and sound house. It’s like that cartoon with the coyote and the sheep. They clock in as mortal enemies and clock out as friends. I kind of feel that way about the songs of Tom Waits. When they clock in they become savage to watch, but then they clock out, the curtain goes up, and you realize it was all for show. It’s great theater, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something about it that has failed to keep moving me over the decades.

Captain Beefheart is different. Captain Beefheart gets inside you and stays there. It’s kind of frightening. There’s no sense of there being a punchcard at all. There’s no sense that a curtain is ever going to go up and make you feel safe again. It’s like you entered that weird carnival movie, but then never got out again.

There are a great many reasons why I’ve listened to both these artists over the years.

As a kid with a sketchy voice, they both meant a lot to me. They made it seem possible that one could be a singer—or at least, a teller of musical stories—despite the less-than-beautiful sounds coming from one’s throat. To a kid in love with the Delta Blues who grew up the son of a Marxist English professor, these two artists meant so much to me, because they combined the raw and rough power of the country blues, with unbelievably rich and poetic lyrics; lyrics that were involved, sophisticated, literate, elliptical, eclectic, amazing. As a kid who nearly cut off his index finger, and was never able to be really great at the guitar, the multi-instrumentalism of the music these artists’ made meant the world to me.

To be honest, it wasn’t just the lame finger. I just wasn’t interested in being a single-instrument virtuoso. I liked texture too much. I liked sound too much. I liked soundscapes. I liked layers. I just liked too many different instruments. I loved big, loud, inhuman electric guitars, and I loved beautiful soft-spoken nylon-string guitars. I loved percussive banjos and slithery fiddles. I loved bleating trumpets and groaning accordions. I loved poppin’ funky electric basses, and I loved stomping, stridin’ acoustic basses. I loved resonant acoustic pianos and squelchly organs. Ultimately, I loved rich stories that asked for, and received, rich instrumentation to support them. But I didn’t want symphonies of the traditional kind. Those instruments, those melodies, those environments, didn’t do it for me. I wanted raw, primal, swamp symphonies. That’s what Beefheart gave me. And that—for at least a few albums—was what Tom Waits gave me.

So back to the original question. Why do I still listen to Captain Beefheart all the time, and why don’t I much listen to Tom Waits anymore?

Some of it may have to do with overexposure. I found out about Tom Waits after I’d already started my music career. He wasn’t accordingly a truly canonical, original influence. But when I found him, It was like a lifeline had been given to me. It was an affirmation, it was the help I needed. I was so sad, so depressed, so hopeless, I didn’t think it was possible to have the kind of career I wanted, or to make the kind of music I wanted to make. But then along came the music of Tom Waits, and suddenly it all seemed possible. Suddenly, it seemed like you could create a language of your own, both lyrically and musically. Suddenly, it seemed possible to become a genre unto yourself.

The music of Tom Waits was kind of like a therapist to me, kind of like an affirmation ritual. I needed him and his music so bad during what was such a difficult period. I discovered that holy trinity of albums—Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, and Rain Dogs—at a time when I really needed them. Accordingly, I kind of wore them out. So that may be at least partly why I don’t listen to them as much now; just simple overexposure.

It may also be a resistance to—or an uncomfortableness with—reconnecting to that period of time. Those really were very hard years, and I really was very depressed. It only got worse when I started releasing my albums, and so many Tom Waits comparisons came raining down on my head; not always kindly. It was very frustrating. I just wanted to scream at everybody, haven’t you heard of Blind Willie Johnson? Haven’t you heard of Howling Wolf? Haven’t you heard of Charley Patton? And yes, haven’t you heard of Captain Fucking Beefheart?

My blessed, sacred, therapeutic relationship with the music of Tom Waits suddenly became a bit tainted. So maybe that’s part of why I don’t listen to his music as much now. Maybe I’m just uncomfortable doing so? I kind of also think I may have just outgrown it. I really needed it then. I don’t need it now.

Captain Beefheart is something else altogether. I really think he’s kind of like a disorder that you get, and then never recover from. He kind of just gets inside you, and you’re just kind of forever changed. So I keep returning to Captain Beefheart. I say I keep returning to Captain Beefheart, but really, I’m kind of just returning to myself. The myself I became after being infiltrated by Captain Beefheart.


One response to “Tom Waits vs. Captain Beefheart in the Battle for my Soul

  • Mark C Stevens

    I totally get this. One gets the sense that Don Van Vliet HAD to make this music, that if he didn’t get it out, it would literally kill him. Yesterday in the car a thought hit me…”Imagine what it was like for him to walk around with that music in his head”….! Spending two days in the Mojave in 2017 made me very aware of how much that place is in the music..the Crows are massive, and they do hex you. A lot of bullshit has been written about J.Morrison being a shaman….DVV actually WAS.

    Like

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