Tag Archives: Tom Waits

365 Days of Album Recommendations – Nov 3

Tom Waits – One From The Heart

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Technically this isn’t REALLY a Tom Waits album. It’s the soundtrack to a Francis Ford Coppola film. But it’s Waits’ music, and he performs it, and I think it this point, we can just consider it a Waits creation.

It’s a fascinating album as much for what it represents as for what it sounds like.

It’s really the bridge moment of Waits’ career; the moment where he finally leaves the barfly balladeer schtick behind, and becomes his own next wave of visionary. Heartattack & Vine somewhat telegraphed the change, but One From The Heart made it official.

Sonically, the pairing of Waits and Crystal Gayle may seem unlikely, but they’re perfect together for the narrative.

On a personal level, I’m especially partial to Old Boyfriends. I was asked to contribute a song to a Waits tribute many years ago, and I was loathe to do it, as I assumed I’d been asked simply because of perceived vocal similarities. So to get around that, and to get one up on the producers of the tribute, I took on Old Boyfriends; a) because it’s a beautiful song, and b) because while Waits wrote it, he doesn’t actually sing it—Crystal Gayle does!

Along with that song, Broken Bicycles, Little Boy Blue, and You Can’t Unring A Bell are some of the other wonderful creations to be found here.

Students of the Waits story will do well to listen to this album. Students of high-craft songwriting will learn a thing or two. And appreciators of fantastic songs performed by disparately beguiling voices will revel in the complex beauty of this album.


365 Days of Album Recommendations – Sep 18

Tom Waits – Frank’s Wild Years

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The second in Waits’ remarkable 80s trio, Frank’s Wild Years was bookended on either side by Swordfishtrombones (the rawest and dirtiest of the three), and Rain Dogs (the most cohesive and controlled). This album, by comparison, is where Waits most dramatically flexes both his theatricality, and his eclecticism. The songs both include and transcend genres, the instrumentation is both global and rooted in the junkyard, and Waits’ vocals run literally from whisper to scream, and all points in between.

It’s pointless, ultimately, to try and hyphenate up a description that explains this album, particularly after all these years, and after so many have tried. So instead I’ll take the opposite tack, and say this: strip out the Brechtisms, the Beefheartisms, the Mose Allisonisms, the Jacque Brelisms; sub out the klezmer, the polka, the blues, the opera; sub out the character changes, the skits, the soundbytes; sub it all out, and what you’re left with are a set of songs that are so moving, so deep, so powerful, so compelling, it is to be awestruck to listen to them.  It should be noted as well that the musicianship on the album is genuinely otherworldly.

I wouldn’t break this album apart if you paid me, but I will say I have some favorites:

  • Hang On St. Christopher
  • Blow Wind Blow
  • Temptation
  • I’ll Be Gone
  • Yesterday Is Here
  • Way Down In The Hole
  • Telephone Call From Istanbul
  • Cold Cold Ground

That’s simply 8 of the best songs ever written, and the performances simply cannot be topped. Straight up to the top, indeed.


365 Days of Album Recommendations – Apr 10

Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones

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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.


The 8 Musical Influences Behind The Song “Down The Drain”

 

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“Down The Drain” is the first official video single off my new album “The National Blues” on Coast Road Records. And like virtually everything I write, its roots go deep, and it draws on a great many influences for its shape and sound.

The origins of the song are actually a little out of step with much of what I write, the bulk of which is largely inspired by the early country blues/delta blues canon. Probably the most important influence is actually a comparatively contemporary musical act, a band called Sixteen Horsepower. For my money, they’re likely the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They came out of Denver about the same time as my first album came out (1995), part of a small, localized, but very wonderful sort of Gothic Americana movement that included acts like The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna, Tarantella, Munly, and more. (Full disclosure,  I later spent about two years in Denver, and shared bills at one time or another with most of these acts).

David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower was fond of using open minor tunings in what sounded to me like an Open Gm form, and while I’d already spent half my life in open tunings, and while I was also deeply fond of minor keys, I’d never really put the two together in an Open Gm form until I heard 16 Horsepower. But listen to South Pennsylvania Waltz, or Coal Black Horses, or I Seen What I Saw, or Prison Shoe Romp, and you’ll surely see the similarities! (The following playlist has a whole host of 16 Horsepower gems):

Another big influence on the sound of “Down The Drain” was actually a song I learned to love from hearing my Dad play it on the record player when I was a kid. It was a great guitar instrumental from an era full of great guitar instrumentals, and I used to just love it. I’m not even sure I was drawing on its influence as “Down The Drain” started to come together, but once I realized what I’d done, it was pretty obvious what I’d done! Give it a listen, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:

Duane Eddy did a killer version of this as well, which you can check out here, and which I also really love.

The semi-wordless chorus (depending on whether you think “sha” and “la” are words!) of “Down The Drain” is probably the other key component of this song that has clear sonic antecedents. I’ve always loved songs that use vocal “sound” as evocation … think of the “humming” part of Skip James’ magisterial “Hardtime Killing Floor Blues” as but one example (Skip’s melodies on this song are definitely an influence on “Down The Drain” as well!), or Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” both of which are great examples of this kind of thing. Probably more specific to “Down The Drain” of course is something like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”—the sha-la-la’s tell the whole emotional story! Given the sound of my voice though, the comparison that probably leaps to mind sooner than Van Morrison is Tom Waits, from “Jersey Girl.” And yeah, I’ll confess that was in my mind when I first started toying with doing the chorus this way. But honestly, it’s not one of my favorite Waits songs, and truthfully, while “Down The Drain” may SOUND like “Jersey Girl” the effect I was actually after was more akin to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” which somehow manages to make la-la-la sound somehow so … rueful.

So, where does that get us to so far? 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, and some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. That’s the music!

Now, as to lyrics, that’s a little harder. I don’t entirely know WHERE they came from! I will certainly admit that the drink has played a lot of roles in my songs over the years, and Shane MacGowan has certainly been my patron saint in that regard, so the reference to “your Chardonnay sky will go black & tan” can probably be attributed in no small part to the influence of The Pogues. And I’m not sure one can write a song with rain as a central metaphor and not be thinking of Ann Peebles singing “Can’t Stand The Rain”:

There is actually a LOT of country blues in Peebles’ song, most notably in this verse:

Alone with the pillow
Where his head used to lay, yeah
I know you’ve got some sweet memories
But like a window you ain’t got nothin’ to say

Which definitely calls to mind these lyrics from Son House’s immortal Death Letter Blues:

Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day
A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay

I actually first discovered Ann Peebles’ song being sung by a band at Your Place Too in Oakland, back in the late eighties. (Check out my friend Pete Devine’s bio on the Howell Devine website for a nice little reference to Your Place Too). I don’t remember the band, but I’ve always remembered the song!

So, now we’re up to: 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, and Ann Peebles.

And I think that’s where I’ll stop. Eight! And I tell you what, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write songs, if for no other reason than you get to listen to so much music! Thanks for helpin’ me continue to get to do it! To borrow (and mutate!) a great quote from the world of creative writing, to be a good songwriter, you must be a good songlistener!

~

Buy “Preacher Boy – The National Blues” direct! Just click the image below:

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On The Eve Of The Songwriter’s Showcase Finals, A List Of 23 Genius Songs We All Wish We’d Written, But Didn’t

Tuesday, May 5th, 7-10pm, Britannia

Tomorrow night, it’s the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase (sponsored by Mars Studios, and hosted by the Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA), and I am to be a judge. Which is very exciting for me, and an honor I accept with the utmost seriousness.

Because said event is nigh, I have songwriting on the brain.

Now, in re: said event, based on what I know to date about the competitors, I think it is safe to say that we are not working with the broadest definition of singer-songwriter (i.e. anyone who sings a song they have written), but rather, we are operating within the more precise realm of the “Singer-Songwriter”; that is to say, within the folk-troubadour tradition. Operators within this space may claim as their ancestors and inspirations the likes of, say, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Armatrading; James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, or Townes Van Zandt; Bill Withers, Billy Bragg, or Neil Young; Tracy Chapman, Dolly Parton, or Nick Drake; Elliot Smith, Patti Smith, or Carol King; Phil Ochs, Suzanne Vega, or Ben Harper; Greg Brown, Indie.Arie, or Bruce Springsteen; Kris Kristofferson, Sam Cooke, or Ani DiFranco, or even, yes, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. This IS Santa Cruz County, after all.

The point being, there is singing a song one has written, and then there are “Singer-Songwriters.” For this event, I think it is safe to say we are considering the latter.

And so, bearing that in mind, I have elected, almost strictly for personal kicks, to assemble a list of some of the greatest songs (fundamentally — with just a couple stretches– in this mold) ever written, songs that you and I both wish we’d written, but didn’t.

With no apologies for what I’ve left out or what I’ve included, and in no particular order, I proffer the following:

1. Willie & Laura Mae Jones, by Tony Joe White.
Dear ALL aspiring political songwriters. This is how you handle racism in a song. Funkily, powerfully, honestly, and narratively. A masterpiece.

2. The Ballad of Hollis Brown, by Bob Dylan
Devasting. One chord. That is all.

3. Here Comes A Regular, by Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)
If you understand the difference between this and “Piano Man,” you’re on to something. If you don’t, you’re not.

4. Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers
Can YOU be this powerful, soulful, beautiful, muscular, and emotional, while singing about YOUR grandma? Yeah …

5. In the River, by Michael Been (The Call)
White gospel, from an 80s indie band. Incredible.

6. Straight To Hell, by Joe Strummer (The Clash)
Just an unbelievably great song; epic, monumental; spooky, depressing; vivid, political, social, emotional, gut-wrenchingly raw, pathotically weird and funny and sad and strange and perfect. And so cool …

7. Glory Box, by Beth Gibbons (Portishead)
Incredible lyric movement, traveling from the personal and idiosyncratic, to the most fundamentally raw, sensual, and real. Killer … And that melody line, over that bass line? Killer …

8. Red Dirt Girl, by Emmylou Harris
As good a “story song” as any ever written, coming from out the folk-blues-southern thing …

9. Our Mother the Mountain, by Townes Van Zandt
Because if you write this …

Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you’ve found
You fool, it’s only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another.

… then your s&%t is amazing.

10. Four Women, by Nina Simone
Because if you can powerfully and successfully address sexism AND racism in a song with a final line of “My name is Peaches,” and not only get away with it, but kill it? Then your s&$t is amazing.

11. Amsterdam, by Jacques Brel
Epic in every sense of the word. Dirty, seedy, and romantic; beautiful, tragic, and raw. And it ends with an image of pissing. Such an achievement … just towering.

12. State Trooper, by Bruce Springsteen
Simply one of the best road songs ever. And that’s saying something.

13. Death Don’t Have No Mercy, by the Reverend Gary Davis
It’s admittedly hard to concede ACTUAL songwriting credits when it comes to the “shared” folk-blues-gospel cannon, but this is pretty close to clear, so I’m just going to say it’s Davis’ song. I played a version of this recently, and someone from the audience spoke to me afterwards, referring to this song as “dark gospel, but true gospel.” To which I say, yes.

14. Psalm, by John Coltrane
There are technically no lyrics to this song, but if you know the story of this song, then yes there are lyrics. And this song is INCREDIBLE. Listen to this while reading the “lyrics,” and you’ll have one of the most moving poetry/music experiences of your life …goose bumps. Forever.

15. 16 Shells From A Thirty Ought Six, by Tom Waits
Because Tom Waits should be on this list somewhere, and because for my money, it was with this song that Waits not only created a language all his own, but became a genre all his own.

16. Back Home In Derry, by Christy Moore
No one does homesick like the Irish, and few do it better than Christy Moore with this song.

17. Fairytale of New York, by Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
Ditto the above, except way, way, way sadder and more f&#*ed up …

18. Washington D.C. Hospital Blues, by Skip James
Most country blues artists didn’t really “write” songs in the way we think of it being done, and few if any wrote any new material later in life. The eerily excellent Skip James is the exception; he not only wrote brilliant songs of his own, he wrote NEW songs of his own post his “re-discovery.” This is one such song, and it’s utterly, totally brilliant for capturing in a single story (being sick in the hospital), and in a single couplet (I’m a poor man, but I’m a good man, you understand) an entire universe worth of the relationships between pride and shame, poverty and pride, and everything else about what it means to be both strong in, and at the mercy of, the world.

19. Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez
Any song that can sound amazing as sung by both the composer (Baez) and Judas Priest, HAS to be incredible …

20. I Shall Be Released, by Bob Dylan (The Band)
Is it possible someone actually sat down with pen and paper and just WROTE this song? Not possible …

21. Think, by Aretha Franklin
Yeah, she wrote it.  Well, co-wrote it. But she wrote it. And it’s so, so, so badass. It’s like singer-songwriter soul haiku, distilled down to the resonant power of just two words: Think. Freedom.

22. Cities In Dust, by Siouxie Soux
Apocolyptic, graphic, poetic, with a hook from the gods. One of the greatest songs from a great era, transcends all boundaries to simply be great, resonant, and powerful. Just play it on acoustic, solo. It swings so hard, and runs so deep …

23. Go Tell Aunt Rhody, author unknown
I don’t know who the hell wrote this lil’ lullaby of Gothic Americana, but it’s a monster lesson in The Weird Old America … Possibly the first song I ever learned, and possibly the song I’ve been trying to write my whole life …

~

Here’s to tomorrow night, and discovering something new to add to this list!


Preacher Boy: FAQs

Q: Where does the name Preacher Boy come from?
A: Well, it started out essentially as a demi-derisive nickname a good friend used to call me when I’d get to soapboxing too much; sort of a Hazel Motes call out.

Q: How many Preacher Boy albums are there?
A: 6, if you include the 4-song Tenderloin EP:

 

Q: Best gigs ever?
A: Too many to count! How about favorite acts I’ve gotten to perform with? Some highlights:

  • Opening for Taj Mahal in Denver, Colorado
  • With Los Lobos at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, and then with JJ Cale at The Catalyst
  • Opening for Shane MacGowan (The Pogues) at his annual X-mas show in London, ON my 30th birthday!
  • The San Francisco Blues Festival, the same day and stage as John Lee Hooker
  • Guesting in the set with Eagle-Eye Cherry, for his live concert film at Shepherd’s Bush, in London
  • Opening for Clarence Gatemouth Brown at The Great American Music Hall
  • With Sonny Landreth at The Great American Music Hall
  • 4 different shows at Slim’s in SF, opening for Bob Geldof, Peter Wolf, Jimmy Vaughan, and The Texas Tornadoes
  • With AJ Croce at Moulin Blues in The Netherlands
  • Opening for Cracker at The Warfield
  • Playing the Glastonbury Festival on the same bill as Portishead, Nick Cave, and Bob Dylan
  • Opening for CJ Chenier in LA, and for Buckwheat Zydeco at Bimbo’s in SF
  • Opening for Chris Whitley in Portland, OR
  • Playing opposite Chris Isaak at The Paradise Lounge in SF
  • Opening for Charlie Musselwhite at The House of Blues in New Orleans

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Q: How old is your National?
A: 1936! And actually, I’m so fortunate, I have two now, both from 1936!

Q: What tunings do you use on your Nationals?
A: Well, as I said, I have two, and I use them differently; what I call “The National” (the one my Grandpa gave me) is my slide instrument, so on that one, I use primarily Open G and Open D, and the minors of each as well. My second National (the one that belonged to my Grandpa, and was passed down to me when he passed) I keep mainly in standard, though I’ll occasionally do Drop D or something like that. I have one tune for which I use a really strange tuning (Open C, essentially, but with no 3rd: CGCGCC), and I generally do that on this second National as well.

Q: What do you think about all the Tom Waits comparisons you’ve received over the years?
A: Well, two things, I suppose: 1) High praise, and 2) A lot of people need to go listen to Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, Charley Patton, Dave Van Ronk, Lemmy, Louis Armstrong, and Captain Beefheart.

Q: What’s the most successful song you’ve ever recorded?
A: Depends on the criteria for judging, really, so, four answers:

  • If you ask my bank account, it’s “Long Way Around” which I wrote with Eagle-Cherry. We recorded it at The Magic Shop in New York with Rick Rubin producing, and Eagle-Eye’s sister Neneh sung on it, and it went on to be certified Gold in Europe.
  • If you ask iTunes, it’s probably the version of “Old Boyfriends” I did for a Waits tribute album. Per the question above, I was a little put out by the request initially, but decided to do it as I found what I thought was a clever way to circumnavigate the vocal comparisons; Waits never sung “Old Boyfriends,” Crystal Gayle did, on the One From The Heart Soundtrack. So that’s the one I covered!
  • If you ask my discography, it would probably be “I Won’t Be There” from Gutters & Pews, as I think that’s the one that’s been anthologized the most. Or perhaps “This Is New York,” because that made it onto the Approaching Union Square soundtrack.
  • “Dead, Boy!” Because that was the first “professional” song I recorded with my National, and it was for my debut album, for my first record label! Thus, the beginning of it all …

Q: What got you into this music in the first place?
A: Simple. Side 1, song 1, of a Vanguard Twofer that collected all the great country blues performers who had performed at the Newport Folk Festival in the 60s. I put it on my record player with NO idea what to expect, and along came the first song: Mississippi John Hurt playing “Sliding Delta.” And that was it, man. I heard it, and I said, “I’m sorry Joe Strummer, but THAT! I want to be able to do THAT!”


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