Give It A Spin: Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs”
Tom Waits is a legend.Rain Dogs is legendary. Despite these two facts, I’m shocked at times to find that a large portion of the U.S. population (and beyond, I’m sure) hasn’t been baptized in either. Originally released in September of 1985, Rain Dogs has become the magnum opus of Waits’ career for fans who know the name but haven’t become fans. The truth is that Waits has done his best work in the 90s and early 2000s, and that’s coming from someone who thought things couldn’t get better than Rain Dogs.
This was the first Waits LP I bought, but it was after I’d heard Heartattack and Vine. The ballads on that album, while strong, gave me a skewed impression of the man’s work. A good deal of that record still focused on Waits’ jazz/balladeer roots, making for a more subdued affair. I initially listened to it a few times and then gave it back to my step-dad. There was something about that voice. It wasn’t classically “good,” but it was addictive. It’s like a mosquito bite; it hurts to scratch at first, but if you can hang in there, it feels as good as someone giving you a back scratch.
In the coming months, I bought a copy of Rain Dogs based on the cover art. Might as well start somewhere I thought, and so a love affair was born.
I’ve chosen this particular Waits album to highlight for a couple of reasons: 1) It’s arguably his most accessible and fun record. If you’ve never taken the dive into the world of Waits, this is probably the best place to start. 2) As I mentioned in the F—K Buttons “Give it a Spin,” I’m writing these based largely on seasonal relevancy. Rain Dogs fits the autumn because it’s one of the eeriest Waits albums and fits perfectly with the upcoming Halloween season.
With an intro as mind-blowingly great as “Singapore,” one might think Waits put the best track first. Thankfully, that’s not the case. The track is one of the best story songs that he’s ever written and as great as the lyrics are, the musicians should be commended for creating an atmosphere that’s completely unique. The thumping double-bass and toy-guitar sound are the perfect background for Waits’ tale about one-eye dwarfs, drifters, killers, robbers, and a distant deathtrap called Singapore. I’ve never been; but if I ever do, you can bet I’ll be thinking about Waits’ tales while I look over my shoulder.
The first half of this record is as cohesive in terms of tone and style as any album I’ve ever heard. “Singapore,” “Clap Hands,” “Cemetery Polka,” “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “Tango Til They’re Sore,” and “Big Black Mariah” may be the strongest run of songs of the Eighties, but no one will tell you that because they’re in love with Journey. Each track has a distinct flavor, but the atmosphere of gallows humor is as thick and rich as anything I’ve ever heard on record. When you hear a track as simple and ingenious as “Cemetery Polka,” it forces you as a musician to reevaluate what you’ve been doing wrong. How can this man create a perfect song with a kick drum, a toy pump organ, a tuba, and his voice? I’ve rarely come across a visual as concise and creepy as “Auntie Mame has gone insane/She lives in the doorway of an old hotel/And the radio is playing opera/All she ever says is ‘Go to hell.’” The track is under two-minutes, but it’s length is perfect.
First and foremost, Waits is a writer. He’s a musician’s musician. His wordplay, wit, and hard-won life-lessons are admirable and could go toe-to-toe with some of the best emcees of today. There’s a reason why a lyricist as gifted as Aesop Rock admires Waits.
While it’s no secret that Waits has carried on a longtime love affair with New Orleans, this may be his loveliest letter to the southern city. Horns pulled right off of Bourbon St. sound throughout a number of songs, the humidity of the city seeps through the speakers, and the funeral ballads feel like you’ve being shuttled off in your own casket. Waits has been known to insert at least one spoken-word track into each of his albums, and “9th and Hennepin” may be the greatest example of his tradition. A foreboding piano plinks in the background while Waits goes into barfly mode describing the scum and burnouts closing in. “Gun Street Girl” picks up right where “9th” ends, taking on the back-story of the girl who “a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix.”
While the first half of Rain Dogs is obsessed with pitch-perfect macabre, the second half turns into something different. You’ve got your acoustic ballads (“Blind Love,” “Downtown Train”), but you’ve also got your hard-charging drunken rockers like “Union Square,” “Walking Spanish,” and the title track. If you feel like you hear a familiar guitar playing style on a few tracks, you’re not crazy because Mr. Keith Richards guests on Rain Dogs. Yet another reason why Richards is the cooler of the Glitter Twins.
The album’s final moment is the gut-wrenching ballad “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” Initially, Waits’ wail is so guttural it’s almost too much to handle. It’s not a matter of it being bad or off. No, his vocal performance is overflowing with a desperation in its first minute that I’m terrified for what he might do after the tape stops rolling. If you hang around long enough, you’ll get the New Orleans brass section marching you out of the twisted world of Waits. The record is every bit as vital to me today as the day I bought it. But indeed, it’s also Waits’ mission statement. He’s done things his way at every turn and been all the better for it. When he was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, he said, “People say I don’t have any hits and I’m difficult to work with…like it’s a bad thing.” It’s a perfect testament to Mr. Waits’ long, fruitful career that is still as relevant as it was when Rain Dogs dropped.
Check out BANGSTYLE’s previous Give It A Spin recommendations:
Give It A Spin: Wires On Fire Debut
Give It A Spin: F–K Buttons’ “Tarot Sport”
Give It A Spin: Scarlett Johansson’s “Anywhere I lay My Head”
Give It A Spin: Twilight Singers “Blackberry Belle”
Give It A Spin: Capitol K’s “Island Row”
Give It A Spin: Blur’s “Think Tank”
Give It A Spin: Vietnam’s Self-Titled Debut
Give It A Spin: Heavy Trash’s Self-titled LP
Give It A Spin: Japanese Motors
Give It A Spin: T.Rex “Electric Warrior”
Give It A Spin: Q And Not U’s “Different Damage”
Give It A Spin: Hot Snake’s Perfect Trilogy
Give It A Spin: Division of Laura Lee – “Black City”
Give It A Spin: The Growlers – “Hot Tropics”