Thursday, June 5, 2014

Discographies: Tom Waits Closing Time

A friend of mine has been working through Bob Dylan's entire discography and inspired to do the same thing, only I'm starting with Tom Waits, because I'm less familiar with his work. Sure, I've heard miscellaneous songs and one or two albums all the way through, and I do like everything I've heard, but I've never really dug in deep. So I'm starting at the beginning. The rules are simple:
  1. I will listen in chronological order to each original album.
  2. No compilations, bootlegs, or live albums.
  3. I will listen to each album at least twice on two separate days before I write about it.

So we begin at the beginning that is the ending of a night at some small town bar in Anywhere, USA, with the most appropriately titled album I think I've ever heard, Closing Time. Every song on this debut is basically a take on what you'd imagine an old barkeep might play on a dusty piano or cue up on the jukebox after everyone's left and the stools are all up on the bar, as he relives all the past lives and loves and heartaches that brought him here. This is the bar all the lonely drifters with their own sorted stories come to, and all the 9-5 drones who once had big dreams and everyone who's ever loved and lost and this bartender is the reason why. He listens. He understands. He sympathizes, empathizes and romanticizes with every shared regret and longing the pickled patrons slur over a drink or two. Or ten. Sometimes, he just knows from the look in their eyes and they share a nod of understanding. I'm sure many a drink is on the house and many a times, when he plays his tune on that dusty piano at the end of the night, to an otherwise empty bar, one regular (they're all regulars) may be passed out at the bar, from sorrow more than drink. And I'm sure our barkeep will be taking him home, or just letting him sleep in the back room. 

I hate labels and I listen to all kinds of music, so I already have an aversion to strict genre sections, but this album must have been a nightmare for record stores to shelve. There's country, jazz, blues, maybe even musical theater in here, sometimes all at once and all of it seamless. The only real unifying factor is nostalgia, really, and not in a cheap way. This is not the nostalgia of rose colored glasses and imitation of sounds past. This is authentically raw emotion that is more timeless than retro. Its vintage is all in the emotions it evokes and the pictures it paints. And what a picture! The first stroke comes from Ol '55, which is basically a country ballad and one of his most famous songs. I know I've heard it before, though I wasn't so familiar with it, but I was singing along pretty quickly. Pretty much every song had me reflecting on the past in one way or another, but the stand out track for me was the beautifully melancholy Martha. Though the lyric is quite specific about many aspects of this long ago love affair between Tom Frost and Martha, whom he has called long distance just to say he still loves her after 40 years (and make me cry, apparently), the mystery of the last line ("And I remember quiet evenings trembling next to you.")  in relation to the theme of the album is a story all on its own.

It's important to note that Tom Waits was only 24 years old when this album came out. If you look up "old soul" in the dictionary and his picture isn't there, burn that dictionary. I'm looking forward to the next album, but I may be living in this bar for a bit before I move on to the next one. It's sad, but it's real in a way that few things are or ever have been in music. These little slices of average people's lives offer something that's very pure and literary and visceral at the same time. It's clear to see why he's so highly regarded. This journey was a long time coming and I'm glad I'm starting it now.

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