The Michigan Daily discovered in November 2004 that several articles written by arts editor Alex Wolsky did not meet the newspaper’s standard of ethical journalism. Parts of these stories had been plagiarized from other news sources. Although the article below has not been found to contain plagiarism, the Daily no longer stands by its content. For details, see the Daily’s editorial.
Deep within the corners of your second bottle of Admiral Nelson, you reflect upon the people you’ve met along the way: dueling knife throwers, criminals, prostitutes, fugitives, castaways and a whole cast of renegades lost in the carnival of Bourbon Street. It’s a place that smells like gasoline and the waitress has a bitter sadness about her approach. Nobody meant to get there but they all call it home.
Seldom is this a scene of inspiration, but to many it’s a warm welcoming. Tom Waits’ creativity is spurned by a constant flow of liquor and a hapless group of eclectics he’s met over his tenure on the raucous streets of New York, Los Angeles and the red-light districts of Minneapolis. To him, something like the aforementioned scene is second nature, in fact it’s something of regularity and he sought to capture it with his 1985 release Rain Dogs, a timeless piece that encapsulates the depression and fiery intensity of the pavement he stumbled across for years.
For nearly a decade before, Waits had called Asylum records home. He released a handful of albums laced with the jazz and poetic elements of his youth. Sparse melodies and a literate face donned his work as he quickly grew a name for himself within the underground folk scene. But, his transition to Island records would prove to be a defining moment in his career.
Because he rarely toured, Waits sought to expand the depth of studio recording. His use of horns, accordion, various percussive elements and electric guitar created a boney sound that mixed traditional influences with a newfound sense of the inane. Waits sonically captured the feeling of detachment while remaining grounded. Where his music seemed sporadic and chaotic, for the first time in 10 years he found clarity and a way to orchestrate the frenzied sounds that defined his surroundings.
Rain Dogs, his most complete offering from the Island years, plays like a scotch binge at Thanksgiving; falling in and out of the jangled percussion and horns, woven loosely by a sparse electric guitar like a mind falling in and out of consciousness. With Rain Dogs, Waits dropped the sound of his earlier efforts and adopted a more focused approach fueled by the emerging under-belly of New Orleans jazz. A basement sound of stale cigarettes and broken piano keys held together by abstract clarinets and trumpets projecting the call of the night to the hordes of people lying at your door.
It bellows with the fervor and zeal of a speakeasy; it charms you with its bourbon-soaked lyrics and steel guitars. “Singapore” jumps through the narrow aisles of an outdoor market as people grab at your legs begging for redemption. An upright bass waltzes with a set of bells as a sporadic electric jangle ties everything together underneath Waits’ inimitable vocals. He drives a funeral-march through the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
He creates a variable cast of cutouts who are defined by their environment, not their stories on “Clap Hands” a somber offering still haunted by the streets of “Singapore” before it. “9th and Hennepin” describes a scene of characters swept within the recesses of the nightlife, all stranded and searching for something to define themselves. Waits carefully lets the music aid his vocals in progressing the movement of the standard verse-chorus-verse structure.
“Anywhere I Lay My Head” closes the album and puts the final brushstrokes on an album already layered with depth and beauty. Waits growls as the music finally takes a step back and lets his uncut emotion flow through the track. All of the honest sentiment holed up within his tears reverberates upon the tape. A wholly personal album draws to an intimate close as Waits cries “My head is spinning ’round/my heart is in my shoes / I went and set the Thames on fire / Now I must come back down.” A man comes to grips with the sins he’s perpetrated as he barrels up his sorrow and loneliness, “She’s laughing in her sleeve, and boys / I can feel it in my bones.”
With its grating rhythms and atypical instrumentation, Rain Dogs has withstood the test of time and remains one of music’s greatest accomplishments. A virtually unclassifiable collection of music, Waits creates an infinitely miserable world bent on creating something menacingly beautiful.