At the risk of tipping someone’s scared musical cow, I’m telling you now, Tom Waits is becoming the Ed Hardy of songwriting hipsters across Los Angeles. I can’t speak for other cities, but my guess is the franchise is booming elsewhere as well.
Don Ed Hardy, for those of you who don’t know, is a legendary old school tattoo artist who sold his name, and his flash (that’s tattoo speak for art), to “FUTURE LANDFILL PRODUCT” manufacturers thus making him a household name in every landfill.
The mass marketing of his brand has made tepid the “cool” that was once there.
That mass marketing thing has also made it possible for you and me to drink Ed Hardy wine in our Ed Hardy Sneakers while burning Ed Hardy apparel with our Ed Hardy lighters.
Enter Tom Waits.
Now, don’t freak, I know Tom Waits is a genius and deserves all the adulation and acclaim he has achieved.
From “Pasties and a G-Sting” to “Bend Down the Branches”, that guy is about as innovative and cool as you can get. Not to mention his incredibly underrated co-writing wife Kathleen Brennan to whom many of you are negligently ignorant.
Kathleen, so says the dubious Wikipedia, is rumored to have hipped ‘ol Tom to the wonders of Captain Beefheart, which may or may not be true, but you can’t help notice some similarities between the two masters.
And if you don’t know who Captain Beefheart is, you flunked out of cool class before the bell even rang.
However, eavesdrop at just about any songwriter circle and you’re likely to hear people copping Mr. Waits so much that you wonder if they’re paying royalties.
Is some of the fascination with the sound of Tom Waits a ruse for those of us who need a little more practice on our instruments? (Me included) Or could it be a subconscious acquiescence to the outdated and damaging concept that artists have to suffer in order to be real artists – with Tom as the self-made poster boy for smoked-and-drank-one-too-many? Or is it that fallacy dictating all artists have to be “edgy” in order to be authentic? All I know is the beautifully raw, occasionally out of tune, and organic outsider mystique is not something you can put on like a jacket even if you try.
To be sure, I have borrowed a color or two from Tom’s hobo pallet. On preproduction for my record Vonnegut’s Wife, for instance, I asked Lee Ferris for a guitar approach like Marc Ribot on Rain Dogs for certain songs.
But if I hear another artist say they’re going for a Tom Waits vibe on their entire record I’m gonna scream.
A vibe, by the way, that can include chasing down first rate players and then ironically asking them to sound like a junk band for a whole lot ‘o money – true story! As a session player once was heard to say, “It’s your record man.”
So to my songwriting brethren, I implore you, let’s start to explore some other musical and lyrical phenoms so that Tom Waits doesn’t become a brand that shows up across the velour running suit asses of America. Oh wait, Scarlett Johansson already did her Tom Waits record so I guess we’re too late for that. Interestingly, that record made me feel like I did too much cough syrup. And, just like in middle school, it did not really get me high. Go figure.
Here are some suggestions for those of you caught in the Watis-ian whirlpool to consider:
How about Leonard Cohen? – songwriter of “Stories Of The Street” from Songs Of Leonard Cohen
The stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh.
The Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas,
and I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose,
yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.
Oh everybody knows him already? You want to be a little more outside and “edgy”?
Ok then, how about this from Valley Road by James McMurtry on Saint Mary of The Woods
Short tables – no slop eight ball
line of crank off his gold top Les Paul
Woke you up. Set you right.
Kept you talkin’ to the middle
of the next night
He had the stance. Major attitude.
Vibrato you could o’ thrown a cat through
A little much
A little heavy
I guess the world just wasn’t ready
Just a ghost from back a long time ago,
You never mention anymore
You poured it out like bourbon on a fresh grave
And learned your lesson well
And learned your lesson well
If that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists and jump from the peak of envy, I don’t know what will.
Now, I get why it’s passe to site Joni Mitchell as an influence.
It’s because after Joni came a wave of weepy writers who confused diary entries for lyrics. And diary entries may be a good source for inspiration, I suppose, but unless you’re Jack Keroac your stream of consciousness may need some editing. And sonically she’s not as dramatic or cinematic in that James Ellroy kind of way you anti heros are looking for. Additionally, while anyone can site the influence of the Great Canadian Goddess of Song, few have the goods to prove it.
Even Elvis Costello to a small degree has been caught in the cross hairs of this social lens – a lens that takes what is unique and beats it to death, packages it in rhinestones and sells it to “HOUSEWIVES OF SUBURBAN CITY TO BE NAMED” so we can all enjoy the musings of an inner soul in small sanitized servings. Yum!
I admit, I suffer from the “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me” syndrome. Perhaps some of this rant stems from that. Heck,I still haven’t listened to the first Nora Jones record (clearly not counter cutlure) that garnered her a few Grammy’s because of my condition. This stupid phenomena, by the way, backlashes in so many odd ways I need a pie chart and stinky markers to keep track of my own counter culture spinout. But honestly, I’m improving. And now I’m able to enjoy things my previous full throttle snobbery would have scoffed at years ago – such as society in general. Who me kid? But this rant isn’t just about enjoying the outside perspective, it’s about bravery.
So, as cool Tom Waits is, I want to tell my fellow writers, you can be just as interesting in your own way if you try. I’m not saying you’ll start your own cult following. But it’s often the differences that make us all so beautiful to behold. It’s the oddball bravery of marching to your own beat that, likewise, made Tom Waits the artist we love and aspire to be like.
The popularization of art doesn’t make it invalid unless the purchasers don’t really get why it’s so compelling in the first place. Otherwise, for me, it’s just another T-Shirt to match that new tattoo.
So get onstage and get off the band wagon. Fall on your face on the road less traveled and you’ll get my respect every time.