Sinister

A song gets caught in your head, and then it stays there—looping, looping, looping.

Today, all day, it's been Tom Waits' "A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun" from Blue Valentine (1978). I don't even know the album version that well. It's this version from Austin City Limits in 1979 that I wear out the mental grooves on:

This version drips malevolence.

It's not just the growl—the Tom Waits Instrument #1. That shows up here and there and everywhere in his music, and it doesn't make this song. It's the sneer. It's the lispy S's when a word drags a little longer than it needs to, and your body recoils and leans in at the same time. ("you'll see some young girl / she's got sssssssweet little dreamssss / and pretty blue wishes")

It's the incorporation of the nursery rhymes ("it's rainin', it's pourin' / Hollywood's just fine") and the prayers ("now I lay me down to sleep / I hear the sirens in the street") to accompany the story of the template naive Midwestern girl gone to make it big in Hollywood—no plan, no hope, nothing but a sinister end. ("no that ain't no cherry bomb, baby")

It's hard to sell the appeal of Waits, and I don't try very hard to do it. The music gets inside of you and finds a ventricle to hold on to, or it doesn't. The subject matter can be tiresome—there are five or seven albums of stories of lowlifes and hustlers—or it can be welcome, because he gave the people living in the underbelly of the city a... a what? He told stories about them, from them, through them. He made people that don't exist to the rest of us, for good or ill, exist—in all their good and ill. I've always appreciated that because it's its own form of American music—dark as a view into a driver side window at a stoplight after dark, rumbling as the engine pulling you down highways and sidestreets, strange as the impulse that made you sit a little longer and hit replay to hear it again.

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