Tag Archives: Tom Waits


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.

Rain dogs

Lately I've taken to calling the odd, uncategorized and sometimes uncategorizeable tasks at work "rain dogs". They're the lost tasks, the things that someone meant to do sometime, maybe, and they've lost their way home. Who knows? Maybe once, long ago, a well-meaning person set out to get something done, and they got that thing to be done entered in the project plan, and then years passed and the project moved on and the person moved on, but the task remained. And we look at the task and the task looks at us, and that's just how it is. Impasse. How did you get here? Where is your home?

No one knows. But the task lives on—a weird stray living on the margins of the project, never done because there is no will to do it, never erased because there is no will to remove it. It lingers, alive and unloved, until the project closes.

No one at work listens to Tom Waits, so I'm kind of alone on this one.

"...You see all these dogs out on the street looking lost. They kind of look up at you like: `'scuse me sir, can you, uh, ... (deep voice) can you help me? 'cause the rain has washed away all the scents; the way they got wherever they got. So they can't find their way back home." (Source: "Enigmatic Waits survives, thrives" The San Diego Union-Tribune. By Rip Rense. November 1, 1985)

The version from Big Time (1988) is my favorite. It growls.

Op. En. Up. Your. Gol. Den. Gates.

I'll tell you the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, he said three or four or five months into social isolation in the year of our virus, 2020 AV.

Three or four or five months... who's even counting at this point?

I'm here, again, in front of the computer, listening to music. Again, again. When did this song come up, and why do I keep dredging it back up after it sinks back under the surface of the water where it might drown safely out of my consciousness.

But there it is, there it is.

There it is.

I don't even try to evangelize Tom Waits to anyone. What's the point? My wife just wants to know if he's OK. He's OK, baby, he's OK. His voice is an instrument—a strange instrument, but an instrument, His Instrument, and it makes sense in context, and, yes, OK, we can listen to something else. Fair enough.

And I have to retreat here to a corner of our fortified compound to listen to Mr. Waits do his thing.

It's fine. It's fine. It's Fine. It's FINE.

But those fists clench yet, don't they?

Yeah they do. They cut half moons in the palms of my hands.

Neal was singin' to the nurse, 'Underneath the Harlem Moon' /
And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

You know... here within these four walls—of the room, of the house, of the yard—it doesn't take much anymore to feel a little crazy about wanting to burst through one of those walls at top speed and keep going, like an Energizer Bunny on speed, careening down the road and down the road and so on into Oblivion. And then this song comes up and

And then she lit the map on fire, Neal just had to guess
Should we try and find a bootleg route or a fillin' station open
The nurse was dumpin' out her purse and lookin' for an envelope
And Jack was out of cigarettes, and as we crossed the yellow line
The gas pumps looked like tombstones from here

and then you feel that tug—a manila rope bowlined right around your sternum—and you remember what it's like to be in That Car rolling down That Road into That Future. And hey, hey, hey—

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon


I don't ever feel like I'm going to go crazy, really—it's just an affectation to offset the general boredom of the cycle of days, over and over again.

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

But that half moon fist clench isn't that far away.

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

There's a physical memory and a mental memory and a spiritual memory of moving on down the road—I don't know that it's unique to us Americans, but I think us Americans have it unique.

And Jack was out of cigarettes, and as we crossed the yellow line
The gas pumps looked like tombstones from here
And it felt lonelier than a parkin' lot when the last car pulls away

Anyway. That song taunts me. I haven't read any Kerouac in years, and On the Road in even more years, but to come of age in America as a male with a drivers license, as a human with the sight to see out the front windshield and hands to control the wheel and the will to move on down the road... oof. There's a pressure trapped there behind the rib cage, behind the forehead—in the fingers that rub together, knowing that it's just a car key and a credit card away from [rubs fingers] anywhere.

Countin' one eyed Jacks and whistlin' Dixie in the car
Neal was doin' least a hundred when we saw a fallin' star

[rubs fingers]

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

It's at this point that the song goes from maudlin to beautiful. Tom has been playing with Jack and Neal and the nurse for the entire song, hinting at the underlying melody, and then it rolls around the bend, like a car curving around a hill to reveal the bay below, unfolding Al Jolson unexpectedly, perfectly, expertly, necessarily, directly, correctly—

Open up your golden gates
California, here I come