The other night I was lying in bed after a Quarantine Four-pack had become a Social Distancing Seven and I grabbed my phone off the nightstand before falling asleep to write this note, “Tom Waits doesn’t just give you the late night diner and its nostalgia or the cigarette smoke with its sex appeal and relaxation; he gives also the emphysemic cough along with the taste of iodized salt heavy and fully real.”
Here in the sober light of 10:00pm on a rainy Monday, I’m not too sure if all that is really true or how much grammatical sense it makes. But it does sound cool and it’s a good way to introduce the fact that for the past number of weeks, I’ve been going through Tom Waits’s discography to distill it down my favorite 50 songs. A mysterious and invisible carny from Georgia asked me to do it, and so I did. It was difficult and I actually ended up with a list of 100 songs, but I cut it in half, careful not to lose what I think makes Waits’s music so special.
I suppose I could write some of what those special things are. I could talk about how many deeply American influences make up his musical stylings. How nearly every song has its roots in styles that are important to American music, society, and history. And how the myriad ways he finds to namecheck American cities and characters feel like a True Local mentioning their hometown at a show much more than they do an LA troubador looking for a cheap pop. Or how despite all that familiarity, his albums are often are hard to share with most people. It is not comfortable to say to someone who has never listened to Waits, “Hey, you might like this album.” and then hear “Singapore” start bellowing out of the headphones. He is deeply ingrained in and of our society and reflects it back in a way that is often uncomfortable and perhaps that is aboslutely appropriate.
I could mention how much I love his spoken word tracks because they are basically the start of “Twilight Zone” episodes or how so many of his songs remind me of every instance of the circus coming to town in pulp horror stories and episodes of shows like “Little House on the Prairie”.
There could be a paragraph on his progression from a Bob Dylan wannabe to a guy who thought LA diners after sunset were paradise to the beatest of poets telling the tale of the American people–individual and corporate–from breakups to political wars.
His obsession with love, life, death, humans, greed, and death could be discussed with how he quotes Hobbes, nursery rhymes, and folk sayings in the same breathy baritone.
If I did write about any of this kind of stuff at length, I’d focus on how you can’t really listen to much of his work as background music. It demands that you either put it down so you can focus on whatever you’re doing without anxiety and dread or to sink into it like greasy, jazzy darkness.
Or maybe how it’s impressive that he’ll make you chuckle a pun as easily as make you cry about the time you didn’t spend riding the rails during the Depression.
I could even get distracted by how absolutely funny he is as an actor or interviewee. Or how I can’t help but think of him as either himself in Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” or as crazed Renfield in Coppola’s “Dracula”.
I don’t really want to write about any of that. And shit on me for writing what I already did. Because, honestly, I think Tom Waits is so damn cool, that I would be embarassed if anybody ever let him get wind of me doing any kind of try at describing him.
But what I will do is list 50 songs by Tom Waits that I think are my favorites right now. Some of them are probably my favorites because of familiarity. That is to say, if I listened more to your favorites, they’d probably be some of mine too. Or maybe not, I can’t go speaking for your taste. Oh, and I’m putting the list in alphabetical order because I am not too big into rankings like this. This format also makes it easier for you, the reader, to skim to see if I left out tracks that you know should be on there and thus confirm your superiority.
Here are the Fifty Tom Waits Songs.
- 16 Shells from a 30.6 – Swordfishtrombone
- Alice – Alice
- Bad As Me – Bad As Me
- The Black Rider – The Black Rider
- Bottom of the World – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
- Cemetery Polka – Rain Dogs
- Chicago – Bad As Me
- Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis – Blue Valentine
- Clap Hands – Rain Dogs
- Cold Cold Ground (Live) – Big Time
- Come on up to the House – Mule Variations
- Dirt in the Ground (Live) – Glitter and Doom Live
- Downtown Train – Rain Dogs
- Eggs and Sausage (In A Cadillac With Susan Michelson) – Nighthawks at the Diner
- Everything You Can Think – Alice
- Eyeball Kid – Mule Variations
- Georgia Lee – Mule Variations
- God’s Away On Business – Blood Money
- Goin’ Out West – Bone Machine
- Hell Broke Luce – Bad As Me
- Hoist That Rag – Blood Money
- I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Bone Machine
- I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You – Closing Time
- In the Colisseum – Bone Machine
- Jockey Full of Bourbon – Rain Dogs
- Ol’ 55 – Closing Time
- The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King) – Small Change
- Romeo is Bleeding – Blue Valentine
- Invitation to the Blues – Small Change
- Lullaby – Blood Money
- Martha – Closing Time
- Make It Rain (Live) – Glitter and Doom Live
- Misery is the River of the World – Blood Money
- Mr. Siegal – Heartattack and Vine
- Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards) – Closing Time
- On the Nickel – Heartattack and Vine
- The Part You Throw Away – Blood Money
- Picture in a Frame – Mule Variations
- Pony – Mule Variations
- Potter’s Field – Foreign Affairs
- Rains on Me – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
- Road to Peace – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards
- San Diego Serenade – The Heart of Saturday Night
- Singapore – Rain Dogs
- Starving In the Belly of a Whale – Blood Money
- Step Right Up – Small Change
- Tell Me – Bad As Me
- Tom Traubert’s Blue (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) – Small Change
- Way Dow in the Hole (Live) – Big Time
- Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard –