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Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones

For those of you who’ve been patiently waiting for David Smay’s splendid book on Swordfishtrombones in the series, some good news – the book is now in production, and we’ll have finished copies in December or January.

The book tackles in the album in a track-by-track fashion, but takes many fascinating detours along the way. Here’s an extract from towards the end.

***

I want to take a tangent into another period of troubles for Tom. In his early adolescence, Tom Waits lost the ability to filter out sound. The most innocuous sounds – his mother’s hand trailing across his bedsheet, or a car passing on the street – became unbearably present, intensely discomfiting experiences. He thought he was going insane. It usually came on him at night as he lay in bed. To ground himself he would mutter and chant nonsense syllables (“shack a bone, shack a bone”) until the episode passed.

At one point in an interview he even speculated about having had a “bout of autism.” More recently he’s related it to his issues with vertigo, an inner ear disturbance. Certainly issues with sensory integration are symptomatic of autism and it’s the rare interviewer who doesn’t note his tendency to wrap his arms around his body and rock back and forth as he talks, which is very reminiscent of classic “stimming” behavior for autistics. In most respects, though, Tom Waits is a poor candidate for an autistic diagnosis. His entire songwriting career testifies to his capacity for empathy and emotional nuance.

Whatever caused Tom’s breakdown in sensory integration passed within a few years and by the time he was in his late teens he had already begun his musical career. What’s interesting, though, is that he didn’t simply overcome a pathology, but incorporated it into his creative process.

His ear is still fantastically sensitive to sonic textures and hearing an instrument’s unexploited sonic potential. While Tom himself can credit his friend and fellow musician John Lurie for his ability to pick up a piece of pipe in a field and get a good tone out of it, Tom’s the one who built a rhythm track out of beating a chest of drawers into kindling with a two-by-four.

The avant-garde composer John Cage pioneered an aesthetic that encouraged chance in composition, that was alert to sound-as-music. Tom Waits’ unusual sensitivity to sound, and his ready willingness to incorporate “mistakes” into his songwriting and recording process, make him especially attuned to Cage’s theories.

In an interview with Elvis Costello, Tom Waits says of his wife:

“Kathleen’s always trying to kick my ass up the scale a little bit because I find that if I’m left to my own devices I will discover various shades of brown. And I’m seeing them of course as red and yellow next to each other. She says, what you’ve just really created here is sludge, dirty water. So I kind of have to be reminded of that. I’m also color-blind, which is kind of interesting. I juggle with brown and green and blue and red, and green looks brown, brown looks green, purple looks blue, blue looks purple. I don’t see the world in black and white, but I’ll never make the Air Force.”

Another intriguing aspect of Tom’s songwriting is the snatches of nursery rhyme which float free of their source and catch in his songs. Among numerous examples, two of his best known occur on Rain Dogs in the songs “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Clap Hands.” In “Jockey Full of Bourbon” the children’s rhyme “Ladybug, ladybug” transmutes into “Hey little bird, fly away home / your house is on fire, your children all alone.” In “Clap Hands” he builds his song on the meter of the jump rope classic “The Goose Drank Wine.” The original goes “wine, wine, the goose drank wine/ the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line / the line broke, the monkey got choked / we all went to heaven in a little row boat.” Tom turns it into, “Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime / All the way to Baltimore and running out of time.”

While these aren’t exactly the nonsense rhymes he used to ward off his spells of vertigo, I do think they’re related. That reflexive adaptation of rhythmic rhyming became innate, running in the background of his conscious process. So the very defensive gesture he developed in his teens to fend off his bouts of sonic vulnerability, the nonsense and nursery rhymes he’d repeat until he felt stabilized, also found its way into his work.

It’s fascinating to see Tom take that hypersensitivity to sound and his adaptive rhyming behavior into the very core of his songwriting. In the last twenty years, breakthroughs in neuroscience have radically rewritten our understanding of synaesthesia, color blindness, sensory integration and supertasters. Where once Descartes could speculate about a demon on our shoulder intercepting and distorting our senses, now it appears that we each come equipped with our own demon – that the normative range of human senses is just the overlap on a Venn diagram.

I’ve known too many mental health advocates to romanticize “madness” as divine inspiration, and you wouldn’t wish Tom’s torturous teen years on anybody. But it’s instructive to see how closely aligned his gifts and his deficit were. It’s not always clear when perception strays beyond the normative range whether that unusual sensitivity will be crippling or a source of creation.

When I first read about Tom’s trial by sound I was struck by how cruel it would be to have an affliction that made everyday noise into a horror. When those episodes receded for him, I think it must’ve have been an almost blissful relief. It must have been like Caliban’s speech in the Tempest: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

***

9 comments

  1. AKinCLE: Sorry. What I was trying to do was link to an image search page for cuba+car+boats, to show something that might be more relevant to Tom Waits, his music, and his listeners…

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