May 12 • 9M

Tom Waits Wins

Unless you don't dig love?

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Before I dive in, just a reminder that COVID-19 is still having it’s way with us, and we might be more conscientious of the livelihoods of others when going unmasked in indoor settings. If contracting a positive case will shut down your workplace, like on a film set for example, then please don’t risk it by visiting bars or restaurants. Not to mention our friends and neighbors who are immunocompromised. Please and thank you.

Ami from the internet asks,

“What's a song that never fails to put a lump in your throat?”

Ami, thank you for this evocative question.

Music plays a very important part in my life, and it has for as long as I can remember. As kids, we were always encouraged to play music and sing, and between the cousins, we fielded a pretty complete band, what with trumpet, flute, clarinet, tenor and alto sax, trombone, piano, and occasionally drums. Although strangely, I can’t recall any of our parents’ generation ever picking up an instrument. Maybe they encouraged us as much as they did because they regretted the lack of music production in their own lives.

Our Great Uncle Ray, however, was an exception to this. He could be cajoled into singing “Galway Bay” on the rare occasions we saw him, and much was made of it, with a lot of preemptive kid-gripping and shushing. He was funny and charming as hell, and even well into the autumn of his years, he could still keep his feet without spilling a drop of his Manhattan as he intoned those nostalgic verses, veritably filling the entire first floor of the farmhouse with his sound.

I’m sure the adoration that was showered upon Uncle Ray in those moments was one of the earliest instances of me noticing the benefits of show business. Because while he may have been no velvet-throated Bing Crosby, he put his whole heart into it, and I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t work. I’m grateful to Uncle Ray, as well as his bride Aunt Myrtle, for their many lessons of magnanimity, but especially for teaching me to appreciate the romance in a lyrical performance, Irish or otherwise.

With that as my preamble, Ami, it should come as no surprise that my song is by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Since I was turned on to their songs as a teenager by my world-wiser Defiant Theatre friends, no music has consistently moved me half as much, although their title has been challenged at times by that gorgeous beating heart on two legs, Jeff Tweedy. Nick Cave has also taken me there. Not to mention Randy Newman, Patty Griffin, and John Prine, as rendered to my ear by my bride, Megan, who has powerfully covered songs by all of the above. Newman’s “Marie”, Patty Griffin’s “Waiting For My Child”, and John Prine’s “Far From Me”, among others.

She has also covered a handful of Tom Waits tunes over the years, which has only fortified the Waits and sometimes Waits/Brennan hold on my romantic heart. Off the top of my head there are probably a dozen contenders in their catalogue that qualify as “perennial throat-lumpers”: “Martha”, “Hold On”, “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, “Kentucky Avenue”, “Whistle Down the Wind”, “Lucky Day”, and so on. It’s an absolute murderer’s row of tear-jerkers, but there’s one pretty clear top assassin in their ranks that finally brings me around to answer your question: “Take It With Me” by Tom Waits, as rendered by Megan or the gravel-voiced troubadour himself.

It’s the pinnacle of nostalgia delivery systems, simply rattling off sepia-toned imagery and wistful circumstances, with all the hits represented: an ocean as blue as your eyes, a distant, lamentatious train whistle, Coney Island, for Christ’s sake. I mean, I’ve never even been to Coney Island, but when that seaside carnival of mixed repute is evoked in this poetic way, you bet your sweet bippy I miss it like crazy.

So many Waits/Brennan tunes are like little pieces of theater, it’s no wonder I so easily fall under their spell. As a result, their collective lyrics have created an alternate world full of “Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards”, wherein I have grown familiar with the back alleys of seedy towns, where I might get stabbed, or I might join in digging a pit and cooking up a “Filipino Box Spring Hog”. And if their songs have taken me anywhere, it’s to the carnival. That’s where me and my Jersey girl might marvel at “Table Top Joe”, savor a “Chocolate Jesus”, or at the very least, I can take her on all the rides. Sha la la la la, I’m in love. That’s what the prime cuts of the Waits oeuvre all have in common: I’m in love.

Waits has also brandished a delightful streak of mischief throughout his career, represented in this ditty by a direct comeuppance to the familiar cliché, “you can’t take it with you”. Defying that sentiment, he instead lists the inimitable moments of personal treasure that he shares with his loved one(s), treasures that he, by god, will be taking with him when he goes. This song wends its way through the warm trappings of a loving life, but ultimately whittles that life down to what truly matters—whom, and how, you love.

Children are playing
At the end of the day
Strangers are singing
On our lawn
It's got to be more
Than flesh and bone
All that you've loved
Is all you own

In a land there's a town
And in that town there's
A house
And in that house
There's a woman
And in that woman
There's a heart I love
I'm gonna take it
With me when I go
I'm gonna take it
With me when I go

I am so grateful, Ami, that your question made me slow down and dig into these favorite lyrics and exercise my own throat’s current capacity for lumping. I also love it when my “work” causes me to sit for a spell and listen to my bride sing. Boy, howdy.

Love,

Calling all Muleteers! I am greatly enjoying this exercise, but I need a favor from you. This is a Q&A format, and I’m not getting nearly enough questions from you. To keep my cumbersome donkey brain chugging along, I’m asking you to pitch in and leave me some good questions in the comments, and I love to know from where you’re writing, please and thank you.

Thursdays are generally free, printed donkey thoughts with audio version, and I’ll do a video on Sundays for the paying crowd. Thank you sincerely for your support.