You Don’t Know the Meaning of Heartbreak – A Tom Waits Primer

Someone said recently that I create people — real, living characters. That’s very flattering to me, because I love reading good characters. Some songwriters manage to create characters, and those are rare indeed.

People have asked me a lot of questions about my writing. Why the pseudonym? Where do I write? Do I ever write in the nude? Where do the ideas come from? But the best question that I received recently was:

What do you listen to when you write, Helena? 

Tom Waits.

Yes, I have a myriad of musical muses, but when it’s sad stories or heartbreaking tales, invariably, I come back to Tom Waits.

Perhaps because I have no history or sentimentality about him. My father didn’t listen to Tom Waits, my sister didn’t turn me on to him — I discovered him on my own. Someone gave me a cassette of Blue Valentines when I was about nineteen, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I admit, it took me a while to reconcile the smokey barroom jazz of Blue Valentines or Small Change with the noisy burlesque of Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs. If there’s anything constant about Tom Waits it’s that he’s always changing, experimenting, evolving. The man will try anything, use anything as an instrument (even a typewriter!) and uses his voice as a character all its own.

There is no one like Tom Waits.

Yes, you say, but you could say that about anyone.

No, darlings, I’m sorry, but no. We’re not all beautiful and unique snowflakes. No offence, but there’s a dozen of you, and at least one or two of me out there if you look hard enough — but there is only one Tom Waits. I assure you that you’ve never heard anything like him.

Now, the disclaimer. This is not pop music. This is for people who love music — not just people who need to have some kind of sonic wallpaper — those quiet-aphobes, those noise-aholics — but people who chew at music like it’s a bone, cracking it open and sucking out the marrow. Don’t get me wrong — I, too, sometimes just want to put on something I can ignore — but some music demands your attention. Tom Waits is going to tell you stories — stories about drunks and hookers, and true love, and broken hearts and homes, and even a tale about a bored middle aged man who decides to burn his life down to the ground and sit back and enjoy the view. He’s going to purr, he’s going to growl, he’s going to scream. He’s going to make you laugh, he’s going to make you cry. He’s going to make you believe in god, only to realize that he and the devil are the same person — but the devil’s only god when he’s drunk.

As this is a primer, I’m going to show you a few of the different voices of Tom Waits. I’m not going to go all crazy and pull out obscure tunes. So if you’re familiar with the man’s music, just sit back and enjoy what are probably some of your favourites already. If you’re new to Tom Waits, prepare to be mystified. I’d say “they don’t make music like this anymore” but the fact is, nobody ever did. Only Tom.

I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You

I Wish I Was In New Orleans

Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis

Blue Valentines

Heartattack and Vine (amazing live performance)

A Sweet Little Bullet From a Pretty Blue Gun (his stories are priceless)

16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six

Frank’s Wild Years (great story!)

Jockey Full of Bourbon

A Little Drop of Poison

The Earth Died Screaming

Get Behind The Mule (I want this on the soundtrack for the Bayou stories)

Chocolate Jesus

God’s Away on Business


And, as a bonus…. one of the coolest things ever — from the movie: Coffee & Cigarettes.


26 responses to “You Don’t Know the Meaning of Heartbreak – A Tom Waits Primer

  1. Oh, you done got me with this post! Thanks for the compendium.

    And to think Tom lives in my county (though I’ve not run into him at the truck stop he favors…)

    • I believe he’d call that “The fillin’ station,” darling.
      During my California years, I met a girl who used to work in a coffee shop that Tom would sometimes frequent. She said her heart skipped a beat every time she heard him order his coffee. The man’s a living legend, and when he does pass (not for MANY years, Tom!) the bars will all be full and whiskey will be in short supply.

  2. Lovely post!
    Mu husband was playing the music and asked me “Can I sing like this? This is how I wanna sing!”, and i told him Sorry , but no. He asked why, and tried to sing along and I told him he simply can’t. I feel nothing in his repeated words, the singing is so unique that I can’t even explain to him why he can never sing like that.

    • I think that’s a lot of people’s reactions — OH WOW — I gotta learn to sing like that! I don’t know that you’d ever want to put your voice through that, though — I’m glad there’s Tom Waits, but I don’t think anybody else should do it.
      Incidentally, his songs are covered by a TON of people — and there are even a couple of tribute albums of all women singers — Neko Case does an amazing cover of “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”

      • I can understand them. I do secretly wish when Maynard dies I somehow inherit his vocal cords and finaly stop singing like a girl!
        I tend not to satisfy with covers when the original is, as we Serbs say, overfucked 🙂

      • Normally I’d agree with you — but for a guy like Tom Waits — he’s a songwriter with such a HUGE canon of music — I think it’s wonderful that so many people embrace his songs and keep singing them — it’d be like never hearing Mac the Knife again simply because Kurt Weill is long dead. Tom Waits’ music will live on long after he’s gone.

      • I approach it from a different side, I want to preserve the replica (with alien technologies or just strenght of the mind and PROPER use for media), instead of trying replicate.
        You know what I hear on the radio everytime I go somewhere by car? Lady Gaga. Fucking Lady Gaga and I dont know HOW did I not slit my wrists yet. Then we enter the tunnel and the station changes and Johnny Cash starts and everyone is like booooo, yuck, change it!
        So yeah, I am for perservation in this way. I am glad there is people covering his fab music and helping it live on in that way too. But I jsut personaly will always place their quality a bit under the original thing.

      • I don’t know, darling — whose version of Twist and Shout would you prefer to hear? (The exception that proves the rule, I’m afraid!)
        Lady Gaga is a genius, darling! A true… no, sorry, couldn’t do it… I loved Lady Gaga the first time around, when she was called David Bowie and he did it so much better.

      • I am weird and spoiled with music. If you ask me about Twist in my sobriety, I’ll say Dreadful Shadows and everyone else fails, and it’s a cover 🙂

      • Tainted Love’s another good example — even the Soft Cell version everyone’s familiar with is not the original. (Though the Marilyn Manson version does it for me)
        Brand New Cadillac by the Clash — not the original.
        I don’t think I’ve heard Dreadful Shadows — at all.

      • A chance to show you a song you do not already know? I SHALL SEIZE IT! (my son is awake since 4 am, I am so tired it looks like I am on heavy drugs!)

        I agree on Mr Manson too.

  3. Helena,
    I can see why you like it. It’s very beautiful and inspiring. Still, I think I’d get distracted if I was writing to this. I tend to like foreign languages or instrumental or I end up listening to the lyrics and don’t get anything written.

  4. Pingback: Living Musically: Wanderlust Edition | The D/A Dialogues·

  5. I am enjoying this post, Helena. (With all these video clips, I can be entertained for quite a while.) I think Tom Waits is an acquired taste. Before your post, I had heard maybe one or two of his songs and, frankly, I couldn’t stand them. His voice made me want to crawl up the walls and not in a good way. But the first clip you posted here–I Hope I Never Fall In Love With You–is SO beautiful. His voice is smooth and sexy and sad. So, right away, I’m thinking, is he like Dylan? The voice just becomes more contorted over time, or at least seems that way. I’ve jumped around the clips. I do agree that Get Behind the Mule would be a good soundtrack for Bayou. Even if his voice sometimes annoys me (sorry), the music is wonderful. Now, I have watched the clip Heartattack and Vine and, yup, he won me over again there. It’s like his whole body is an instrument, he’s feeling the music, the song. He is versatile and his songs are stories (just wish I could understand the lyrics sometimes). So, I’m on the fence about him, except that I think I will check him out on iTunes … 🙂

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