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November 29, 2006 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Please explain to me the appeal of Tom Waits.

I like the guy and wanna like his music, but I can't get past his singing voice. It's just so awful. Recently on the Daily Show he sounded a lot like Scooby Doo during his performance. My wife couldn't help but laugh.

Same thing with Dylan but to a lesser extent. I have no problem with less than perfect singing voices but Waits takes it to a whole different level. His lyrics seemed ruined by the delivery.

Please don't take this as a question meant to antagonize or insult anyone. I'm genuinely interested.
posted by DieHipsterDie to Media & Arts (70 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I can't speak for Waits, but a friend of mine can't stand Colin Meloy's (lead singer of the Decemberists) voice; I consider it quirky for sure, but the instrumentation and the epic lyrics overtake it. You should be looking for the full experience of the music.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 6:51 AM on November 29, 2006


Learning to enjoy things that you don't enjoy at first is just a matter of acclimation.

Right now, you have trouble hearing past his voice. His probably isn't the only one. Listen to his stuff all the way through six or seven times and your ear will learn.
posted by ewkpates at 6:53 AM on November 29, 2006


I can't bear Dylan but I quite like Waits' growl. Listen to Cemetery Polka - no one else could do that song that way.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:54 AM on November 29, 2006


Try "Jockey Full of Bourbon". With an artist like Tom Waits, it's a matter of find a couple of songs that you like and then slowly working from there.
posted by jaded at 6:58 AM on November 29, 2006


So I only recently became a big Waits fan, but have loved Dylan for just about as long as I've had taste. There's something so expressive in Waits' voice and the best way I can sum up the two is by referencing Roland Barthes' essay The Grain of the Voice

Barthes thought that there was meaningful singing (Sinatra) that was thin and withotu depth and then there was singing that made meaning (Elvis). There's a physicality in grain, a richness that creates instead of reflects. Waits and Dylan have more grain that you can shake a stick at.
posted by allen.spaulding at 6:59 AM on November 29, 2006


His craggy, imperfect voice is like slipping into your favorite ratty old sweater. I find it comforting. Plus, it's so gruff that it allows him to convey emotion without seeming saccharine. San Diego Serenade, for example, seems like a deeply romantic love song to me when he sings it. Yet if I heard, say, Celine Dion sing it, I'd think it was horribly sappy.
posted by jrossi4r at 7:00 AM on November 29, 2006


I hated swordfishtrombones the first few times I heard it. One morning I woke up after a long good sleep and made myself a great cup of coffee. My roomate put on swordfishtrombones and I've been hooked ever since. The appeal is unexplainable. I'm guessing I was in a perfect frame of mind to let whatever was happening, sink in.

For me, it is something with the way everything seems to fit together and not one thing that stands out. I can't think of a voice that would be more appropriate for that style of music.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:01 AM on November 29, 2006


His growl has become exaggerated and more circusy (intentionally, I belive) in the last five to six years I'd say. His early stuff (Ice Cream Man, etc) he does not have the growl. As he developed his character (and indeed a lot of Waits appeal for me is this Tin Pan Alley, Brechtian character he invented) the voice has morphed and changed and become more complex and 'difficult' to embrace. However, Waits is theater, not just music. The voice he uses is important to the lyrical canvas he uses and to the overall story of the people and lives he sings about. Sometimes I like to think of Waits as Bukowski set to music. You wouldn't want Bukowski reading his works sounding like Mel Torme, right? You want someone that sounds beat up and beat down and half drunk and all desperate.

Waits is not a torch song singer. He's a lyricist/poet and a vaudevillian and his voice is an instrument along with the other noise makers and wheezing calliope he uses to paint with. Think of it that way and it might help.
posted by spicynuts at 7:01 AM on November 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


It's a matter of taste. He doesn't havethe kind of voice considered to be universally enjoyable or beatuiful, so it's not your fault if you don't find it so, or if it interferes with your ability to enjoy his music.

The reason people like distinctive voices is because of what they convey or imply. Imagine a beautiful wedding march played by a violin quartet, and you get a certain impression of that event. Now imagine the same wedding march played by a rusty accordion, a kettle drum, and a pair of mandolins-- that's a whole different wedding happening right there.

I tend to like singers who explore surprising vocal choices that many think are too jarring or ugly to be enjoyable. Most performers incorporate this style at times, but some have made a career out of it: Björk, Tom Waits, Dolores O'Riordan, Joanna Newsom, etc.

In Wait's case, his songs seem to evoke an image of a particular type of tormented lifestyle, doled out with an equal measure of humor. His voice can make him sound piteous, fiendish, ridiculous, drunk, wounded, monstrously inhuman, and authenically human. His voice is a versatile instrument, and while you may think it all sounds like the same mess, if you listen to how he has changed his style over the course of his recordings, I'm sure you'd understand it a little better-- even if you still don't like itt much.

The album that hooked me was "Blood Money". Now I listen to whatever I can find and will probably buy his new collection ASAP.
posted by hermitosis at 7:02 AM on November 29, 2006


I think Waits's voice is an acquired taste, not a bad one. Musically, he has no problems with pitch -- his growl is his "sound," and it helps to paint the whole of his musical picture. Many would consider Waits a poet/literary performer first, and a musician second. I wouldn't necessarily agree with that, because for me he's been able to continually push the envelope and create new sounds throughout several decades of writing music.

If you're legitimately interested in trying to learn to like him, I'd pick up Blue Valentine first, and then the double-LP releases Alice and Blood Money.
posted by Ekim Neems at 7:03 AM on November 29, 2006


I like the guy and wanna like his music

It's ok to dislike Tom Waits' music. I was lukewarm about him until I saw him live. It's a great experience. The man really knows how to entertain an audience.
posted by iconomy at 7:11 AM on November 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


Tom's voice is an archetype. The style may not be polished, but the emotion comes through loud and clear. He's sharing something intimate. It's the antithesis of pop.

On the other hand, I'm not a big Dylan fan either. I'm pretty sure Tom's doing something that Bob didn't touch.

I'd say take a listen to some songs from Small Change and Rain Dogs. While you're doing that, imagine you just walked into a seedy bar in the bad section of town, and you're about to spend your last five bucks on a shot of cheap whisky. And you don't know where you're sleeping tonight. And you've lost one shoe, but you can't remember where.

Also check out "Down By Law", a Jim Jarmusch movie in which Tom acts. That might help create some atmospheric context for what he does.

Personal favorite Tom album: The Black Rider.
posted by Area Control at 7:14 AM on November 29, 2006


My love of Tom Waits is much like wikipedia's quote from Gary Graff, "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car." - it is just so perfect. It's not just his voice that is so unique, just the instrumental melodies are so discernable as Tom Waits. His voice is grating, but in a very comforting way.

Like jrossi42 said, it's like slipping into an old ratty sweater. It's an acquired tasty, but start with songs that make you laugh and see past his voice - what comes to mind is "making feet for children's shoes"
posted by banannafish at 7:18 AM on November 29, 2006


His voice has been carefully damaged with whiskey and cigarettes, much in the same way that, say, Billy Gibbons' voice has been, but more so.

To put it in a metaphor, you can look at say, Waits style is kind of like the Ashcan style of art, which is not always beautiful in the traditional sense. His sound is meant to evoke the gritty, seamy side of things. If that's what you're into, great. If not, eh. You don't have to like it.
posted by plinth at 7:22 AM on November 29, 2006


As others have mentioned, Waits' voice is stylized. It's understandable that you might not like it, but I do think it helps to recognize it as part of the performance, and not as some natural artifact that just happens to be that way. Dylan's likewise, as anyone who's listened to his crooning on Nashville Skyline knows. (Although his current voice seems largely a result of smoking more than a choice.)

A couple of weeks ago I saw a band from Asheville called Mad Tea Party which played retro-y songs featuring ukele etc. A lot of the songs were good, but the band really really suffered (to such an extent that I didn't buy the album and probably wouldn't see them again even though I like that schtick) because of the lead singer's voice. It just wasn't stylized enough, it was too straighforward for the material, and the whole thing ended up sounding like a kid who didn't understand the music singing. Waits is precisely the opposite.
posted by OmieWise at 7:23 AM on November 29, 2006


For Tom Waits, I would highly recommend his album "Bone Machine" because the instrumentation is really bang-y, clang-y, rattle-y, and growl-y, so it matches his voice better. I heard this album first, and I had no idea that he sang like this all the time; I assumed that it just suited the aesthetic of the album.

Especially check out the faster songs, like "Earth Died Screaming" or "In the Colosseum" or "Goin' Out West". The voice just sounds so appropriate and lacking affect. Once/if you can enjoy those, then you should listen to "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," which is just amazing. And then see if the video is on YouTube (which I am also going to do, right this second) because it is also amazing.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:27 AM on November 29, 2006


Listen to the Tom Waits version of "Downtown Train" and then try the Rod Stewart cover. Waits makes the song sound desperate and human, whereas Stewart's version is noodley saccarine goo. Which Rod Stewart always is, I suppose, but that's the point: it's a matter of approach, not anything implicit in the music he sings.

I guess I agree with the general sentiment that it's an acquired taste that, once you get used to, feels comforting and homey and really intensely alive and human, which is a nice change from the overproduced slickness of pop music. Nothing a whole lot deeper than that.
posted by rkent at 7:28 AM on November 29, 2006


I had the same experience with Joanna Newsom. I heard her singing and thought it was a joke. She sounded like a chipmunk. But then, like ewkpates says, I got acclimatised to her and now love her voice.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:29 AM on November 29, 2006


Since people are throwing out recommendations and favorites, I will have to add "Frank's Wild Years" as 1) the album that introduced me to Waits' music after seeing "Down By Law" and 2) the album that I think most easily demonstrates the kind of universe he's creating. Plus the band behind him is just bang on.

Also I would second "The Black Rider" although I think it's more polished as it's a soundtrack to a performance.
posted by spicynuts at 7:35 AM on November 29, 2006


Important to note -- I saw that performance too, and it was kind of awful. Not a great starting point. It may be easier to see the appeal if you try an album like Rain Dogs or Frank's Wild Years....If you want a really soft intro, try Closing Time. Less of the characteristic growl.

(links go to amazon.com (wma) samples of a track from each album.)
posted by TonyRobots at 7:38 AM on November 29, 2006


I think it's just one of those intangible things - you're gonna like it, or you're not, and there's not much you can do about it. I love Tom Waits, but try as I might, I can't get myself to like other musicians with voices my ears find unpleasant. Examples for me include Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Bright Eyes.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:42 AM on November 29, 2006


For me, Waits voice, lyrics, instrumentation, compositions and persona together conjure up vivid imagery and textures in my mind. I also concur with some of the previous commenters that there is a certain space your head needs to be in for the treatment to take.
posted by Scoo at 8:00 AM on November 29, 2006


Why bother, it's the emporers new clothes. He's awful and I've tried to like him. To quote from here "I freakin HATE Tom Waits. It's sounds like he's getting an enema while he's singing."
posted by Xurando at 8:06 AM on November 29, 2006


Download "Warm Beer and Cold Women", it is the most accessible song my opinion. I only have his very early stuff, I agree that the performance on the Daily Show only appealed to fans.
posted by geoff. at 8:10 AM on November 29, 2006


Why bother, it's the emporers new clothes. He's awful and I've tried to like him.

I was waiting to see how long it would take for someone to come in here and drop a turd. I hardly think that an artist who's been around for going on 30 years can be dismissed as 'emperor's new clothes'. The OP is not asking whether he should like him or not, he's interested in why people who DO like him find him so appealing.
posted by spicynuts at 8:10 AM on November 29, 2006


I love Tom Waits. I think of him as equal parts singer, actor, and storyteller. (If you'd like start out by warming up Tom Waits in general, rent Down by Law if you've never seen it; holy god is he ever good.) My favorite record in that regard is Bone Machine. He is scarier than hell on that record, using that rough cruel voice to inhabit murderers, heartbreakers, petty criminals, narcissistic self-deluded bastards -- a whole rogue's gallery, basically -- and they are grotesquely and totally believable.

I think he's got a great wounded romantic voice, a great sinister voice -- I'm less fond of his more whimsical stuff ("I Don't Want to Grow Up" is the best known song on Bone Machine and far and away my least favorite). Now this record is instrumentally and lyrically quite strange, and you may well hear it and hate it too. But if you are interested in hearing a great writer create and wear personas that are dark as tar, the stuff of real nightmares, that record is worth your careful study.
posted by melissa may at 8:19 AM on November 29, 2006


It's a bit like Kate Bush. For many people, her voice is initially off-putting. Then, at some point, you grow interested in the music, and, when you look back at it, her voice seems somehow perfect for the music.
posted by adipocere at 8:43 AM on November 29, 2006


I have the same issue as the OP—I find a disarming charm about Tom Waits the character, but I can't get past that voice. I think the voice has character, but I don't want to listen to it try to sing. Ditto Dylan—the mythology built up around him is impressive and interesting (though I don't necessarily find him to be the lyrical genius many say he is), but his voice...it just doesn't work for me. Hendrix' version of his "All Along The Watchtower" is one of my favorite songs, but that's because it's Hendrix, complete with brilliant guitar work and raw-yet-melodic singing.

If Dylan's voice were just a little more melodic, like his son Jakob's, I could deal with it. But...it's not, and I can't listen to it.
posted by limeonaire at 8:55 AM on November 29, 2006


Tom Waits's recent music makes more sense if you're familiar with the old blues and gospel styles he's paying homage to. If you're really interested in learning to appreciate his stuff, you should spend some time with music from those traditions.

Waits seems to borrow the most from gravelly-voiced blues singers like Howlin' Wolf and Blind Willie Johnson, and from a variety of different gospel traditions — prewar "holy roller" music, gospel blues singers like Reverend Gary Davis, "golden age" gospel groups like the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi or the Dixie Hummingbirds. (Frankly, he also seems to be influenced a lot by carnival barkers, old radio and movie announcers, and auctioneers, but it's a little harder to sit down with a CD of that stuff.) For his instrumental arrangements, he borrows too from New Orleans brass bands and the weird gypsy/ragtime hybrid we think of as "circus music."

One of the interesting things about Tom Waits's voice is how varied it is. He'll change it from track to track on an album — raspy on one, low and gravelly on another, high and cracked on a third, and so on. When he puts on different voices, he does it to refer back to the singing styles of older artists, just like a DJ might drop in an 808 bassline or a Hammond organ to refer to older styles of dance music. You don't have to be conscously familiar with the references; you can be blissfully unaware of anything recorded before 1980 and still have the vague sense that "Come On Up to the House" sounds like a gospel hymn or "Jesus Gonna Be Here" sounds like a street preacher. But if you find that you're just not getting it, yeah, I'd suggest going back to the source and working forwards.

(Of course, you could find that you can't stand old blues and gospel either. I don't know if there's a cure for that, but at least you'll have proved yourself consistent.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:57 AM on November 29, 2006


I have tried for 20 years to like Tom Waits to no avail and I think it is perfectly appropriate to say it's a cult.

Maybe some input on why it's a cult or why you don't like it in order to address the actual question here rather than plopping in with turds. I don't like french toast at all despite trying to like it for 36 years but I don't think there's a french toast cult.
posted by spicynuts at 8:57 AM on November 29, 2006


(On re-reading, I think the comparisons to Dylan are pretty apt. Bob Dylan's voice also makes a lot more sense if you know the early country and blues artists he's trying to mimic. I couldn't stand his recordings until I started listening to old time appalachian music, and then it all fell into place.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:59 AM on November 29, 2006


Same as stated before -- its a combination of his style, lyrics, and sound. I'm a fan.
posted by jerseygirl at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2006


I have to agree with the comments that Tom may just be an acquired taste that some people never aquire. spicynuts and others have really hit on the aspect of performance, of theatrics, in his singing voice and that he's using it to excess as part of his storytelling. Think of it as a break from all the perfect, polished singing voices out there, think of it as a character in the song. This is how I got myself to really love John Darnielle and others with odd, on-the-surface-unappealling singing voices. I am however, still working on Tom Waits and take him in small doses. His will never be the kind of music I can listen to all the time anyway, and I think that's okay. There's a time and place and mood for all kinds of music.

As a (maybe fun) aside: I went to elementary school for a brief time with Casey, one of Tom Waits' sons, and I do agree that Tom's voice has gotten more gruff in the last half a decade. His speaking voice as I remember was a bit rough but nothing like his music. But then, there are about eight years between the time of my hearing him speak semi-regularly and that of starting to listen to his music. I'd like to think it supports the "character" idea of his singing, if he doesn't sound like that all the time.
posted by nelleish at 9:18 AM on November 29, 2006


Man, The Daily Show performance of 'The Day After Tomorrow' was amazing. Heartbreaking.

'Scooby Doo?'

I guess I'm hearing it much, much differently. I'd never heard that song - at first, I thought it was a love song about a man traveling apart from his love. Then, later in the song, I realized it was a soldier fighting and bleeding apart from his love and it just struck so many chords within me I felt like weeping.

Needless to say, I plan on taking a long, second look at his body of work that I've just allowed to pass by unheard.
posted by NationalKato at 9:21 AM on November 29, 2006


It's perfectly appropriate, Xurando, to call you an asshole.

No, it's really not. It is however appropriate to call him out on making useless comments in the thread.
posted by spicynuts at 9:24 AM on November 29, 2006


I liked Waits until I heard Beefheart.

and "indeed a lot of Waits appeal for me is this Tin Pan Alley, Brechtian character he invented" is a lot of why he doesn't appeal to me.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:26 AM on November 29, 2006


I'm still working on appreciating actually listening to a Tom Waits song (beyond "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" which is on a mix cd someone gave me and thus mildly acclimatizing), but I already really enjoy reading the lyrics (Which, oddly enough, for "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You", aren't that mindblowing, but probably because it's not his original song.). When I read some of his lyrics, though, I think I understand why people who have fully developed their Waitsian palate enjoy him so much.
posted by redsparkler at 9:28 AM on November 29, 2006


If his voice is a barrier start with the first few albums before his voice became so gruff, The Early Years and Closing Time feature a gravel-free vocal Tom that might be the opening you need.
posted by Cosine at 9:30 AM on November 29, 2006


Something Dylan and Waits have in common is that they're often seen as portraying characters. You'll hear words like "mythic" tossed around a lot. They're seen as more than just some guy on stage singing a song. They're taken to represent something larger. So when Dylan sings in his raspy, off key voice, you're supposed to hear voices from legends and fables, half crazy bearded mountain men, hobos, drifters, miners, losers, traveling minstrels... the list goes on. Another word you hear a lot in reference to Dylan is "authentic." Joan Baez probably believes every single word she sings, but her voice is too pretty, too refined to be fully trusted. It might just be an act. Dylan's voice, on the other hand, sounds like he fuckin' means it and really lived it. Even when he doesn't and didn't.

If you went back in a time machine to 1935 and found yourself in a poverty stricken, half abandoned town where everything was covered in dirt and there was some lazy guitarist on the side of the road, hat pulled over his eyes, leaning back in his chair, tip jar on the sidewalk next to him, singing about being hungry and running from the police and how an honest man couldn't get a fair shake, what would that guy sound like? Certainly not like Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Morrisey, or Little Richard. He'd sound like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits.

So maybe the short answer to your question is that Tom and Bob, while not blessed with beautiful voices, possess a very rare quality. This quality may not have a name, but it has something to do with taking a certain type of story and making it real.

A friend of mine, comparing the Rod Stewart version of Down Town Train to the Tom Waits original, pointed out that "when Tom's totally destroyed voice hits that first chorus, we know he has no chance with this girl." He contrasted this with the Stewart version which was much prettier and therefore left us with the hope that the narrator might, in fact, get to talk to the girl on the train. That's not necessarily bad, of course, but it's different. Waits was able to give us certain shades of meaning that Stewart just couldn't. And this is true across the board for both Waits and Dylan; they can always make the song mean things that other singers just can't.
posted by Clay201 at 9:35 AM on November 29, 2006 [2 favorites]


This which I am about to say read like so much Pitchfork wank, and I apologize, but I haven't seen it said above and I think it gets to the point:

Tom Waits is 100% theater in both song material and vocal delivery. His vocal style is well matched to his song content: both are created archetypes which feel real but speak of nothing specifically real. Damn good theater such as Waits provides can feel a lot more real than an attempt to be "real" like, say, Al Green, who is a way better singer, but lacks the involvement that only fiction can provide.

Al Green is like a very well produced documentary, while Tom Waits is like a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. I have to be in the mood for Al Green; Tom Waits, for his fake realness, is always good to go.
posted by dong_resin at 9:45 AM on November 29, 2006


Listen to his take on Waltzing Matilda
posted by Raybun at 9:46 AM on November 29, 2006


I hated Waits when I first heard him. I then fell in love with his music and bought everything he'd done (this was in 1988 or so). I don't think he's made a worthwhile album in 15 years, however. I urge you to check out his early stuff and listen to it a few times, as others have suggested.

Those who say they like Waits for lyrics and sound combined, I suggest you check out Man Man. (mp3). I've heard them called a poor man's Waits, but I think they both have their pluses.
posted by dobbs at 9:50 AM on November 29, 2006


And this is true across the board for both Waits and Dylan; they can always make the song mean things that other singers just can't.

You'll find this with many distinctly-voiced artists who take on other songwriter's works - whether it's Gary Jules' version of 'Mad World' or Cat Power's version of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' or any other in a long list of unique takes on original songs.
posted by NationalKato at 9:51 AM on November 29, 2006


Donger you maybe didn't read many of the responses above carefully enough. Many posts have emphasized the theater aspect.
posted by spicynuts at 9:52 AM on November 29, 2006


If you went back in a time machine to 1935 and found yourself in a poverty stricken, half abandoned town where everything was covered in dirt and there was some lazy guitarist on the side of the road, hat pulled over his eyes,

Indeed, if you listen to many of the songs that Alan Lomax recorded for compliations like Songs of the South, what you hear is ordinary people on their front porches belting out dirges or gospel music in warbly, cracked, off-kilter voices. Music is expression first and foremost, not a formula patented by perfect pitch mellefluent divas - it exists for everyone and I wish we lived in an age when more people felt they could sit on their porches and sing anything they wanted.
posted by spicynuts at 9:57 AM on November 29, 2006


dobbs: You seriously don't think 'Mule Variations' is a worthwhile album? wow
posted by Cosine at 10:14 AM on November 29, 2006


"I wish we lived in an age when more people felt they could sit on their porches and sing anything they wanted."

I wish Dylan and Waits felt that way, instead of working so assiduously to acquire the schtick of their heroes and influences.

No offense, they are talented people and give pleasure and meaning to many in their songs, but their theater/affectations are symptoms of the trend you refer to in your comment, I think, the trend away from amateurism and community (local?) usefulness of music.

Not a trend we can change, probably, and maybe not even a bad one, but one that I don't really appreciate.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:17 AM on November 29, 2006


First, regarding Tom Waits specifically:

One of the big parts of his art is his ability to manipulate his voice. There's a part of it that's always seemed a little campy to me, too, but the fact of the matter is that he actually has a beautiful voice when it comes down to it. It's important to note that he doesn't do the same thing for every song, much less every album. Take SwordFishTrombones, for example, which is my favorite of his records. His vocal range there is everything from old-woman-like to grizzled to soft and clear. The latter tone is expressed on a great tune called "Johnsburg, Illinois," a song which you might try if you want to hear what Tom sounds like when he's trying to sing beautifully. It's really gorgeous, and it shows that he shouldn't be underestimated in his vocal skill. In other words, there seems to be some reason why he sings the way he does; he wasn't born with that voice.

Which brings me to my next point: why does Tom Waits sing the way he does? Because he looks to a long tradition of gruff singers in American music. This stretches back to the dark, obscure roots of blues, but it was founded as a tradition in popular music by Louis Armstrong. Note that Stevie Wonder, who has a superb and clean singing voice, often growled (say in "As" from Songs in the Key of Life) to good effect. Tom is evoking that tradition, and creating a character for himself. Dylan did this, too.

Which brings me to:

limeonaire: "I have the same issue as the OP—I find a disarming charm about Tom Waits the character, but I can't get past that voice. I think the voice has character, but I don't want to listen to it try to sing. Ditto Dylan—the mythology built up around him is impressive and interesting (though I don't necessarily find him to be the lyrical genius many say he is), but his voice...it just doesn't work for me. Hendrix' version of his "All Along The Watchtower" is one of my favorite songs, but that's because it's Hendrix, complete with brilliant guitar work and raw-yet-melodic singing.

If Dylan's voice were just a little more melodic, like his son Jakob's, I could deal with it. But...it's not, and I can't listen to it."


If gruff voices simply turn you off, then you should try to get past that, because you're writing off the majority of American music, from Louis Armstrong on down. The quality of the voice, the haggard sound, is part of the package; it expresses the weight of the world, and the credibility of the singer. It has a democratic quality to it-- American music is full of singers who aren't supposed to be polished vocalists-- but it also expresses the ability of one person to rise above, and to sing a song despite inborne limitations. In short, if you're looking for lilting Irish tenors, you probably ought to look elsewhere. And, besides, only one of those has been even mildly successful in the last thirty years. (Although I like him a great deal.)

Finally, if, like limeonaire, you have a problem seeing Bob as melodic, then you should listen to Nashville Skyline, on which Bob sings melodically throughout. Or if, again like limeonaire, you find Bob to be "not the lyrical genius many say he is," you should listen to Blood on the Tracks, which shows that he is a deeply sincere and skilled songwriter head and shoulders above the rest. And if, once again like limeonaire, you actually like the sound of Jakob Dylan's voice, I probably can't help you.

One last note:

hermitosis: "I tend to like singers who explore surprising vocal choices that many think are too jarring or ugly to be enjoyable. Most performers incorporate this style at times, but some have made a career out of it: Björk..."

Well, no. Bjork didn't make a career out of exploring surprising vocal choices; she made a career out of ripping off Ari Up.

posted by koeselitz at 10:29 AM on November 29, 2006


Thanks, y'all. I'm reading Tobbaco Road at the moment. Maybe I'll combine it with some Waits.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 10:31 AM on November 29, 2006


I wasn't a fan of Waits until I saw his Austin City Limits performance. The combination of theatrical visuals and his unique sound were a perfect fit to my own lopsided view of music, and I've been a raving fanboy ever since.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:34 AM on November 29, 2006


On preview:

Joseph Gurl: "I wish Dylan and Waits felt that way, instead of working so assiduously to acquire the schtick of their heroes and influences.

No offense, they are talented people and give pleasure and meaning to many in their songs, but their theater/affectations are symptoms of the trend you refer to in your comment, I think, the trend away from amateurism and community (local?) usefulness of music.

Not a trend we can change, probably, and maybe not even a bad one, but one that I don't really appreciate."


Good point. I feel, however, as though there are times when Dylan even Waits don't simply imitate, but stretch beyond their fakery into true expression. Some people are attracted to the ambiguity between actual expression and mere theater, but I'm not; it seems like a cynical game which really only ends with "nobody's really saying anything here."

At least in the case of Dylan, I'd point out that most really serious Dylan fans usually seem to point to Blood on the Tracks as his best, an album that shows little or no influence-quoting or voice-obscuring. Dylan isn't a great artist because he's able to be obscure; he's a great artist because there are times when he's less obscure than anybody else.
posted by koeselitz at 10:39 AM on November 29, 2006


ok, koeselitz, I can agree to that. At his best, Dylan far transcends his carefully studied personal, and I'll agree that B on the Ts is a good example.

Read the Dylan autobio recently (given to me) though, and it's pretty off-putting just how consciously he created his persona.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:45 AM on November 29, 2006


So you guys are arguing that Dylan only becomes great when he moves to the mainstream, slickly produced love songs of Blood on the Tracks? Interesting but this is turning into a Dylan derail. I'd argue that Waits has never turned out an album that has the commercial slickness of Blood on the Tracks and therefore is more true to his roots than Dylan (and I love Dylan very much).
posted by spicynuts at 11:38 AM on November 29, 2006


I was drawn to his music the first time I heard it, which was some tracks from Swordfishtrombones ("Clap Hands," for one) and Rain Dogs (pretty much every track is a winner, and my friends who don't care much for Wait's other work tend to like something on this disc).

Tom's music and his vocal style has taken several turns over the course of his career. Early stuff, like his first album, Closing Time is full of fairly melodic piano balads and the singing not very raspy at all. Later stuff, especially after the switch to Island records, gets noisier and stranger, both in instrumentation and in the types of voices he uses.

So you might start with some of the earlier, more melodic stuff. Or Blue Valentine, which is a straight-up blues album. Wait's music is varied enough that you might like one of his periods quite a bit more than others.

But it's perfectly okay to not like Tom Wait's music. It might just not appeal to you. I don't see what you'd gain by forcing yourself to like it (if that's even possible).
posted by wheat at 12:16 PM on November 29, 2006


Everyone I know that likes Tom Waits (including me) at one point hated his music. I remember when an old boss of mine at some crappy mall retail job would play Bone Machine after close and it drove me up the wall. Years later, I came back to the same album via friends and found that I really dug it.

His most recent album really crystalizes the Three Faces of Tom in the Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards discs. I like it, but would like it even more if I had not been spending the past ten years collecting the compelations that many of those songs originally appeared on. I'm looking at you, Little Drop of Poison. Album-only on iTunes my ass!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:16 PM on November 29, 2006


You might want to start with some of the ballads, which are bluesy and easier to relate to than the Frank's Wild Years, Bone Machine-type stuff. Try "Grapefruit Moon," "Old Shoes," "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," "Waltzing Matilda," "Shiver Me Timbers," "Please Call Me, Baby," "Fish and Bird," or "Alice."

I started to love Tom Waits when I started following the narrative of each album, really listening to not only the lyrics but the ways sound fleshes out the scene. Some of the really brash Swordfishtrombones stuff isn't what I'll put on after a day at work, but I love to listen a Tom Waits album through.
posted by hamster at 12:51 PM on November 29, 2006


I really think it's somewhat cultish in that some can appreciate his shtick and others can't, no matter how hard they try. I'm a huge fan of Tom Waits but I can't stand the Decemberists, for example, even though they both follow a quirky theatrical form.
posted by lemur at 1:01 PM on November 29, 2006


Here's something you might try: Get a copy of Frank's Wild Years and listen to both versions of the song "Innocent When You Dream." The first version on the album (I think it's the first) is croonier and more melodic. The second is all growly. Through doing this, you may be able to isolate for yourself what Waits is adding to the songs by going gutteral.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:43 PM on November 29, 2006


My brother and his friends have always been die-hard fans of Waits. The only song I could ever appreciate was "Jesus Gonna Be Here," but I never voluntarily listened to his music. Back in August, I tried to get tickets to his Orphans tour so that I could make sure my brother would be able to go. Out of blind luck, I got front row. To say that it was the most amazing performance I had ever seen would be an incredibe understatement. The man is a God on stage, and I say that as a person who has never really been able to appreciate live music.. from anyone. It was probably one of the top five best experiences of my entire life.

A month later, my friend gave me the cd of his performance in Memphis. I listened to about two songs and then turned it off and haven't listened since. In my opinion, he's more of a storyteller than a singer, and that's just something that doesn't come across in speakers (at least for me.) However, if he tours again, I will kick, fight, claw, and rob to get more tickets. If you get the opportunity, you should do the same.
posted by Ugh at 4:21 PM on November 29, 2006


It's probably already been mentioned but the song that made me say "I like Tom Waits" rather than just "I know who Tom Waits is" was "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" (off the album Blue Valentine). Originally I heard it actually covered by someone with a much prettier voice, which was nice, and the lyrics are what caught me. When I sought out the original it just blew me away. Liking one song, or liking a similar artist and then hearing it at the right time is totally key to liking someone like Waits, and then still you might not be interested in half of their work, but you still have that in. And finally "getting" something that didn't work for you before, is a far more satisfying experience than not liking it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 4:57 PM on November 29, 2006


From 30 years of listening to Tom Waits all I can say is that it's and atmosphere thing. You really need to be deeply hung over on a Sunday morning at 4 AM when your girlfriend has just thrown you out for the last time and there is no one else in the world who is willing to listen to you whine about the pain of it all. Perfect. Soul mate. Keep driving and listen to the music.
posted by ptm at 2:06 AM on November 30, 2006


From 30 years of listening to Tom Waits all I can say is that it's an atmosphere thing. You really need to be deeply hung over on a Sunday morning at 4 AM when your girlfriend has just thrown you out for the last time and there is no one else in the world who is willing to listen to you whine about the pain of it all. Perfect. Soul mate. Keep driving and listen to the music.
posted by ptm at 2:31 AM on November 30, 2006


"And the El train came tumbling across the trestles, and it sounded like the ghost of Gene Krupa with an overhead cam and glasspacks"
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:25 AM on November 30, 2006


"Nothin' on her a hundred dollars wouldn't fix."
I've promised not to use that line at the Christmas party again this year.
posted by hal9k at 7:47 AM on December 1, 2006


There's also the position (that I haven't seen represented here) that Tom Waits is often good, but wildly over-rated. It's possible to enjoy the weirdness of Phillipino Box Spring Hog or What's He Building and the noir croon of Little Drop of Poison and still think that a lot of his Weil-influenced caberet is still gimmicky crap.
So perhaps the question isn't "why do people like Tom Waits" but rather "Why do people like ALL Tom Waits?" And the answer to that is that he's a yuppie cult for people who think they're too edgy for Warren Zevon.
posted by klangklangston at 9:04 AM on December 1, 2006


he's a yuppie cult

heehee. He said it was just an act on Daily Show, during the interview. I only go for the gutteral stuff, I tend to skip by the tracks where he's being melodic. But I've noticed the softer tracks are good to put in the mix toward the end of a drunken party. So maybe the question is what if you're too edgy for Tom Waits?

You can't make yourself like a certain artist or genre. The best you can do is keep an open mind and like as much music as you can. When I was younger, I hated a lot of music subgenre category x. I found it self indulgent and unpredictably annoying. Then one day someone put on certain piece of music at just the right time, and it just clicked and I got it. But everyone is going to have their own prejudices.

I still don't like lobster, cilantro, or showtunes, although from what I understand, they are all quite popular. I'm pretty sure it's because of cults.
posted by Area Control at 5:33 PM on December 1, 2006


Oh, hey. This MeFi Music mashup post is just incredibly relevant to this discussion. And might actually help the original poster in his quest.

Tom Waits "I'm Still Here" with Sarah Slean's "Your Wish is My Wish"
by Metafilter dude Milkman Dan.
posted by Area Control at 6:03 PM on December 1, 2006


For the unitiated I recommend "Nighthawks at the Diner" from back in 1975. It is a supremely well recorded live performance with one very hot band backing him up. Even if you end up not liking his singing you can't help but love the band, and his singing is much clearer, less gravely than later stuff. This is such a great sounding recording it is one of the ones I typically will take to audition a new piece of audio gear. It is certainly one of the best records I own. Even people who don't typically like Tom seem to like this recording.
posted by caddis at 6:46 PM on December 1, 2006


dobbs: You seriously don't think 'Mule Variations' is a worthwhile album? wow

I buy everything Waits releases. For everything since Bone Machine, I'd have to say I bore of them all very easily. I can understand others liking them, but they just don't click with me. I think a lot of people's opinoins of Waits' albums depends when they started listening to him. Those who came to him later in the game (which is the majority of people I know) seem to think the recent stuff is as good as the early. I just don't agree. He's like the VC Andrews of musicians at this point. *ducks*
posted by dobbs at 7:28 PM on December 3, 2006


Hope it's not to late. Here
posted by micayetoca at 6:19 AM on December 9, 2006


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