Any new about Tom Waits is big news in the Tom Waits community. We all forage for our little nuggets of fascination and reassurance that we backed the right guy when we became lifelong obsessive fans all those years ago.
This feature in T, the New York Times style magazine, published at the beginning of March caused a ripple of excitement. Could Tom’s involvement could be a pre-cursor to him announcing work on a new album or, miracle of miracles, a tour? Unlikely. We would have – should have – picked up on rumours, otherwise what is the point of being obsessive fans, right?
The thing that initially struck me about the feature, when I was in tl;dr mode, was that each photo of our man was captioned: “Tom Waits in his own clothes.” Waits has long had a staunch objection to lending out his personal brand for advertising purposes, after an early experience (promoting dog food) left him feeling as if he had betrayed himself. He famously and successfully sued Frito-Lay for using an imitation of his voice in what he dubbed a “corn chip sermon” and Volkswagen-Audi for using ‘Innocent When You Dream’ in an ad aired in Spain, saying, “Commercials are an unnatural use of my work. It’s like having a cow’s udder sewn to the side of my face. Painful and humiliating.” So I am not surprised he refused to dress up in expensive designer gear (the total price of the clothes for the other two: $8,560 incidentally!) and I am probably just being very cynical about the default objectives of a publication when I wonder why they still went ahead and ‘booked’ him.
Reading the whole piece carefully was a rewarding experience. My respect for the NYT grows almost daily as it rises above the dross of some American media and the fact that intelligent and nuanced writers such as Wyatt Mason are featured in a style section indicates a solid strategy to ensure that high quality journalism remains viable commercially.
Here were my take-aways…
Genre and medium
Mason writes of the pervasive properties of music compared with other mediums: A novel cannot assault you while you wait in line at the supermarket; a painting cannot reach out and turn your head as you walk on by; a poem’s feet cannot chase you down the street; a movie cannot screen itself. A song, though, can steal upon you in the dark, on a road, far from home, blow out your tires and leave you sobbing, in gratitude, at the wheel. All other art lives and dies in a medium that mandates we engage if we are to receive its gifts. Songs live in the air. Ears don’t have lids that can keep the songs there.
This led me to mull on the idea that whilst this all may be true (although only to a certain extent), photography has an advantage in that, barring some extremes, as a medium it is unlikely to alienate audiences due to its genre in the way that, say, rap music does. I was blown away by Lamar’s powerful performance at the Grammy’s but I know many people who would find it to have been much too shouty. Of course, this is only important when an artist wants to reach multiple audiences but in the case of political messages it could be a consideration.
Inspiration and obligation
Wyatt writes about a press conference where Leonard Cohen was asked about a lyric in his song ‘You Want it Darker’: A Hebrew word that appears in the Old Testament, hineni — הנני : “Here I am” — is said by Moses and Abraham and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness. The reporter wanted to know from Cohen about the moment that inspired the line. “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
Most artists have no choice but to keep expressing themselves through their art. I used to feel it was a-duty-having-been-given-a-talent but that was before I stopped believing in a god. I still think artists have an obligation but it is to humanity; it is some kind of bond with the universe and with ourselves. It can feel like a vague need, sometimes a burden, a compulsion, a liability. For me, the best slant is to consider it to be a lifelong commitment. Of course, the exact moment when the ’emergency becomes articulate’ is different for everyone.
Terry Pratchett has often pondered on chance and inspiration and how often it can be missed by the people most suited to exploit it. In his 1993 Discworld novel Men at Arms he writes, “Inspirations sleet through the universe continuously. Their destination, as if they cared, is the right mind in the right place at the right time. They hit the right neuron, there’s a chain reaction, and a little while later someone is blinking foolishly in the TV lights and wondering how the hell he came up with the idea of pre-sliced bread in the first place.” His character Leonard of Quirm, fashioned on da Vinci, gives us an inkling of the burden of inspirations: “One of his earliest inventions was an earthed metal nightcap, worn in the hope that the damn things would stop leaving their white-hot trails across his tortured imagination. It seldom worked. He knew the shame of waking up to find the sheets covered with nocturnal sketches of unfamiliar siege engines and novel designs for apple-peeling machines.”
This reminds me to be grateful for any particles of inspiration that happen to land on me and to honour and nurture and develop them, instead of just assuming that everything has been done before and so what is the fucking point? And, take note, they are just particles. The art comes from doing the work. It takes graft and resilience and experimentation and a lot of failure. And we need constantly to furrow fertile ground to be ready for the drizzle.
Tom: “If you want to catch songs you gotta start thinking like one, and making yourself an interesting place for them to land like birds or insects. Once you get two or three tunes together, wherever three or more are gathered, then others come. It’s like a line for a hot dog place, you know? And when there’s four people lined up on the sidewalk, some people will stop and get in line just ’cause there’s a line.”
Beck: “Before I make a body of music or a record or a song, sometimes there’ll just be a feeling for a number of years — something that’s just building or incubating. And I’ve noticed that if I get sidetracked or if I’m not really focused on the music as much, eventually some version of that feeling will come out in somebody else’s music.”
Curiously, Mason asks Beck “if there was a certain relief in that?” Not for me. I’d be so mad at myself for not acting more quickly to find the gold in the stream. That is part of the metaphysical emergency – do it, make it, share it before someone else does.
Authenticity: finding your voice
“You take a long time finding your own voice,” Waits told me, his speaking voice itself a kind of song, “to find the limits of it or the faraway endless possibilities it may have … Singing is just doing interesting things to the air. Elongating it and twisting it into shapes.”
He speaks about how music – and by extension the creative process – is “emotional, once you transcend the equipment” and this is a big consideration for me right now. I have spent many years consciously separating my ‘art’ (painting and drawing) from my photography. I was very slow to realise that I could make photographs rather than just take them. Now I am trying to spend much more time pre-visualising the images that I want to make. My strong sense is that I need to combine my art skills more with my photography. It would make sense to use Photoshop for a lot of this and I really need to hone my skills there. More importantly, I need to stop letting my ideas be caged by equipment or timing or circumstance.
The amazing thing about Waits is that he makes up almost everything he says in interviews. He’s a compulsive storyteller, a fabulist, a raconteur. Just like he uses his voice as a range of different instruments to suit the song, he uses completely fabricated stories to tell the truth.”We went out to the meadow” is a magical phrase and a beautiful idea that no one in ‘classical music’ seems to have any knowledge of and there is no reference trail on the internet.
I need to learn from this. Something doesn’t have to be presented literally to be authentic. Tom’s songs are full of thoughts and scenes and emotions with which we are all familiar. He chronicles the human experience with universal appeal. His artistic vision is unique and unpredictable and at times, off the chain, but more often than not, it is relatable. And on this occasion I guess he just needed to pretend he was a firefighter to explain how he deals with his preoccupations…“It was an emergency, and when dealing with emergent behavior there is nothing to do but respond. I was in the moment. And it was not the fire I imagined or dreamed of. It was the fire I got.”