Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Closing Time: A Song-By-Song Discussion

General Notes

Well, if we're going to embark on a big, scary project together, we might as well start in some familiar territory. Familiar territory for me, I should say... maybe you're familiar with Tom Waits' debut album, maybe you're not; frankly, it doesn't matter. Because, after all, we're here to learn. And by "we," I of course mean "you." I know everything. (doye)

So yes, "Closing Time." The first album put out by one Mr. Tom Waits, a musician who's songs have been the soundtrack for some of the worst, darkest periods of my life. I've talked in the past about my drinking days... the six-month Long Weekend that was my time in LA, specifically... and if you were ever curious as to what was on my stereo as I sat alone on a futon with a bottle of Jim Beam and a growing suspicion that I'd made a horrible mistake, well, here it is. And away we go...

NOTE: Just so we're clear about this... the meaning given behind these songs, as well as the songs off any album I cover in the future, are MY interpretations. Whether or not they're ACTUALLY about what I say they're about is irrelevant, though I will check what sources I can find just so I don't look like a total dipshit. But be warned, if my way's more interesting, that's the way we're headed.

2ND NOTE: Here's the whole album, over at imeem, if you want to listen along with the discussion.

Track 1 - Ol' 55

One of the first things you notice about this album is that Waits' voice isn't all shot to shit like it is on subsequent works. Usually, he sounds like a car-crash bag of rocks sung up from the bowels of drunkard hell. On this album, and on this song, he sounds... well... normal, I guess. There's still some twinge there... a little gravel, a little growl... but it's not quite the full-throated choke and snarl to come. Which, of course, makes this his most accessible album; a good entry point into his catalogue, should you choose to walk down that particular musical road.

Anyway, "Ol' 55"... this is a song about a one-night-only love affair. A quick stop in the road for some doin' it before you've got to be on your way again. But, you know, in a good way. It talks about regret, sure... the narrator wishes he could have stayed a little longer... but the road calls, man, and he's got to answer. Just the way it is. A great start to the album, indeed. Plus, everyone loves a good, old fashioned song about cars.

Incidentally, a year after this album came out, The Eagles covered "Ol' 55" and did so with much greater chart success. Proving once again that people, generally, are idiots who like boring music.

Track 2 - I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You

No shit, this is one of my all time favorite songs. It's the quintessential Tom Waits ballad, concerning as it does the aspects of falling in love in a barroom environment, and it is seriously embarrassing how badly I wanted the lyrics of this song to become my life. There was a time, kiddos, where I thought of myself as this sort of drunken Lothario... a liquor-soaked lover man who'd been around the block and knew the score and was wise in the ways of women and blah... blah... BLAH. It was all crap, of course; I knew nothing then and I know nothing now. But man, did this song do a number on me. It showed me a very particular kind of fantasy world... one that made my ever-worsening drinking problem look downright romantic, and adding romance (imagined or not) to a situation like that only makes it that much harder to shake off. I did, of course... eventually... and with a greater effort than I'm really capable of describing. But the song remains; a sepia-toned, whiskey-stained snapshot of an idyllic, dangerous time from my misspent youth.

Track 3 - Virginia Avenue

Tom Waits at his jazziest and most bluesy... this isn't a bad song at all, but it is the least interesting track on the album. Lyrically, it's pretty straightforward... a shambling drunk is looking for someone to tell his troubles to and isn't having any luck... and musically, it sounds very much of the late-50s, seedy nightclub world. As a mood piece meant to reflect a bygone era, it works just fine. But in that same regard, it's also sort of generic; it's a song you could find on a number of albums from the same time period. If it were to disappear off of "Closing Time" due to some sort of electromagnetic anomaly that only targeted the third song on early-70s Asylum Records-produced albums, it wouldn't be particularly missed.

Track 4 - Old Shoes (& Postcards)

Another song about leaving a woman behind as "the road calls me, dear;" a running theme, don't ya know. It's also a song that finds Tom Waits doing his best Bob Dylan impression, swapping out his blues-tinged piano for a folk-rock guitar and a loose, freewheelin' rhythm section. I wouldn't go so far as to call "Old Shoes" a great song or anything, but it feels a lot like a sunny-day road trip through pretty scenery somewhere out West. Above all else, it's catchy... there is a very distinct hook and this is important because, as Waits' career progressed, he abandoned traditional pop-song stylings for more complicated, inscrutable (though no less interesting) fare. Enjoy it while it lasts, in other words.

Track 5 - Midnight Lullaby

This is exactly what it says it is... a lullaby. On the surface, it's not that interesting of a song; it fits into the same bluesy mold as "Virgina Avenue," but with lyrics that are even less engaging. Unless, of course, you dig a little deeper into what exactly this song is all about. Superficially, it appears to be a song sung to a child who's trying to fall asleep. But, viewed from another, slightly skeezy-ier angle, it's ACTUALLY a song sung by an older man to his younger lover... nineteen or twenty, let's say... telling her to remember this time they've had together, to learn from it as she grows up and out of his (the narrator's) life. It's all about finding the layers, folks, even if they're... you know... totally made up.

Track 6 - Martha

Tom Waits pioneered the mass-marketing of Sad Old Bastard music to the world at large and this song is quite possibly his finest achievement in that particular subset of musical sorrow. The song is structured as a phone call from an old man, contacting the love of his life long after they've parted company, married other people, and generally gotten on with their lives. He tells her, in no uncertain terms, that she's always been the girl he's loved... that he was too immature to hold on to her when he had her... but that he'd like to take her out for coffee, just to talk about it all one last time. It is, in a word, heartbreaking. Lyrically, Waits has never been stronger... it's an evocative song like a shotgun blast to the face... and he's in a fine, emotive voice as well. The chorus says it all, I think:

And those were the days of roses,
Poetry and prose and Martha
All I had was you and all you had was me.
There was no tomorrows,
We'd packed away our sorrows
And we saved them for a rainy day.

Track 7 - Rosie

A great lost-love song; one that I listened to a lot late at night after a break up that was entirely my doing. Which makes the fact that I chose this particular song to binge on so totally fucked up. It's a guy singing about how his woman left him... left him with only a melody... and yet there I was, the guy who actually did the leaving, listening to this song and imagining that the girl I'd just left felt this way about me. How fucking narcissistic can you get? I blame the booze, but goddamn if that doesn't speak to something fundamentally broken within me. Anyway... Oh, also, the lyrics mentions a lazy old tomcat, which for some reason I find amusing. You don't hear a lot about tomcats these days, like they only existed in the past.

Track 8 - Lonely

The word "lonely" appears 31 times in the lyrics. Given that, it's unsurprising that this is a song about loneliness. Not anyone's favorite from the Waits catalogue by any stretch, but I do appreciate the fact that it sounds like it's being mumbled by a drunk guy on a bar stool right before he passes out into a puddle of his own sick.

Track 9 - Ice Cream Man

Seriously upbeat little number about the titular Ice Cream Man and his delivery of said goods. But, of course, we're not really talking about frozen treats here. Sample lyrics:

I got a cherry Popsicle right on time
I got a big stick, momma, that'll blow your mind

Um... yes. There's a joke in there somewhere about a "brain freeze," I'm sure, but I'm just not clever enough to pin it down.

Track 10 - Little Trip To Heaven

Tom Waits, a piano, and a backing horn for flavor... that's all it takes, kiddos, to create a ballad that makes this long-time loser want to get down on his knees and beg his girlfriend (Girlfriend) to please, for fucks sake, marry him... make him the luckiest son of a gun ever to live life looking through the bottom of a beer glass. It's romantic times a million cubed to infinity and beyond. I have this secret, somewhat-shameful fantasy of singing this song to Girlfriend at our wedding while all of our respective families look on awkwardly because, you know, I'm not that great of a singer or anything and no one else has ever heard of this song besides me and my fellow record store nerds. But whatever. It takes a lot to inspire gooshy feelings of Care Bear love in ol' C-dog... this song does it big time. Take that as you will.

Track 11 - Grapefruit Moon

And then the bastard DOES IT AGAIN!!! Another ballad, this time with an epic, Broadway feel, talking all about a guy trying to be a better man for the woman that he loves... striving for purity, as it were... and not doing all that well but fucking trying because he's in love and SERIOUSLY, Tom Waits was singing about me and my life back in the early 70s like an alcoholic Nostradamus and he didn't even know it. Or maybe he was singing about himself and he and I are so totally alike, we should be best friends or something. Yeah, that's probably it. Tom Waits and I are best friends, you guys!!!

Track 12 - Closing Time

An instrumental to close out the album. I recall hearing this tune as the booze finally got the better of me, sending me off into a drunken slumber only to awaken with a hangover like an atom bomb as I prepared to start the whole process over again. It's a good piece of music for that. And the same can be said for the album as a whole.


Blogger Todd said...

Most excellent review. iTunes should give you a commission!

Also, didn't Scarlett Johansson cover some of these? Have you heard those?

2:16 PM  
Blogger Clinton said...

Thanks! I agree, major corporations should give me money for all the things I do.

And yes, she did a whole CD of Tom Waits covers. It was not good. Though she is still quite hot.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous JustinS said...

Good God, why would someone think having her sing Tom Waits songs was a good idea?

Unless there's a video out there of her doing 'Pasties and a G-String' or something... That would pretty much explain everything.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're a big Tom Waits fan, you should check out my friends' band Dead Man's Bones. They only have two songs up on their myspace page, but check them out, they definitely possess a waits' quality.

(this isn't a shameless plug - i genuinely think you'll like their offerings)


11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh yeah - http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=154853068&MyToken=c4dc69d5-c3cd-4d9c-a903-07fb92941bf4


12:02 AM  
Blogger Clinton said...

Justin... I can only imagine that Tom Waits was paid in sexual favors from Scarlett herself. Otherwise, it makes no sense.

Mike... Thanks for the tip, dude! Will totally check that out.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Clinton said...

Mike... Listened to the band. Good stuff! I got more of a Nick Cave-ish vibe than a Tom Waits one, but nonetheless, quite listenable. Thanks again!

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you liked it.

-way different vibe but my other friends' band, Miss Derringer, is playing a free show tonight at The Annex at 10:15. You should check it out. Here's their webpage: http://www.missderringer.com/splash.html

and their myspace:

(I should quit my job and just do PR for my friends)


1:31 PM  
Anonymous Vinny said...

To me, Grapefruit Moon means a remebered chance of love or redemption which slipped past. Possibly through drink, or drugs, but a time when you connected with another but were in no condition to fully respond, maybe were clumbsy with your words or deeds...and the chance slipped by.
The regret of a love (which in your recollection, you fully believe would have been true, and possibly your redemption) which passed you by. A turning point in life you tried to take too late.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Clinton said...

That sounds reasonable enough... much more so than what I said. Thanks, dude!

10:28 AM  
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