Musical Storytelling: Why I Love Tom Waits

Like most teenagers, when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and so on, I let my taste in music define everything about me. I wanted it to be that way! I dressed a certain way, hung out with certain people, worked at a record store, and spent silly amounts of time listening to the lyrics of alternative rock gods and affirming how life-changing they were. I was a typical teenager in that way and hey, we can’t be too embarrassed about those moments in our lives, right? They help shape us into who we become as adults.

After high school when I realized that having a particular taste in music meant absolutely nothing about someone’s character or ability to be a decent human being, I branched out a bit and discovered new music. These days, I can’t categorize the type of music I listen to, since there just isn’t one type, and regardless, my favorite music doesn’t define me. I’m too old for that. When people ask me what kind of music I like, though, I only have one response.

I love Tom Waits.

Tom Waits is an old dude. He’s in his sixties and has been making music since 1972. A critic once describe Waits’ voice as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in a smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over by a car.” As unflattering as that sounds, Waits’ voice is one of his greatest strengths. It’s an acquired taste and is surely not for everyone. I love him not only for his unique voice and his creative uses of various instruments though, but for the stories he tells.

Tom Waits, first and foremost, is a storyteller. His songs have characters, characters who have thoughts, feelings, problems, conflicts, and crisis moments, like Frank from “Frank’s Wild Years,” off the album Swordfishtrombones, or the story of a girl on her own for the first time who gets hustled–and hurt–by a man on the streets of Chicago in “$29.00,” from the jazzier, bluesier album Blue Valentines. “Cemetary Polka,” from one of Waits’ most successful albums, Rain Dogs, is a huge fan favorite and this video uses some really cool visual imagery and text to tell the story. Waits has referred to “Cemetary Polka” as the song to listen to before your next family reunion.

One of my favorite Tom Waits story-songs, though, has to be “Live Circus,” which I was lucky enough to see him perform during his 2008 Glitter and Doom tour.

The tour was one of the first tours he had performed in years. Waits does not tour frequently, so when he does, people are quick to jump on tickets and clamor for a chance to see him weave his tales, accompanied by melody and music. “Live Circus” is fun, spooky, funny, odd, and exhilarating. It was a wonderful thing to see him perform it live.

When I find myself stuck with a character or story I just can’t seem to get right, I put on some Tom Waits for inspiration. His stories almost always get my mind moving and help me break out of writer’s block as well as reading a great book does.

It’s funny, when I respond to the “what kind of music do you like?” question with “Tom Waits,” people who are unfamiliar with him are perplexed. After all, Tom Waits isn’t a genre of music, but as far as I’m concerned, he might as well be. Other Tom fans totally get it. There’s no one out there like him, and few musicians can tell stories with his ease and finesse.

Who are some of your favorite musician/storytellers?


About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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One Response to Musical Storytelling: Why I Love Tom Waits

  1. I’m working on a new assignment about obsession, so this morning I was writing about my favorite musician, Jenny Lewis. The lyrics may not always be the most poetic, but they are sincere, and the songs always tell stories.

    I need for music to tell me stories through the lyrics, the tone, and the music itself. If you listen closely, every song tells a story by using an introduction, playing with chapters and refrains and then building up to a climax (usually the bridge) that rocks-out and gets everyone out of their seats. As you can guess, I’m a sucker for a ballad, but it doesn’t have to be slow and quiet.

    Here’s Jenny Lewis performing “The Next Messiah” from her 2009 album Acid Tongue. It’s an amateur video taken by adamryan1121. I found it on YouTube.

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