Atlanta, GA • 07.05.2008
Well they call me William The Pleaser / I sold opium, fireworks and lead/ Now I’m telling my troubles to strangers/ When the shadows get long I’ll be dead. (Waits, “Lucinda”)
It was with a minor sense of concern — nay, dread — that I awaited this show. Waits had only played Atlanta once in 30 years prior to this (and I missed that one because Ticketmaster is too busy counting surcharges to actually test their freakin’ website, but I digress…), and after the latest debacle — Bob Dylan mumbling through a distorted PA at some shed in the suburbs, color me wary.
I was a fool.
Tom Waits brought his tent show in the Thunder Dome to Atlanta, the last stop of the American wing of the Glitter and Doom tour, and it is without a drop of hyperbole that I say this is one of greatest events I’ve ever witnessed. Tom Waits led his orchestra of dementia weaving and stomping into a presentation of one of the strongest bodies of work our nation has been fortunate enough to create. His peer group is small, for few have even attempted to live and work at the same level of pigheaded abandon as he — Don Van Vliet, of course, Raymond Scott, and perhaps David Thomas of Pere Ubu. It is a land of no compromise, limited public — I was going to say acceptance, but that is too strong — make it public awareness, but endless freedom, the freedom that comes from “nothing left to lose.”
From the opener, a dust raising “Lucinda,” and a thousand moments until the last note shook Atlanta’s incredible Fox Theater, Waits and his insanely talented — and talentedly insane — band never let up a moment. It was described to me as being less a musical concert than a theatrical event, and that is so true. I said dust raising above, and Waits quite literally was performing on some sort of circus ring dais covered, it seems, in some ashy powder that exploded into the air whenever the spirit moved Waits to crash his boot into the floor. It was compelling theater, masquerading as American hybrid rock and roll.
Well we stick our fingers in the ground/ Heave and turn the world around/ Smoke is blacking out the sun/ At night I pray and clean my gun/ The cracked bell rings/ As the ghost bird sings/ And the gods go begging here/ So just open fire/ As you hit the shore/ All is fair in love and war./ Hoist that rag. (Waits, “Hoist That Rag”)
This is social observation of a society that refuses to see. Waits stands alone, shouting in a field like a crazy man. Hazel Motes, in a bowler hat, creates music that you can’t even begin to imagine being written. Rather it was wrought by blood, spewed out in a rush of language, rich in image, compelled by the jangling tempo of the band, a strange amalgamation of all previous musical forms up to this very day. He’s a bluesman, a beat, Desi Arnaz, Elmer Gantry, and every oompah band you vaguely recall from old cartoons. His group is remarkable, but special note is earned by guitarist Omar Torrez, who plays his old Harmony Stratotone as if he was a Flamenco guitarist until about ten minutes before show time, when Tom handed him an electric guitar and growled “Make rude noises and try and keep up” — and keep up he does. “Hoist That Rag” features a solo from Torrez that is literally jaw dropping, a shimmering Gypsy rampage that shakes the room. And all the while, Waits is careening about on his little stand, arms akimbo, looking as if he is about to crawl out his neck and shake hands with himself.
Waits brought on his former bassist Larry Taylor for a few numbers, playing electric guitar, and his fiery soloing on the Sonny Boy Williamsesque “Til The Money Runs Out” was an early highlight, but to pull moments out of a show like this sends the wrong message, for it was all spellbinding, savage and sexy.
Pin your ear to the wisdom post/ Pin your eye to the line/ Never let the weeds get higher/ Than the garden/ Always keep a sapphire in your mind/
Always keep a diamond in your mind/ Got to get behind the mule/ In the morning and plow. (Waits, “Get Behind The Mule”)
Someday Tom Waits will die and we’ll all spend the rest of our days pondering what fresh hell was this, but only a few of us. The rest of society — the citizens — well, they never get stuff like this. It’s too ugly, too raw, too real. But for the four thousand or so people lucky enough to be in that room on that night, they will all understand. Before the show began I pondered the crowd, who were markedly older than most shows I’ve been to — I mean, there were some seriously unhip people here, no offense — but two hours later, when a careening “Singapore” brought the evening to a close, I knew why they had to be here. Because if you had ever gotten the chance to shake hands with the devil and see Tom Waits, you’d do anything to ride that ferris wheel again.
Tom Waits: www.tomwaits.com