Younger Than Yesterday: Rain Dogs
“It’s always the mistakes. Most things begin as a mistake. Most breakthroughs in music come out of a revolution of the form. Someone revolted, and was probably not well-liked. But he ultimately started his own country.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
‘Rain Dogs’ came out in 1985-the year I was born-and for me it is Tom Waits’s masterpiece. The tenth studio album lies at the heart of the ‘Swordfish’ trilogy-1983′s ‘Swordfishtrombones’, 1985′s ‘Rain Dogs’ and ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ in 1987. I think this period in the Waits songbook is one of the most compelling periods in music history. Magic and intrigue-forever the cornerstone of Waits’s songcraft-radiates from the singer-songwriter’s unique blend of genre-defying sound.
‘Rain Dogs’ was inspired by the Waits family moving back to New York that marks the first album he ever composed and recorded away from Los Angeles. The precise location was, in fact, the basement of Columbia Broadcasting. It was here that movie legends like Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles and Bette Davis came to spellbind, telling stories across the airwaves. This included the legendary, near-mythical 1938 production of ‘War Of The Worlds’ by Orson Welles.
TW: “They had all this stuff set up they’d used in the radio days. They had wind machines, and thunder machines, every conceivable device to create movies for the ears.”
The songs of Waits is just that-“movies for the ears”- wherein the case of ‘Rain Dogs’, is focused on “urban dispossessed of New York City”. The cover photograph is one of a series taken by the Swedish photographer Anders Peterson at Cafe Lehmitz in the late 1960′s. The man and woman are called Rose and Lily. The look of the artwork, and the feel of the music shares this magical realm of an Orson Welles production, where Waits is the conductor casting his cast of characters, specifically for the turntable “outside another yellow moon.”
While recording the songs for ‘Rain Dogs’, Waits was simultaneously writing songs for the stage musical of ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ (released two years later). The distinction was clear-‘Frank’s Wild Years’ was for the stage and ‘Rain Dogs’ was for the turntable. Across nineteen songs, Waits made an utterly transcendent work; as Rolling Stone put it at the time: “his finest portrait of the tragic kingdom of the streets.” I feel the songs come from the heart of darkness. The stories originate from the dark end of the street, but, as ever, an everlasting light of hope shines forth.
Waits is an artist in the truest sense. I mean, the range of his songs is simply staggering. His timeless rock ‘n’ roll (‘Big Black Mariah’); divine soul (‘Union Square’); country (‘Blind Love’); heart wrenching ballads (‘Time’); funeral/parade music from the streets of New Orleans (‘Cemetery Polka’, ‘Singapore’); the song that Springsteen never wrote (and Rod Stewart later covered) (‘Downtown Train’); emotion in its rawest form, pouring from the heart of a million pieces (‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’).
Yes, these are just some of the songs from ‘Rain Dogs’ that seep into your consciousness, now and forever more. I think Waits made the comparison that ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ belongs “somewhere between “Eraserhead” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I think this is an accurate reference point for ‘Rain Dogs’-and for the Waits songbook-mixing the strange beauty of David Lynch and the truly endearing work of Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”.
Tom Waits’s life changed after meeting his wife, Kathleen Brennan, in 1980. They met while on set in LA for a Francis Ford Coppola film which Waits starred in and Brennan was the screenwriter. Soon, a song-writing partnership was forged and the music of Waits evolved into a new form-a wholly unique and groundbreaking sound. Amazingly, Waits often jokes about his first eight or so albums-from debut ‘Closing Time’ in ’73 to ‘Heart Attack And Vine’ in the early 80′s-and how he was only finding his feet, scratching at the surface without ever seeping into the hidden depths that lay beneath. It is clear, a new road-steeped in remarkable creativity-was set foot on, circa ’83 onwards:
TW: “You get to an impasse creatively at some point, and you can either ignore it or deal with it. And it’s like anything, you go down a road and. . .hopefully, there’s a series of tunnels. I’d started feeling my music was very separate from myself. My life had changed and my music had stayed pretty much the its own thing. I thought I had to find a way to bring it closer. Not so much with my life as with my imagination.”
The range of utterly compelling sounds on ‘Rain Dogs’ is a pure joy to witness. The instruments of pump organ, guitar and mellotron, and of course the singular voice-exuding the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf that encompasses all of life’s pain, anger, anguish, longing and hope. Cohorts Marc Ribot (guitar), percussionist Michael Blair, bassist and horn arranger Greg Cohen, Ralph Camey (saxophone), and William Schimmel (accordion, Leslie bass pedals) provide the perfect sonic backdrop to the tales of Waits. The instrumentation of marimba, accordion, double bass, trombone and banjo adds to the compelling nature of the journey, covering all multitudes of sonic terrain in the process.
“If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I’ve chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it.”
Someone who I’ve forgotten to mention is The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who features heavily on ‘Rain Dogs’. Waits’ close friend plays on ‘Big Black Mariah’, ‘Union Square’ and ‘Blind Love’. His trademark rock ‘n’ roll guitar sound introduces a wall of sound to the mix. Listen to those fat tones on the closing bars of ‘Union Square’ or the tear-stained licks of ‘Blind Love’-a country gem straight from the spirit of Gram Parsons.
“You surround yourself with people who can know when you’re trying to discover something, and they’re part of the process. Keith Richards had an expression for it that’s very apropos: He called it “the hair in the gate”. You know when you go to the movies and you watch an old film, and a piece of hair catches in the gate? It’s quivering there and then it flies away. That’s what I was trying to do-put the hair in the gate.”
The delicate nylon guitar-plucked strings and accordion floats beneath Waits’s achingly beautiful vocals on ‘Time’,and for me, is one of the best songs ever put to tape-by Dylan, Young, or that of Waits himself. Waits sings “memory’s like a train, you can see it getting smaller as it pulls away” and a lyric of “the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget” perfectly encapsulates the passing of time – you can never hold back spring – a song Waits would sing many years later.
Forward to 2008. I witness Tom Waits in concert, for the first ever time, as part of the ‘Glitter And Doom’ tour. The song ‘Make It Rain’ (off ‘Real Gone’) was played on the encore where Tom Waits looks up to the ceiling of the marquee and, yes, makes it rain. The tent may have sprung a leak, but as I felt raindrops touch my face I’d like to see it as a confirmation of my long-held belief that Tom Waits is a larger than life, mythical creature separate from humankind.
Tom Waits on what lies ahead after the ‘Swordfish’ trilogy of ‘Swordfishtrombones’, ‘Rain Dogs’ and ‘Frank’s Wild Years’:
“On the past three albums, I was exploring the hydrodynamics of my own peculiarities. I don’t know what the next one will be. Harder, maybe louder.”
“The world is upside down
My pockets were filled with gold
Now the clouds have covered o’er
And the wind is blowing cold
I don’t need anybody
Because I learned to be alone
I lay my head, boys
I will call my home”
(from ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’, the closer to ‘Rain Dogs’)
The following books are recommended on Tom Waits:
“Innocent When You Dream Tom Waits The Collected Interviews” Edited by Mac Montandon (Orion Books)
“The Many Lives Of Tom Waits” Patrick Humphries (Omnibus Press)
Tom Waits and Anton Corbijn will Release a Collaborative Photographic Book “WAITS/CORBIJN ’77-’11” in Limited Edition on May 8.
For more information on this and anything regarding Tom Waits: