Of all the people who grace my CD collection, Tom Waits is probably the most interesting. He’s been making records since 1973 [Closing Time]. He possesses a unique voice that critic Daniel Durchholz described as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I suppose that’s one way to describe his raspy, gravelly voice, but the voice is only part of the appeal. His music includes styles ranging from cabaret, vaudeville, primal blues, carnival music, tango and theatrical music. Some of his stuff sounds industrial. He includes unique instruments in his music, like bassoon, waterphone, bagpipes, pump organ, marimba, accordion, Stroh violin, and an early mellotron called a Chamberlin. He sings about bums, he finds inspiration in hookers, strippers, thieves, drunks, jailbirds, addicts, all kinds of life’s losers. He’s done music for movies, and he’s done music for theatrical productions. I have CDs from three such theater productions on which he collaborated with director Robert Wilson: The Black Rider, Alice, and Blood Money.
The Black Rider is based on an old German folk tale called Der Freischütz [The Marksman]. Wilson’s The Black Rider premiered at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany in March 1990. It’s the story of a young clerk named Wilhelm who makes a pact with Satan in order to marry the daughter of an old forester. Wilhelm had a problem. He was in love with a girl named Katchen, but her father Bertram wanted her to marry a hunter. Herein lies Wilhelm’s problem – he’s a poor marksman. He can’t shoot straight to save his life. While he’s out in the woods trying to improve his marksmanship, Wilhelm is approached by a dark horseman named Pegleg. Wilhelm and Pegleg have a chat, during which Wilhelm tells Pegleg his tale of woe. Pegleg has a solution to Wilhelm’s problem. He has these “magic bullets” that allows the shooter to hit whatever he aims at, no matter how lousy a shot he is. There is only one catch – Pegleg wants the very last bullet to be able to go wherever he wants it to go. Wilhelm is desperate for Katchen’s hand so he agrees to Pegleg’s proposal. Unbeknownst to Wilhelm, Pegleg is really the Devil. So, Wilhelm practices with his magic bullets and becomes quite the marksman. He enters a shooting contest, wins, and Bertram agrees to let his daughter marry Wilhelm. On their wedding day, Bertram asks Wilhelm to demonstrate his excellent marksmanship one more time before he and Katchen exchange their vows. Wilhelm has but one bullet left out of those given to him by Pegleg. He loads, aims at a wooden dove, and fires. The bullet doesn’t hit the wooden dove – Pegleg directs the bullet to Katchen, who is stricken and dies. Wilhelm kills his own bride and shortly thereafter becomes a raving lunatic. The moral of the story is fairly obvious.
Alice is based on Lewis Carroll’s fascination with Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Wilson’s play premiered at the Thalia Theatre in 1992. The folks at Allmusic.com describe the music as “nocturnal, gloomy, reflective, literate, and quirky.” The music is in many styles like jazz ballads, old waltzes, tangos, European folk songs, theatrical love paeans. There is not a single “rock” song in the bunch. The instrumentation includes the Stroh violin [a violin fitted with a brass horn for amplification], marimbas, piano, organ, French horns, trumpets, woodwinds, and reeds. There are no guitars to be heard on Alice. There are themes of loneliness, sadness, insanity, resignation to one’s own fate. According to Waits "Alice is adult songs for children, or children's songs for adults. It's a maelstrom or fever-dream, a tone poem, with torch songs and waltzes...an odyssey in dream logic and nonsense."
Blood Money, released the same day as Alice, is another German tale. Another Robert Wilson production, the play premiered at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen in November 2000. The story is from a political play written in 1837 by Georg Büchner. The play, Woyzeck, is about a German soldier who needs to earn extra money and subjects himself to bizarre army medical experiments. These experiments and his lover’s infidelity with a handsome drum major drive this German soldier into madness, which leads him to murder said lover. So you’ve got sex, drugs, insanity and murder [oh my!]. This isn’t your typical “concept album.” This CD is permeated with German cabaret, and with some sound effects, like the sound of marching feet, it gives the CD a Weimar-era Germany feel. According to Waits, "Blood Money is flesh and bone, earthbound. The songs are rooted in reality: jealousy, rage, the human meat wheel...They are more carnal. I like a beautiful song that tells you terrible things. We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth. I like songs to sound as though they've been aging in a barrel and distressed." Like with Alice, there’s some eclectic instrumentation on Blood Money. He uses the Stroh violin, calliope, Chamberlin, trumpets, reeds, woodwinds, marimbas, accordion, guitars, bass, drums, cellos, to evoke the moods of panic, confusion, desperation, pain, death. He even shies away from traditional drums in favor of a “kitchen sink” approach, which included trash can lids, brake drums, megaphones, chairs, and even tubas to further help evoke the proper mood. There’s some interesting sounds going on here and on Alice and it definitely is not boring. It keeps me guessing “what is the next one going to sound like?” In one song Tom Waits will slur his words, another he’ll bark, maybe growl in the next, then maybe whisper. This stuff keeps you guessing musically. One thing Tom Waits is not is “typical.” If David Lynch made records instead of movies, this is what they’d sound like.