Why do I listen to Tom Waits?

Someone asked me why I listened to Tom Waits. I gave a short answer about Tom Waits being more than the music and the persona, and then this person proceeded to compare my answer to his 14-year old who likes a rap artist. It was an intentional insult, not that I have any issues with being compared to a 14-year old who has his own reasons for listening to the music he listens to. I didn’t take offense at it, but did feel misunderstood, but I realize this was my fault for not adequately answering the question. So here it is.

Tom Waits can’t sing.  Just being honest here.  Yet I enjoy his style and the rasp he brings to his songs… and he has made a career out of singing, with quite a following despite some opinions otherwise. His rough voice and rustic sound has become a trademark characteristic that is imitated but never replicated. I have to admire that.

Tom is not good looking. Yet he is in movies. He plays eccentric characters to be sure, but has channeled his unique appearance into a marketable asset in a medium saturated with beautiful people. I have to admire that.

Tom writes amazing songs about love, death, fame or lack thereof, religion, politics and life, ordinary and not so ordinary. His story-telling prose is without reproach, in my opinion. His lyrics read like madman poetry that is unlike anything else and forces my imagination into places it would never go without his lead. I have to admire that.

He has erected a larger-than-life façade of being the shabby, unshaven drunk at the end of the bar, chain-smoking and pouring shot after shot from a cheap bottle of gin. At closing time, he meanders out to his ol’ rusty ‘55 Chevy pickup with a missing fender and peels out in the dirt, back-firing off into the night. The significant difference from that drunk and Tom Waits is that Tom Waits has taken this and marketed it successfully. I have to admire that.

I have always thought it would be profoundly brilliant if it turned out in real life, Tom only wore Armani, never drank or smoked and just stayed at home, reading Dickens and watching PBS with a toy poodle contentedly curled up in his lap. That he makes me wonder about how he really is when I could really care less about other celebrities, well… I have to admire him for that.

For the way Tom Waits challenges me to understand his lyrics… to fight through the rustic, harmonious noise of his music to actually listen and wonder, “is that really a wash tub they are banging on? Is that broom-bass? Is he singing through a megaphone?” He does this where other artists absolutely fall flat at raising any interest in me whatsoever as to what their song is about or what they are like. I have to admire that.

I don’t expect everyone to identify with this, but I’ve found something amazing and priceless and insanely alien to me – in Tom Waits words and sound. And I love it.

That is why I listen to Tom Waits.


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