Tom Waits – Blue Valentine (1978)

Every year since I discovered Tom Waits (thank you Florin Piersic Jr., Eric Bogossian and Kiss Club Oradea for that, thank you immensely) there comes a time, about a month of it, in which I can’t help but breathe in his music all day. It has turned into a bit of a ritual I suppose, some sort of urban-pagan holiday to mark a day in which I burned my mouth with some horrible straight gin and I spent two hours in a smokey, desolate little bar, watching some actors do their best, which wasn’t very good. Fitting that my first memory of Tom Waits sounds so much like one of his songs, isn’t it? I went home that night much more impressed by the music and much more depressed by the gin than the play. I like to think of that event like some sort of beautiful malady. I got it some time in 2003. One year later, I was a student, in a different town with the burning bridges behind me lighting my way, and the yearly disease hit. Ever since, every fall is the same. Sometimes it’s unexpected, but most of the time I can feel it coming, there’s a sense that the moment approaches. And so it does, out of a conversation, out of a falling leaf, out of a certain shade of purple in the cloudy sky or the ragged growl of an engine on the wrong side of the road, the moment peels itself off and settles in my heart for a while, taking its toll and taking me on that trip which only Tom Waits can chaperone. Well, this time, it came on Halloween.

During these phases I’ve listened to all his albums, starting from the old days, when his voice was still clear and inamored by Poetry and getting to the present, growling/whispering/wheezing M.O. of delivering orphaned stories and songs. And somewhere along that way, my favorite stop became “Blue Valentine”, an album which I’ve heard is being called “transitional”, for some reason. I still haven’t read Kerouac, but something makes me feel like I’ve gotten the point, because of this album. It’s a very American album and Tom Waits is uniquely capable of painting pictures with his music, so I feel like listening to Blue Valentine is like taking a trip through a slightly anachronistic America, a place where echoes of the beat generation mingle with sirens and lewd calls on street corners by construction sites, where The Boss hasn’t yet written his blue collar anthems and a guy dressed like Dick Tracy can still get away with it in some neighborhoods.

Blue Valentine is probably the album with the heaviest blues influence in Tom Waits’ career, and he can pull it off spectacularly. He is a master of pacing, a bona fide director of emotional ebb and flow, capable of a level of nouance and depth which somehow keeps bringing me back to Albee’s “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – the characters are just as vivid and the subtext is just as rich. Poetry permeates his characters just as much as drama and at this conflux there’s a thick, bourbon-colored musical glue holding everything together which just seems to belong there, like the resin on a fir tree.

I’d also compare the mood to Frank Miller’s “Sin City”, but that would be unfair to Tom Waits, since Miller’s city is much shallower, much less genuine and personal, albeit fun to experience. Yeah there’s the occasional crook and scam artist populating this musical world, but the interesting, compelling thing about them is not the grandeur of their depravity but the insignificance and humanity of it. No matter how harsh the story, the storyteller remains delicate about it.

Maybe later in the year I’ll try writing about his new album. I can’t promise anything, it takes time to absorb his music and if I leave the season for it before I get the chance, it’ll have to wait ’till next year. I’m sure he won’t mind though…

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