tom waits

A few weeks ago, I fell into a very peculiar time in my life when nothing made sense but Tom Waits.

Food didn’t taste like much, the sky didn’t look like much, the world didn’t feel like it was willing to give too much up for me but disappointment and the memory of soft, white hands. Hours of every Tom Waits album in a random playlist were the only comfort. Making awkward videos of myself playing ‘Yesterday Is Here’ on the guitar. Annoying everyone I know with ‘Nirvana’.

tom_waitsToday, ‘Orphans’ was put up for pre-order. On vinyl. Originally a three CD set divided up according to the nature of the songs that Mr. Waits tends to construct (Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards), I’ve lately been favoring the Bawlers. The sad songs of love disconnecting, or shifting irreparably like tectonic plates with the sound of broken guitars and pianos full of bones. All of these notes? They became my people. They were at least as human as I was, which was becoming marginal and pale and hirsute.

I realize that it’s disgustingly ‘hipster’ to have a turntable and use it with relative frequency. The thing is that I usurped a disused turntable back in early junior high and slowly progressed through two decades’ worth of LPs that the house had accumulated (just as CDs were becoming a viable medium for music distribution). Frayed wires hung from the back of the turntable and snaked around to dusty, brown-fabric covered speakers that were the size of a human torso, pressed up against my bed and humming. I purchased a Numark PT-01 when it became clear that the old turntable’s needle was no longer serviceable, and that the cost of obtaining a vintage stylus for an obscure make of record player would be more expensive than just purchasing a new and improved model. I also intended to use the machine to capture lost sounds from Voice-O-Graphs, Recordios and anything which had never made into a CD format. I was hunting ghosts.

That old turntable was my mother’s, and it was a relatively new gift to her from my grandparents that she obtained right before she went far upstate into the wilds of New York for college. Immediately after her departure, it was swiped by a jealous brother and abused beyond recognition in a cycle that still repeats to this day with a wide variety of objects. It had a busted 8-track, lots of buttons that didn’t perform any discernible function or illuminate any of the long, orange lights, and an enormous, dusty silver knob that would fall off fairly often.

But there’s a romance to listening to these LPs. Watching them move in a way that any MP3 visualizer could never replicate. The physical forces between two surfaces creating beautiful sounds. It’s not a hipster thing. It’s a ‘born 50 years too late’ thing. It’s a sensual thing.

I cashed in $125 from my PayPal account to pay for this set of records – money that was once all in the form of small, lead figurines of Marvel Comics superheroes that didn’t do anything for me anymore. As if Cable really did anything for anyone, ever, anyhow. Something about hearing ‘Long Way Home’ imperfectly scratching out of a record seems like heaven. But I’ve always had a very strange idea of heaven.

tom waits

Everything changed in June. And when I say everything, I kinda really mean everything. Like, internal apocalypse everything. I’m surprised that I have any guts left or that the laws of gravity still govern me. Maybe they hold me even more powerfully than before. Everything.

It never really affected me before, but Tom Waits’ ‘Nirvana’ hit me deeper than I thought possible.

“Not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose,
he was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina on the way to somewhere.
And it began to snow.

And the bus stopped at a little cafe in the hills and the passengers entered.
And he sat at the counter with the others, and he ordered, the food arrived.
And the meal was particularly good.
And the coffee.

The waitress was unlike the women he had known.
She was unaffected, and there was a natural humor which came from her.
And the fry cook said crazy things.
And the dishwasher in back laughed a good clean pleasant laugh.

And the young man watched the snow through the window.
And he wanted to stay in that cafe forever.
The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.
And it would always stay beautiful there.

And then the bus driver told the passengers that it was time to board.
And the young man thought: “I’ll just stay here, I’ll just stay here.”
And then he rose and he followed the others into the bus.
He found his seat and looked at the cafe through the window.
And then the bus moved off, down a curve, downward, out of the hills.

And the young man looked straight forward.
And he heard the other passengers speaking of other things,
or they were reading or trying to sleep.
And they hadn’t noticed the magic.
And the young man put his head to one side,
closed his eyes, and pretended to sleep.

There was nothing else to do,
just to listen to the sound of the engine,
and the sound of the tires
in the snow.”

I have a hard time making sense of things lately. This makes sense.