listening to a hero

I’m sure I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits. I suspect my love of his music stems from his consummate skill at storytelling. I love all kinds of music, but the songs that really get me, grip me by the heart and squeeze, are the ones where the words and the melody create a pocket moment in time, a space you enter when you listen to the song.

As much as I adore a great deal of his back catalogue, his second album (for 1974 was the age of wheels of plastic vinyl) Heart of Saturday Night is especially dear to me. It was my doorway into the world of Tom Waits, many, many years after the album was first released. Some of his later work is challenging, (I’ve come to appreciate Swordfishtrombones), but Waits continues to knock songs out of the gin joint. Age has not scared him into complacency. I’m still tasting his latest collection, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards; it contains a great deal of work to appreciate.

The title song from his second album, “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night” lurches my heart when I listen to it. The lyrics are incomplete without Waits’ soulful voice–so young, and at that point not wrecked by his dissolute life–but here it is:

Well, you gassed her up, behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one in your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night

And you got paid on Friday, your pockets are jinglin’
Then you see the lights and you get all tinglin’
Cause you’re cruisin’ with a six
You’re lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night

Then you comb your hair, you shave your face
Tryin’ to wipe out every trace
Of all the other days in the week
You know that this’ll be the Saturday you’re reachin’ your peak

Stoppin’ on the red, you’re goin’ on the green
Cause tonight’ll be like nothin’ you’ve ever seen
And you’re barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night

Tell me, is it the crack of the poolballs, neon buzzin’
Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye

Makes it kind of quiver down in the core
Cause you’re dreamin’ of them Saturdays that came before
And now you’re stumblin’
You’re stumblin’ onto the heart of Saturday night.

From a writing point of view it’s astonishing how simply Waits paints his story, with splashes of images and action. Most of the emotion comes from the rendition, as well as the familiarity of the situation. He nails that jumbled up Saturday-night feeling, where the joy of freedom combines with the knowledge that it is fleeting, and the ghost of the work-week haunts the evening. It’s also rendered in a timeless fashion. Thirty years have passed since this song was first recorded and yet that experience is still very much the same.

Sometimes when I listen to a classic Waits description (“the clouds are like headlines on a new front page sky”; “Along an icy pond with a frozen moon/A murder of silhouette crows I saw”) I despair of ever writing anything that simple and effective. It’s important to have writers that inspire you, even if a tiny evil part of you hates their facility with words.

While reading through the lyrics on some of Waits’ songs on the marvellous Tom Waits Library, I discovered this quote:

Tom Waits (1999): “Kathleen was the first person who convinced me that you can take James White and the Blacks, and Elmer Bernstein and Leadbelly – folks that could never be on the bill together – and that they could be on the bill together in you. You take your dad’s army uniform and your mom’s Easter hat and your brother’s motorcycle and your sister’s purse and stitch them all together and try to make something meaningful out of it.”

Yes, yes, yes.

Damn you and bless you Tom.