FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Tom Waits, “Blue Valentine”

The very first time I ever Tom WaitsBlue Valentine was April 22, 2006. It was the day after I turned seventeen and the day I got my first tattoo.

I’d only been introduced to Tom Waits a few weeks earlier, and I noticed his name on a stack of CDs at the tattoo parlour. It turned out to be one of the artist’s favourite albums, so he put it on as he readied the room, chair, needle, ink, gun and so on.

My first tattoo was very tiny, so we only got through about half the album.

When I went back a week later for my second one, we listened to the rest.

When I went back for my third, he gave me the CD.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that fateful day was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with both Tom Waits and body art. The two have absolutely no continuous correlation, but they both happened to spawn from that one particular event.

Like I said, that wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard Tom Waits. A friend had played me a few tracks from 1999’s Mule Variations (weirdly enough the first Tom Waits piece I ever heard was What’s He Building In There). I was immediately enchanted, but this was pre-streaming and pre-smartphones. Soon after hearing Blue Valentine I went out and bought as many CDs as I could find. I still own them all.

It’s difficult to talk about this album because, like a tattoo, it’s a permanent part of me. I can’t pinpoint one particular event or experience directly associated with it, like you would a break up album or a holiday soundtrack. It has simply been absorbed into my life as a whole. But I can talk about what this album gave me: stories. A whole new world. A weird, wonderful, often sordid world.

Tom Waits’ debut, the wonderful Closing Time, came out in 1973. Blue Valentine came out in 1978, already his fifth record. By this point he’d begun to hone his unquestionably unique sound and style, blending traditional blues and balladic elements with darker rhythms, dramatic delivery, the first hints of the sonic experimentation he would later fully embrace, and of course, his voice. It was also his first album to chart outside the US, reaching no. 42 in Australia (fun fact I discovered while researching this – the only country he’s ever hit no. 1 in is Norway. Both Bad As Me (2011) and Mule Variations (1999) reached the top spot. So much for Big in Japan.)

Not just this album, but Mule Variations, Heartattack And Vine, Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones, Bone Machine and others by Tom Waits have been an ongoing presence in my musical journey, regardless of how far I stray down hip-hop or indie or electronic or metal avenues. The interesting thing is that his presence has been totally standalone in this steady, yet isolated existence, because is incomparable and unclassifiable. He’s just Tom Waits, making Tom Waits music.

His influence on my life has stretched far beyond his records. Many of his songs reference other artists, pieces of pop culture, cars, street names, cities, etc. Over time I’ve researched every reference and learnt so much. Similarly I’ve followed his acting career closely, which has in turn introduced me to some of my favourite films ever. Perhaps most importantly is the literature and poets he directly and indirectly introduced me to, most notably Charles Bukowski, whom Waits has described as a “father figure.”

The pair converge in their affinity for writing about the grittier side of life, for writing about who and what lives among the shadows and dark corners. About slums and lowlifes, about drug addicts and prostitutes, about unlit alleyways and smoke-filled dive bars. And cars. They would often romanticise these characters and events and places. Where others see trash, Waits and Bukowski found creative treasure.

It was unlike anything I had ever heard at that point in my life. It still is, frankly. But back then I was quite exclusively into rock, metal and indie. Hearing Tom Waits and falling in love with his music was revelatory.

This album so perfectly encapsulates everything that I love about Tom Waits. A blend of lightness and dark, of sorrow and love, of incredibly vivid stories and characters. I’ve always considered his pieces to be more stories set to music, than songs.

The album begins with Somewhere, a beautiful string-led rendition of the West Side Story composition and the only official single from the album. It took me a long time to really appreciate this song, I’d often skip through the album and pick at the darker sounds and stories, like Red Shoes By The Drugstore, Romeo is Bleeding and $29.00. Even today I probably listen to Kentucky Avenue less than the other songs on this album.

His iconic voice, steamrolled into the gravel by liquor and cigarettes, is nevertheless animated and melodramatic. A raucous roar will often trail into a whisper. With his words and his voice, he paints a vivid, detailed picture. “The rain washes memories from the sidewalks, and the hounds splash the nickel full of soldiers,” he hisses on Red Shoes. “Romeo says: Hey man, gimme a cigarette, and they all reach for their pack, and Frankie lights it for him and pats him on the back,” he tells us on Romeo is Bleeding.

That he could paint portraits with illustrative finesse was one of the most remarkable things about this album. I’d never known such poetic lyricism like that outside the pages of a book.

He would take on these personas, these seedy antiheroes. “Now on Hollywood and Vine by the Thrifty Mart sign, any night I’ll be willing to bet there’s a young girl, with sweet little dreams and pretty blue wishes,” he sneers on A Sweet Little Bullet From a Pretty Blue Gun.

He’d put on these characters and their voices, and he’d set the appropriate backdrop, be it sleazy saxophones, soaring, emotive pianos, snazzy organs, or rumbling percussion. With these voices and music we’re drawn into the inner lives of these characters and the world around them. These characters were always broken, often sinister, usually downtrodden.

Final track Blue Valentine took time for me to truly love, but now it’s a devastating, delicate favourite. It’s the soundtrack to every late night spent alone in the corner of a bar with dust on the windows and hardened candle wax on the wooden tables. It’s the soundtrack to damaged, poisoned love and regret. “You send me blue valentines though I try to remain at large. They’re insisting that our love must have a eulogy. Why do I save all this madness here in my in the nightstand drawer?

I can never wash the guilt or get these bloodstains off my hands, and it takes a whole lot of whiskey to make these nightmares go away.”

My favourite character on the album is the Hooker. Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis is my favourite Tom Waits song ever. Set as a letter to Charlie, she talks about how she’s pulled herself out from the muck. She’s pregnant, living on 9th Street. Her old man plays the trombone and works out at the track. The song reflects on her past life with Charlie, who she thinks about every time she passes a fillin’ station, on account of all the grease he’d wear in his hair. “Hey Charlie, I think I’m happy,” she says. “I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope. I’d buy me a used car lot and I wouldn’t sell any of ‘em, I’d just drive a different car every day, dependin’ on how I feel.” 

I won’t ruin the ending for you. Here, have a listen:

Blue Valentine is a beautiful, engaging, creative album, a personal favourite in Tom Waits’ inimitable catalogue. It showed me something so unique and unusual, simultaneously exposing me to wistful, lovelorn piano ballads and tales of homeless graveyard dwellers. It acted as a catalyst for so much more that came after. It opened up an entire world, a dark, smoky world of stories and people and poetry. A world that even now, is endlessly enthralling.