People will tell you Tom Waits’ best album is Rain Dogs. This is not strictly true. It is perhaps the most Waits-ian of Tom Waits albums, by virtue of having a Waits lookalike on the cover and a song selection that ranges across virtually every genre of music (and combinations thereof) Waits could wrangle. But the best Tom Waits album is not Rain Dogs. Instead it’s Bone Machine (which netted Waits his first Grammy in 1993), and it turns 25 years old today.
Waits explained Rain Dogs’ titular inspiration to Spin in 1985: “You know, dogs in the rain lose their way back home. They even seem to look up at you and ask if you can help them get back home. ‘Cause after it rains every place they peed on has been washed out … They go to sleep thinking the world is one way and they wake up and somebody moved the furniture.” Years later, in Bone Machine‘s press kit, he had this to say about that album’s title: “It’s a curious thing. Gives you something to think about. What’s a bone machine? Most of the principles of most machines developed in the machine age were principles that were found in the human body … We’re all like bone machines, I guess. We break down eventually, and we’re replaced by other models. Newer models. Younger models.”
Bone Machine is an extraordinary album largely because of the contrast its name evokes. The rhythms are sturdy, but unpredictable; everything sounds old, but the production is — pardon me — bone-crisp. Song structures spill over conventional demarcations, rhyme schemes are abandoned… Captain Beefheart is a common comparison for Waits’ voice, but their relative approaches to making records are fascinating to compare as well: Beefheart’s landmark Trout Mask Replica is a bonkers-sounding, chaotic album that was so rigorously rehearsed to sound that way that the whole thing was recorded in six hours, with all the backing tracks virtually indistinguishable from each other. Waits, meanwhile, constructs his music much like Miles Davis or Brian Eno: He assembles players, then puts them into odd configurations (as in “Jesus Gonna Be Here” — more on this later) or gives them deliberately obtuse direction. “Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah” is one such instruction; “Play it like your hair’s on fire” another. “Bone Machine,” then, could be one of Waits’ Oblique Strategies: String all these pieces together, wire ’em up and make them dance.
Bone Machine‘s sound is as stark as a small-town paper’s obituary page. It was literally recorded in a cement basement room, in a former hatchery. “It’s just a cement floor and a hot water heater … It’s got some good echo,” Waits said at the time. The result is a dry-aged, calcified sound that still sounds strangely faraway and distant. “Apocalyptic” is an adjective frequently applied to the album, probably because half the lyrics seem to directly reference the end of the world, but it’s also concerned with much smaller acts of death and dying. Given the intervening 25 years, it has aged particularly well. Let’s dive in.
1. “The Earth Died Screaming”
Appropriately enough, Bone Machine starts with what sounds like a procession of skeletons drunkenly staggering along a boardwalk. The last verse seems to directly refute Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” King’s lyrics famously describe a land gone dark (“the moon the only light we’ll see”) and the mountains falling into the sea. “Earth Died Screaming,” then, is that night come to pass: “The moon fell from the sky,” Waits sings, “and the earth died screaming.” “I’m just waiting for the whole world to open us up and swallow us all in, scrape us all off its back,” Waits told Thrasher in 1993. (Incidentally, The Earth Dies Screaming is a 1964 British alien-invasion movie. In 1980, UB40 released a song about it.)
2. “Dirt in the Ground”
“When you stick a shovel in the ground, have you ever heard the earth go ‘Uhhgm?’” Waits asks (presumably rhetorically) later in the Thrasher interview. Sung in the rusted-gate falsetto Waits has jokingly referred to as his “Prince voice” and accompanied by Ralph Carney (the uncle of that guy from the Black Keys) moaning through an assortment of ghostly woodwinds, “Dirt in the Ground” sounds like the hungover aftermath of the apocalypse party of “Earth Died Screaming.” In contrast to the opening tune’s stick army, however, “Dirt in the Ground” features almost zero percussion, which lends to the song’s swaying sense of unease. (Listening closely, it’s possible to discern what sounds like gentle stamping on the floor and a gentle tap on certain off beats, as well as what sounds like an ocean buoy.)
3. “Such a Scream”
Waits has his grab-bag of go-to images (crows, coal, dirt), but “Such a Scream” marks the first appearance of an actual character who will re-appear, the Eyeball Kid. “The Eyeball Kid is a comic-book character,” Waits told Magnet. “Actually, it was Nic Cage that reintroduced me to comic books.” (This is a friendship I could spend weeks speculating on, but it’s likely the pair know each other through Francis Ford Coppola, Cage’s uncle. Waits wrote the soundtrack for Coppola’s One from the Heart and later appeared in the director’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) The Kid would later go on to get his own song on Waits’ 1997 album The Mule Variations.
4. “All Stripped Down”
One of the few songs on Bone Machine that sounds like anything approaching “fun,” “All Stripped Down” starts with a bit of captured studio chatter and what sounds like Waits singing through a megaphone. Despite this, it’s a reminder that we all enter the afterlife devoid of material possessions. (“All the creatures of the world are gonna line up at the gate all stripped down.”) Waits often writes about the idea of religious absolution or a state grace as a physical space; “Down There by the Train” and B-side “Take Care of All of My Children” both toy with this conceit.
5. “Who Are You This Time”
“Who Are You This Time” is one of Waits’ jilted-lover songs (this one vaguely Mexican-ballad-flavored, at least via the bass line and the maraca percussion — Waits’ father was a Spanish teacher who exclusively listened to Mexican radio stations and mandated the family speak Spanish at the dinner table), packed with some of his favorite allusions and images, like carnivals, Bibles and — for the second time on this album — lions. What’s interesting about it, though, is its structure: Waits sabotages his own rhyme scheme in the first verse, and new sections of the song seem to start without the entirety of the band being on board, the kind of unrehearsed feel that some Neil Young or Bob Dylan recordings have become famous for.
6. “The Ocean”
Bone Machine’s second-shortest song, “The Ocean” may also be its most disturbing. “One of the local papers up here printed two photographs,” Waits explained in the album’s press kit. “One was a picture of a woman on the beach holding a bottle of beer and a cigarette, looking out at the ocean. And the next picture was the same day, a couple hours later, of her floating face-down in the brine, the beer still in her hand. And the photographer had walked past her and heard her say under her breath, ‘The ocean doesn’t want me today.’” It features one of Waits’ favorite obscure instruments, the Chamberlin, an early precursor to the more famous Mellotron that features actual eight-second tape reels of “sampled” instruments. Waits’ daughter Kellisimone coined the term “strangels” for the tune. “Strange angels,” Waits explained. “ if you have strangels, then you can have braingels. Those are the angels that live in your head.”
7. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”
For “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” Waits switched instruments with bassist Larry Taylor, whose buzzing, two-note slide lick hovers over the song forebodingly. “Probably would have been better if we’d gotten a Baptist choir, but I kind of like it by itself, just bass and guitar,” Waits remarked dryly in the album’s press kit. As the song draws to a close, a helicopter can be heard over the studio, mingling with Waits’ closing phlegmatic cough.
8. “A Little Rain”
One of the songs Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan cowrote with him, “A Little Rain,” was was similarly inspired by local news items, this one by the murder of a 15-year-old girl who’d stepped into a stranger’s van. Waits, who’d relocated to rural California after stretches in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, described murder as “in greater relief … here, where you see the golden fields or whatever.” “I’m always drawn to these terrible stories,” he told biographer Barney Hoskyns. “My wife is the same way.”
9. “In the Colosseum”
In one of the most jarring transitions on the album, Waits comes roaring back, accompanied by his own inspired thwacking on the Conundrum, a percussion instrument of his own devising: “Like a big iron crucifix, and there are a lot of different things that we hang off of it: crowbars and found metal objects that I like the sound of.”
10. “Goin’ Out West”
“Goin’ Out West” is probably Bone Machine’s most famous cut, having appeared in a variety of films and television shows. “When you live somewhere other than California, you do have this golden image that everything will be all right when you get here,” Waits explained. To that end, the song’s unnamed narrator unspools a litany of his qualifications for making it on the Golden Coast. For the record, “I got some dragstrip courage, I can really drive a bed / I’m gonna change my name to Hannibal, maybe just Rex” is emphatically one of the finest couplets ever recorded. Tony Franciosa, who dated the narrator’s mother, was a Golden Globe-winning actor (for 1959’s Career) whose career extended to both the small screen and the stage. Franciosa earned an Oscar nomination for his role in A Hatful of Rain, a 1957 morphine drama that would later be name-checked in the Waits B-side “Long Way Home” (“I got a head full of lighting / a hat full of rain”).
11. “Murder in the Red Barn”
“Originally barns were painted with the blood of dead animals,” Waits lectured Thrasher in 1993. “Before they had paint, there was blood.” (Side note: I am getting a lot of mileage out of this Thrasher piece because I find the image of interviewer Brian Bannon of SoCal hardcore also-rans Jodie Foster’s Army sitting there taking all this in.) He likened the song to “an old Flannery O’Connor story” to Hoskyns, and while there’s circumstantial evidence linking “Murder in the Red Barn” to an old English murder ballad called “The Murder of Maria Marten,” I can’t find any record of Waits commenting on that directly, though the murder ballad tradition is certainly something he’s familiar with — see his version of the popular warhorse “Two Sisters.”
12. “Black Wings”
Even though it’s about some kind of murderous avenging angel/secret agent, this, along with “Goin’ Out West” is basically the most fun track on Bone Machine. Between the spaghetti western guitar, the protagonist’s having killed a man with a guitar string and saved a baby from “drowned-ing” (per Waits, the second time he uses this pronunciation on the record), and the fact that Waits straight-up just hisses near the end, this is clearly not pitched at the same emotional tenor of, say, the next track.
13. “Whistle Down the Wind”
At least one person has floated the theory — via an early 2000s listserv — that Bone Machine is largely influenced by a novel by Mary Hayley Bell called Whistle Down The Wind and/or the 1962 film based on it (produced by Sir Richard Attenborough). WDTW‘s plot revolves around a group of schoolchildren who believe a fugitive criminal holed up in a barn is actually the messiah. (It doesn’t end well.) Both the film and the novel are heavy with Christian symbolism and it’s hardly a great leap to assume Waits or Brennan were familiar with them. (All that said, Whistle Down the Wind has a rich, proven musical history: The film was adapted into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman, which later provided a one-off hit for Boyzone, and Toto — yes, that Toto — used it as an inspiration for their video for “Stranger in Town,” which stars Brad Dourif.) “Whistle down the wind,” as a phrase, meanwhile, means “to send away or abandon” and in some variants, dates back to the 16th century.
On some versions of Bone Machine, the song is subtitled “For Tom Jans.” In Waits’ own words, from the Bone Machine press kit: “He’s an old friend of ours who died in ’83. A songwriter and friend of Kathleen’s and mine. From the central coast of California, kind of a Steinbeck upbringing in a small town. We dedicated it to him. He wrote ‘Lovin’ Arms.’ Dobie Gray recorded it, and also Elvis did it. He used to play with Mimi Farina.” (Incidentally, the first line of “Loving Arms” is “I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain.”) Jans worked as a songwriter in Nashville before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s — this would have presumably been where he met Waits. Jans struggled commercially and moved to Europe, where his only further release was a 1982 album released only in Japan. Jans was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident the year after and died in 1984, not 1983 as Waits claimed. Paul Williams (ASCAP president and fairly legendary songwriter) sang at his funeral.
Lastly, “take the Marylebone coach” is one of Waits’ more colorful references and it is an obscure one. “Marylebone coach” seems to be a varietal of “Marylebone stagecoach” — there was apparently a particularly crappy coach that ran from Marylebone to London city, taking five and a half hours to make an eight-mile round trip. The joke being that it was shorter to walk, or “take the Marylebone stage.”
14. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”
Purportedly almost left off the record until it was recorded at Brennan’s request, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” became one of Bone Machine‘s videos and one of Waits’ most-covered songs (the Ramones performed a version of it for their final studio album, ¡Adios Amigos!, and the list of additional artists who have taken a stab at it is lengthy.) It’s unclear if the “Grand Street” here is the same Grand Street mentioned in “Whistle Down the Wind” — and tempting to link the two, given their subject matter — but it’s more probable that it’s just one of Waits’ go-to street names.
15. “Let Me Down Up On It”
As a palate cleanser before Bone Machine’s weepy closer, “Let Me Down Up On It” is certainly bizarre enough; it barely sounds like Waits is singing in English. “I was threatening to pull the plug on the whole project, come home, and just sing all the songs into a little Sony tape recorder. This is one I did at home that I ended up liking,” Waits said in the album’s press release.
16. “That Feel”
“That Feel” features Keith Richards, who also played on Rain Dogs, and the Richards/Waits pairing is easily one of my favorite musical friendships to ruminate on. A collection of things Waits has said about Richards:
“When he plays he looks like he’s been dangled from a wire that comes up through the back of his neck, and he can lean at a forty-five-degree angle and not fall over.” — to Musician, 1987
“He’s got arms like a fisherman. He’s physically very strong, and he can outlast you. You think you can stay up late? You can’t even come close. He can stay up for a week — on coffee and stories.”
“I’d moved to New York. I remember somebody said, ‘Who do you want to play on your record?’ and I said, ‘Keith Richards — I’m a huge, huge fan of The Rolling Stones.’ They said, ‘Call him right now.’ I was like, ‘Jesus, please don’t do that, I was just kidding around.’ A couple of weeks later he sent me a note: ‘The wait is over. Let’s dance. Keith.’” — to Mojo, 1995
“We wrote songs together for a while, and that was fun. I had never really written with anybody except my wife, so it was unique — and a little scary at first, ’cause he doesn’t really remember anything or write anything down. So you’d play for an hour and he would yell across the room: ‘Scribe!’ And I looked around — scribe? Who’s the scribe? And then he’d say it again, now pointing at me: ‘Scribe!’ And I was supposed to have written down everything we said and dreamt of and played. And then I realized that we needed an adult in the room. And I have never been the one that one would consider the adult.” — to NPR, 2011
“Like the praying mantis he has only one ear and it is located between his legs. He can hold a note up to 6 minutes and has 7 or 8 notes more than the ordinary voice. And they are equally sonorous and clear.” — from “Keith Richards …,” a poem submitted to Rolling Stone
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