Tom Waits (Palladium):
Tom Waits is coming to Dallas tonight and it's yet another obvious and classic example of an artist whose record sales do not necessarily reflect his actual cultural impact, judging by the wide spectrum of people that have been freaking out. I've never seen so many of my friends gladly pay 102 dollars (!) for anything
. Not vintage wine, not Air Jordans, not stupid video games, not delay pedals, and not even a rare record that I can only assume does not have his music on it. I would hope that nobody would ever pay over a hundred dollars for anything released on Anti
, aka Aging Rock Critic Music 101. Good taste prevents me from typing what I said out loud to a buddy after he excitedly told me how much he paid for his ticket, as if Mr. Waits and The Palladium ballroom were doing him a favor. And that's along the lines of what I said he should do at that price-- personally perform an enthusiastic and intimate sexual favor for everyone in attendance. I mean, who is this guy? The Eagles? Oh, wait. They were one of the first in a very long line of awful artists to cover his music.
Cool Out (The Cavern)
Speaking of covering his music, people have been equally freaked over, albeit with an almost universal negativity, actor Scarlett Johansson's new Waits cover album, "Anywhere I Lay My Head." This record has been trashed by critics, but really it was dismissed long before it came out. I get it: an a-list actor's crossover into music is offensively smug, since she chose one of the last sacred characters of American Popular music. I just thought I'd take a minute to inject some sense into this blanket dismissal, as well as some good old fashioned devil's advocacy, and of course, the underlying and unspoken truth that these versions might be better than the Waits originals. We'll work up with some background, factoids and a little compare and contrast. This is my gift to all my favorite annoying Waits-heads, friends and family included, in the form of a special extended It List. You'll love it...
Waits, as an Artist
Waits is a good songwriter. I usually hate the "good songwriter" argument, the one I had heard countless times applied to Dylan and Neil Young by ignorant blowhard customers as they chatted with one another in the years I spent as a record store clerk. The argument is that yes, they are good songwriters, but suffer from the paradoxical affliction of interpreting their own work worse than anyone else in the world. The opposite is usually true and the work of all three men has been watered down by many a lesser artist, the end result inevitably choked with enough studio glitter to irritate your eyes and especially your ears. But at a certain point in Waits' career, his cartoonish over-singing sapped some of his authenticity, increasing the odds that others would be able to interpret his work to sometimes better effect.
He was kind of a lounge music joker before he met Kathleen Brennan, who hipped him to Beefheart, a true visionary that he's often compared to despite the fact that he somehow failed to recognize Beefheart, even though they shared the same manager for a time. But Beefheart was begotten not made, a true American orginal that came out swinging right out of the gates and onto his debut platter. He didn't have to build up to his strange atonal approach from some cheap nightclub act that borders on stand-up comedy.
Everyone has been up in arms about the sacrilege of this concept, as in "How dare Scarlett Johansson record these neo-standards by one of our greatest living treasures?." Examining the ways in which the work of Ann Margaret, Diana Dors and Eartha Kitt has been lionized not only as something other than kitsch but as some sort of previously unheralded genius might be a good way to evaluate how this project will age. Who would you rather do Waits covers? Until recently, it was quite a few ne'er-do-wells and credibility starved fools that had tried their hand at what is classically melodic yet lyrically treacherous material, which often puts extra pressure on the artist to breathe authenticity into this heartbroken hobo schtick. So who are we to believe has done this with any success in the past? The aforementioned Eagles? Springsteen? How about Rod Stewart's version of "Downtown Train?" Never really bought it. And as far as Waits himself directly participating in the recording sessions of those he has inspired, the man himself collaborated with Primus. Would any super-fans like to try to defend that? Scarlett Johansson would never collaborate with Primus, so she is much cooler than Tom Waits at least in that respect.
It is also worth mentioning The Ramones owe their last great moment to Tom Waits, and I owe it to them for forcing me to reconsider his work. I was introduced to Waits in my early teens by my family, specifically my uncle and father who tried to tell me how "weird" he was. Looking at a scuffed up cassette copy of "Big Time," I almost believed them. Then I heard some faux scatting and put the tape away for awhile. But the Ramones cover of "I Don't Want To Grow Up" is by far the best song on Adios Amigos, their last studio album.
Actor Versus Actor
If you want to compare the two as actors, consider that both have played piano players on film. But Scarlett is actually acting. In the Coen brothers severely overlooked "The Man Who Wasn't There," she brilliantly plays a painfully mediocre teenage musician, and you really suffer with her after a failed audition. Waits usually just winks his way through scenes with all the subtlety and self referential aplomb of an organ grinder and his monkey. He has starred in celebrated features by Jarmusch, Coppola, and Altman, but his acting credits also include "trombone player" or "drunken bar owner," neither of which is really much of a stretch.
Ulitmately, this is comparison is close to a tie since Johansson was in "Eight Legged Freaks," while Waits appeared in "Mystery Men." Waits' music is still his best possible contribution to any film, particularly the last segment in 1995's "Smoke," where "Innocent When You Dream" plays softly in the background and well into the credits. But Scarlett has starred in increasingly worse vehicles since "Ghost World," so maybe a superior version of one of his songs will end a Sony Pictures Classic in the near future, or maybe an updated documentary about Waits using only her music will emerge. I would enjoy that.
Johansson's Ultimate Triumph
It is not inconceivable that someone could like this album more than the originals. At its best, this record sounds like This Mortal Coil, and there are traces of that project's same haunting cover version revisionism since it was actually sequenced by T.M.C. mastermind, Ivo-Watts Russell. Even more impressive is the fairly decent production and guitar work, respectively by people from TV On The Radio and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, two groups who I don't not necessarily enjoy. In fact, that might be the larger miracle here-- an actor, a songwriter, a guitarist, and a producer, none of whom I consider truly great, got together to produce an end result is actually good or much closer to great than would be expected. This record had every reason in the world to suck, nothing at all going for it, and yet... it does not suck. Compare Johansson's album to her actor/musician contemporaries: Jared Leto? Juliette Lewis? Jason Schwartzman? No thanks.
Upon first hearing of this project, Waits diplomatically made the point that a singer must make the song his or her own. Johansson has certainly done that and that's why this impossibly risky project succeeds. In an earlier recording, she competently attempts Gershwin's "Summertime" to merely mixed results since she tries to go for the predictably slow, sultry interpretations of countless accomplished singers of decades past. Had she given it the frosty, post-coma performance technique utilized so well on this record, it would really stand out as something other than a tossed-off celebrity talent show bit.
With the question of authenticity removed from the equation, the overall concept is allowed to materialize. Waits spent too much of his career, specifically the first part, trying to find new ways to say "I'm drunk," and it can really wear thin as far as subject matter is concerned. When Johansson promises that she'll "drink you under the table" in "I Wish I Was In New Orleans," there is a simultaneous absurdity and believability in the boast. Are we to believe that this pampered New Yorker is forgoing another posh weekend on the Upper West Side to instead slum it in the alleys of our own modern Atlantis? Just the fact that her reworking of the song might give the listener pause to consider such things is reason enough to listen.
The diva in a snowstorm feel of the record sometimes sounds like something on Italians Do It Better, and though that's meant as a compliment, I've also heard it lobbed as an insult. The past ten years have brought us many anemic versions of classic songs by songstresses of varying talents, and Johansson fares better than many of them on her debut.
"Hey, Just Have Fun Out There tonight. You Deserve It."
So if you were one of the unlucky fans who didn't have the hundred plus dollars to spend on the non-paper tickets tonight, just rest easy knowing that you can make your way down to one of our few remaining record stores that sells new music and plop down a fraction of that for something you might ultimately enjoy even more. And if you are lucky enough to go, I hope you have fun, and I look forward to spending the rest of my week hearing your oral show reviews while defending this writeup.