I have a new one to my list of songs I can listen to over and over again – it joins the illustrious likes of Cat Steven’s Father & Son; Morrissey’s Everyday Is Like Sunday; Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run; Ben Folds’ Landed and so on. These are songs with such pathos, such eloquence, such subtle splendour, that they can’t help but warrant hours on end of listening to the same song over and over.
Over the last couple of days, Tom Waits has added another to Come On Up To The House on the list, with the heartbreaking Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind in Copenhagen). Here is a song about travelling, to the best of my understanding, but not travelling like Bruce Parry does, or like I do when I go on holiday. Tom Waits’ travelling is more stumbling hobo, staggering through the streets with no conception of why or where he is. He’s blinded with tears, he’s wretched, he’s given up hope.
Sadness is a marketable commodity these days. Whether it’s several entire genres of movies designed to make you cry, or a hundred identical boys with thick glasses and striped jumpers wrenching their tears free, there’s a selling point in there. Everybody wants to feel like they’re not alone when they’re sad – when Eric Carmen sang “Don’t wanna be all by myself“, he wasn’t kidding. Misery loves company. But most people are happy to wallow in the likes of this list: some wonderful songs on there of course, and some heartaching ones, but nobody does that combination of sad, lonely, pathetic and hopeless like Tom Waits.
I can be deeply thankful I’ve never found myself in Tom Traubert’s battered Stacys. This song sums up every battered, helpless feeling you’ve ever had, and magnifies it by relocating to a foreign city, with an unknown woman, with Bushmills in hand, lost, without a friend. Wasted and wounded, it ain’t what the moon did… No one speaks English, and everything’s broken… Now I’ve lost my St. Christopher, now that I’ve kissed her… it’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal… For me, the most telling lyric is “Now the dogs are barking and the taxi cabs parking, A lot they can do for me”. It seems to sum up that pitiful nothingness of the song’s protagonist.
Waits shows his melodic nous here as well – the beginning of each stanza makes a point of refusing to resolve the last: the effect is that each verse sounds like it’s getting higher and higher than the one before, without actually changing in pitch. It’s a trick of harmonic suspension that dates back to Wagner, who created the love and longing in Tristan und Isolde with it.
Above all that though, the lyrical and harmonic majesty, it’s Tom Waits and with a voice like that, it was never going to be anything other than completely affecting. And so here, on the Old Grey Whistle Test – I almost shed a swift tear.