Tom Waits, Brady and Me

By Wil Forbis

December 1, 2017

Tom WaitsI’ve long been intrigued by the performer/composer Tom Waits. For decades, he’s existed as a singular and unique presence on the landscape of American music. He is always evolving and reinventing his sound, exploring everything from early jazz and big band ballads to primitive Americana and dissonant carnival music.

As a result of my fascination with Waits, I snatched up a copy of Barney Hoskyns’ biography, “The Low Side of the Road,” when I caught sight of it at my neighborhood library. I found the book disappointing; it’s not much more than a chronological blow-by-blow of Waits’ career mixed in with analysis of his songs. However, the book does explore the interesting idea that one must distinguish Tom Waits the persona from Tom Waits the actual person. As Hoskyns tells it, Waits spent his formative years (teens and early twenties) assembling the parts that would become the public Tom Waits---the character who would appear on stage or in interviews. This Waits was a pastiche the music of Tin Pan Alley, the poetry of the Beats, the voice of radio DJ Wolfman Jack, the attitude of Charles Bukowski, and the glamorized lifestyle and tragedy of alcoholic hobos. Waits amalgamated all these influences into his performance, speech and even dress.

Some who knew him in the early years acknowledged the Waits persona as a legitimate means of artistic expression. Mike Melvoin, a session pianist who played on numerous Waits recordings, says in the book, “I thought of Tom as a professional poet who was in character. He needed to be thought of as the character. It’s where you and your body and your personal experience are the artifact.” Others were less sympathetic.  Robert Marchese, the manager of LA’s Troubadour club during the 70s said, “I thought Waits was full of shit…the whole mystique of this real funky dude and all that Charles Bukowski crap. Because nobody was really like that. He was basically a middle-class, San Diego mom-and-pop schoolteacher kid.”

Like most Waits fans, I’ve always had the sense that Waits’ inauthenticity---his borrowing from the past and other artists---made him more authentic. The reason being that he wasn’t using hip or popular accouterments. Nothing was cool about Tin Pan Alley music, with its syrupy sentimentalism and orchestrated harmonies, in 1973. The Beats were passé by the age of the Beatles. No glory has ever been found in idolizing hobos and vagrants. Waits rebelled against the mainstream and created his own little world.

Whenever I think of Waits, I’m reminded of my good friend Brady. It was Brady who introduced me to Waits’ music one evening in the early nineties when we parked in a deserted West Seattle parking lot and listened to the newly released “Bone Machine” album. Ultimately, I preferred Wait’s earlier, jazzier efforts, but his ‘90s output deserves its acclaim.

Like Waits, Brady’s public self was assembled from various cultural components: quotes from Sam Peckinpah movies, references to Seattle’s doomed poet Steven Jesse Bernstein, the guttural presence of Nick Cave, a casual heroin habit inspired by musicians like Gibby Haynes and Chet Baker, and whatever else I’m forgetting. Brady wore all of these elements well and authoritatively, but it was also obvious that they were surface details and that a less foolhardy individual---someone sane and quite intelligent---lay beneath.

I should be clear that I’m not damning Brady or Waits for donning these “personality suits.” This is what young people do. It’s well commented on that one’s teens and twenties are the age where we seek to define ourselves, to assemble our selves out of found parts. Many use popular, contemporary culture and fashion for source material. Others, like Waits, use relics from the past, or mix the modern and old, like Brady did. After a period of experimentation, most people settle into their fixed-selves, though it’s debatable how fixed they really are.

Brady never had the chance to “settle” in that sense. He died in car accident in his late 20s. As a result, he exists in my mind a certain way, forever young and prone to crazy, ill-advised adventures.

I confess that, as a young man, I found something insincere in this tendency of my cohorts to don these suits made out of cultural artifacts. It seemed like they were hiding underneath hipster slogans and fashionable references. I, on the other hand, was “a real and authentic person™”. I did not consider myself part of any tribe, like punkers or metalheads, though I certainly hung around in such groups (primarily the punk and local music scenes in Seattle in the ‘90s.)

In hindsight, I realize I was somewhat unformed as a person because if this. I drifted through various pursuits and goals---musician, writer, web developer---without a firm, thought-out commitment. It could be said that I didn’t know who I truly was.

I also experienced some social injury from being so waffly. When you are concretely defined, others can easily understand and predict your behavior. For example, when you see a goth-rocker walking down the street, you know what music they like, what their general attitude is, what their political beliefs are, etc*. We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but surface details are great clues as to who we should approach and who we should avoid.

* This may be a weak example. Do goths even exist anymore?

As I look back, I realize my lack of this kind of social signaling made me appear enigmatic (and not in a good, sexy way) to people around me. “What’s his deal? What’s he all about? Is he a serial killer?”

Now that I’m older and wiser, I better appreciate the value of donning a cultural identity as a young adult, even if it’s ultimately a façade. We often hear how young painters need to copy great paintings before forging their own style. This, I believe, is similar to what teens and twenty-somethings do when they piece together their public selves. By emulating the behaviors, dialogue and attitudes found in novels, movies, poetry and song, young adults learn how to present themselves socially. There’s always the danger that they can lose themselves in the disguise but it’s more likely they find their real selves by donning composites of various identities, keeping what they like and discarding what they don’t.

Anyway, it sure worked out for Tom Waits.

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