What’s In A Voice: Why I Believe Tom Waits

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One of the things I love about being a part of the Rabbit Room is the permission it gives me to be a little self-indulgent. I can talk about the real stuff that moves me or tickles my mind that I don’t really feel like I can talk about anywhere else. I only hope that it’s useful to at least some who take the time to read and that, like me, they find an unexpected treasure that helps bring clarity in a world of numbing chaos. I don’t take your time or trust for granted!

So in the spirit of a little self-indulgence, I want to talk about my new Tom Waits record.

For those unfamiliar with him, Waits is an artist/composer/actor whose trademark gravelly voice was described by one critic as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.” If you’ve not heard of him, you’ve most likely heard others cover his songs (“Downtown Train “ sung by Rod Stewart, “Jersey Girl” sung by Springsteen, etc.) I’m planning on writing about Tom Waits’ music in a later post, but for right now I just want to focus on his voice.

My parents recently got me Tom Waits’s newest record entitled Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. It’s a three disc set of his songs that didn’t fit on any of his other records, which is really saying something considering how quirky and out of left field Waits’ records are. Working my way through the set, I got a big grin when I got to track 3 on the second disc. The song was called “The Long Way Home”, but it wasn’t the first time that I’d heard it.

I first heard “The Long Way Home” sung by Norah Jones and loved it as one of the better tracks on her “Feels Like Home” record (now you know. I listen to Norah Jones). It hit me as a sweet little song about taking a long walk home in order to spend more time with her walking companion. That’s just how it always hit me. But hearing Tom Waits sing it was a revelation. It was like hearing it for the first time and the lyric took on a whole new personality when growled by the world-weary voice of Tom Waits.

It turns out that Tom wrote the song and that it’s about the kind of person who no matter how much he tries, he’s more or less fated to have to learn things the hard way, to always have to take the long way home. At least that’s the way the song hits me when Tom sings it. I listened to both versions back to back and the lyrics are the same, but I never really heard them when Norah was singing.

And that’s just the trouble with a sweet voice like Norah’s – you’re likely to miss the point. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a great artist with a lovely and interesting voice. But a great voice isn’t always what’s best to sell a great song. In some cases, it might even be a detriment.

In an interview on the Stop Making Sense DVD by the Talking Heads, David Byrne says that the better a person’s voice, the harder it is to believe them. I thought of the difference between artists like Celine Dion, Josh Groban, and Michael Buble in contrast to Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and of course Tom Waits and decided that maybe Byrne is on to something here.

I hope AP doesn’t mind me using him as an example, but he and I have talked a number of times about music critics who have dogged him for his voice. But to me, Andrew’s voice is perfect. I love it for what it is and I think it’s beautiful, believable, and sincere. It has a gentle sweetness to it. I love that voice because it’s the one that has consistently brought the heart of God to me. The same is true of Rich Mullins and Mark Heard. For different though similar reasons, it’s why I’m drawn to the voices of Daniel Lanois, Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens, and most of the artists I love.  It’s the imperfections that make these voices so compelling.

Norah’s version of “The Long Way Home” is really good, but I believe Tom Wait’s version. Norah’s is pretty, but Tom’s broke my heart and made me present to my own life and the way that I seem wired to always have to learn the hard way. That gritty, rasping voice of his moves me to tears almost every time he employs it in the service of a sad and hopeful song. If I might be so bold to use the word, I would say that it’s the ugliness of Wait’s voice that makes the song’s beauty more convincing.

And increasingly I find it’s this very thing I look for in books, movies, music, or any other kind of storied art. Take Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Road, for instance. It’s one of the bleakest and most brutal books I’ve ever read, and yet it’s exactly this that makes the tenderness and hope of it so believable. The older I get the more I appreciate contrast: hope shines brighter set against the darkness of despair (The Road, The Lord Of The Rings); tenderness makes more sense to me in the context of brutality (as in the film Life Is Beautiful); the more I see the virtue in a good Tom Waits song.

I think the application (if I can be so self-indulgent as to propose one) is that it’s not the best, strongest, or most beautiful parts of who we are that are most compelling or even useful in the employment of God’s Kingdom. It’s our frailties, brokenness, and even the ugliness of our deepest secrets and struggles that will make the hope we proclaim believable. It’s this that puts God’s grace on display and shows the world what the work of Grace really looks like in a real person’s life.

Sometimes, this very thing might even happen in something as unlikely as a Tom Waits song.

(If you’re interested, you can listen to the two different versions in iTunes by clicking here for the Tom Waits version and here for the Norah Jones version.)


20 Comments

  1. Joshua Keel

    Jason, any time you want to just “be a little self-indulgent,” please go right ahead. Thanks for mentioning Lord of the Rings and The Road. I think you’re definitely on to something about “hope set against extreme despair” being more real than it could possibly be if the hope was divorced from the doubt, fear and evil.

  2. Nathan Bubna

    In a fallen world like this, we must acknowledge the brokenness if we want to the beauty to ring true.

    Though i confess, i never thought of finding this in a voice. Thanks for pointing it out, Jason.

  3. Tony Heringer

    Jason, I don’t know if its the voice. Maybe its the passion or our connecting with the artist more as we take in the body of work. Here’s Jones doing the song live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6GGqlA1kd4

    You are right it is prettier when she sings it, but she is being deferential to Tom’s style here and does a good job with it. I like it over the studio version Tom did — which seemed a bit flat to me. Again, I’m not listening to his music in context, I’m just catching these two tunes together and the Jones one I watched live.

    As for the pretty voice theory. There is a song called “Telling Me Lies” by Trio where Linda Ronstadt hits this note that just pierces me every time I hear the song. I’ve had the experience with good and bad vocalists so, I’d say its a connection we have with the artist or the material and that artist passion to their craft or the art itself — whether it be music, film or literature — that is what really grips us.

    Another example is the song “My Redeemer Lives” – I enjoy the Bob Bennett version, but when I listened to the Mark Heard rendition a lyric I’d bypassed or misheard (no pun intended) on the Bennett version jumped out at me. I’m not sure I have that same experience without the Bennett version as a reference or context for listening to the Heard version.

  4. Curan

    I think its in the Passion. Jason doesn’t have a bad voice yet you can feel his sincerity when he sings.

    I love passionate artists but i also love good songs regardless of who wrote them or who sings them or whether they mean them or not.. If it hits me right to my arteriole and ventricle, then the song served its purpose. 🙂

  5. Pip

    Hi Jason …thanks for sending over the great read this morning…I am so in compliance with this writing today…I have a son who loves to write and read and play and sleep , eat breathe and poop(excuse the image)MUSIC! its true…! I appreciate your sharing your heart on this topic and cant wait to share it with my son…i Wonder if we could add Derrik webb to this category…and I must add…Your music does reflect the honest , broken spirit of a person walking in the harder lessons…I wouldnt have put my finger on it when I first listened and bought your cd however .., I can reflect on this article and put my self in the category of “twice baked ” potatoes….learning the lesson more times than ONCE!~ HA anyhoo..just thank you for sharing this morning…your bulletin from myspace was one of few that I enjoyed recieving these day! I ll pick up a copy of Tom s work somewhere ….and pass it along!

  6. Larry

    Leonard Cohen said it best: “There is a crack, a crack, in everything…..that’s how the light gets in”. Great line.

  7. t clair

    The first Waits record I heard was “Bone Machine.” When he began wailing “Well the earth died screaming!” I felt chills.

    I think you are right. Our faith and hope are meaningless if not set in contrast with our doubt and despair. I would add to the list of works that accomplish this “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear it Away” by Flannery O’Connor. Really, anything written by FlannO is the essence of dark grace. When I imagine a film version of Wise Blood, Tom Waits is always behind the imaginary soundtrack.

    Also, I find it interesting the way a voice can interpret lyrics for us. It amazes me that Norah’s version was identical lyrically to Tom’s, and yet their performances deliver such strikingly different messages. We may prefer one message to another, but I actually am impressed by Norah’s ability to reinterpret Tom’s song. I wouldn’t be impressed if she did it that same way Tom did.

    Recently my girlfriend and I made mixes for one another. We had a lot of the same songs on our mixes. Interestingly, there was one song that we both had on our mixes, but they were performed by two very different artists. She gave me “Sea of Love” as performed by Cat Power. Me? I gave her Tom Wait’s version. =)

  8. Bret Welstead

    Jason, thank you so much for these encouraging words. I often shudder to hear my recorded self, but what you’re writing reminds me that it’s not my strength or talent that is the focus: it’s Christ’s strength in my weaknesses. I appreciate hearing this today.

    Did you know that, of all people, actress Scarlet Johannson is releasing a CD of Tom Waits covers on May 20? Just thought you’d want to put it on your “To Buy” list. 😉

  9. Jonathan

    Jason, thanks so much for this post. Tom Waits is one of those artists for me that can give me chills when I hear his voice. There is something about his melodies and the way he delivers a lyric that go deeper somehow for me. I love the song Tom Traubert’s Blues and even though I’m not sure what all the lyrics are about there is such a sense of desperation in the way he sings it. One of my jazz teachers used to tell the vocalists in our band that “you have to live it if you’re going to mean it”. I think that’s true no matter what the genre and maybe that adds to the “believability” factor in a case like this. Maybe that’s the missing ingredient sometimes when an artist covers another artists songs. Just my thoughts. -Jon

  10. Mike

    I have two daughters; 23 and 17 but it was not until the birth of my son who’s 6 that God began to teach me that He loved our humanness. The little quirks that my wonderfully handsome, highly intelligent, weird little boy displays are what make our relationship special. I had always been taught, at least indirectly, that our human side was the part God disliked but he loved us in the spirit only. I think he created our quirks and yes our “ugliness.” It makes us unique. The things that we would change but can’t are special gifts from Him.

  11. Curan

    yah scarlett has good tastes.

    by the way just an opinion, i think u can know if the artist is a fake through his list of favorites and influences. If those don’t add up to the music he’s making, then he is either faking for the money or become a slave to the industry.

    examples i found recently the influences of Nick Carter and Ashley Simpson which are very different to the music they’re playing.

  12. evie

    A few abbreviated two-centses about Tom Waits:

    – My favorite album has got to be “Nighthawks At the Diner.”

    – My favorite song has got to be “Picture In a Frame” from his “Mule Variations” album…“I’m gonna love you ’til the wheels come off….”

    – Have you ever seen the very strange and maybe wonderful movie called “Coffee and Cigarettes?” It’s a collection of shorts directed by Jim Jarmusch and there’s a truly hilarious, painfully awkward one with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. FUNNY stuff.

    – I could go on and on about his voice, but that’s already been very thoughtfully done.

    Thanks for the post, Jason. Good’n.

  13. Chris Slaten

    Jason, I agree. Too true. I want to come back and dive into the this conversation a little deeper with everyone (this is something I’ve actually had to work out a lot, particularly since I don’t have a radio voice at all but I love to sing and write music), but while I am thinking of it I wanted to go ahead and recommend another really good example of what Jason is talking about.
    “I think It’s going to rain today” by Randy Newman
    a clip of Randy Newman’s original version can be heard on his greatest hits album on amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/Best-Randy-Newman/dp/B00005NTQ4/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1208621003&sr=8-1

    and then there’s Bette Midler singing it in Beaches:
    http://www.amazon.com/Beaches-Soundtrack-Recording-Bette-Midler/dp/B000002INP/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1208621171&sr=1-1

    Same words and melody. Completely different conotations, though in this case it may be a little more than the voice that influences the meaning.

    Ditto on Bone Machine and “and the earth died screamin!”
    Also, for any of you die-hard TW fans there is a fantastic instrumental band called Tin Hat Trio. Their albums are 95% instrumental, but each one includes one song with a guest vocalist. Their album “Helium” features Tom Wait’s singing the title track. Another album, The Rodeo Eroded, features Willie Nelson. Both are great records.

    I am eager to read your next post on TW music.
    We have this treasure in jars of clay.
    Clap Hands.

  14. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I know this post isn’t about cover songs, but the last post reminded me of another great cover I heard this last year. Greg Laswell does this great melancholy acoustic piano cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girl’s Just Want To Have Fun.” It’s so worth it to download it from iTunes. It’s just beautiful. His voice and gentle piano accompaniment turns it into what feels like a break-up song, as if he’s in love with a girl, but girls just want to have fun… you can get it on itunes.

  15. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’ve always wanted to hear a slow, heartbreaking cover of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, someone like Springsteen maybe. Although it sounds like a happy, peppy song, it’s actually really sad if you listen to it, especially in the context of the rest of the unbelievable ‘Pet Sounds’ album.

  16. Electroluminescence

    I don’t have alot to say here, i’m not really worthy since I don’t have much experience in the Tom Waits world… but basically… I couldn’t stand him & tried listening to him for ages… & it just didn’t work.
    until Jason sent me the two versions of The Long Way Home. Of course, i usually am drawn to a sweet, smooth voice like Norah’s & i LOVE her version of that song… but it really was eye opening hearing Tom’s version….
    it blew my mind how completely different the song was when he sang it.
    What i like about him is that he sings his songs they way they are MEANT to be sung… and you can actually feel the words.

    in other words, i gave him another Jason because of Jason Gray. :]

  17. Electroluminescence

    “in other words, i gave him another Jason because of Jason Gray. :]”

    what i meant to say was that i gave him another CHANCE. NO, i did not give Tom Waits another Jason.

    oops.

  18. David Kern

    I too love this song. Very much, and find that’s Waits has often held a mysterious place in my life representative of grace and hope in the face of darkness and hopelessness. This song somewhow speaks to me of how despite the fact that we will often fail to love, love itself is powerful and meaningful. As Wendell Berry once wrote in a poem:

    Whatever happens,
    Those who have learned
    to love one another
    have made their way
    to the lasting world
    and will not leave,
    whatever happens.

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