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see/hear Volume 1 here… 

Listen to Volume 2 here & read descriptions below…

PICTURE IN A FRAME – One of my favorite vocals by anyone, ever. A traditional chord pattern with simple, direct lyrics. Could’ve been written by Willie Nelson, who covered it years later. The sax that appears mid-way lends an elegant touch. The occasional creak of piano pedals prevent it from being too smooth. Extraneous noise seemed a recurring texture of the MULE VARIATIONS sessions. The whole record has the feel of a hi-tech, digital field recording.

SUCH A SCREAM – “The plow is red, the well is full/Inside the doll house of her skull/A cheetah coat fills up with steam/She’s such a scream.” “Shovelling coal inside my dreams.” Trading the wasp wing shaker buzz, & garbage pail percussion of the studio version for tight, full-band syncopated sax-funk, this concert take goes right into James Brown at the Apollo territory. From studio album to live album, you can time-warp the entire history of the blues, from African Voodoo chant right straight through to the Checkerboard Lounge. If that ain’t enough, the lyrics cut & paste in the best Burroughs tradition. Tom would later work with the Beat master on THE BLACK RIDER stage production, which actually featured William S. on lead vocals for a tune on the soundtrack album. Singing about removing your skin, & dancing around in your bones, he actually sounded more terrifying than Waits. No mean feat.

SHINY THINGS – Another short one. One of my favorite melodic pieces, back porch banjo mirroring the exquisite vocal line. I like how each section starts immediately after the previous one, not letting the bar play out. I rarely pay attention to lyrics unless something grabs me, & this song starts so curiously. “The things a crow puts in his nest/They’re always things he finds that shine best.” I heard that, & had my ear glued to the speaker. You could go anywhere with an opening line like that. Of course, Tom the romantic declares his one true wish in the final lines, “To be king there in your eyes/To be your only shiny thing.”

BLIND LOVE – This is as close to classic country & western as Tom gets. Keith Richards wastes little time introducing himself on the electric twanger, in full FARAWAY EYES mode. His tattered vocal peeks through occasionally as well. This whole track sounds like it could’ve been a late seventies/early eighties Glimmer Twins out-take.

YESTERDAY IS HERE – Quite the beguiling set of lyrics. It’s all set to a whistle-able, Disney-in-hell melody (a hellody?). Fun fact: The title was given to Tom by the main Munster himself, actor Fred Gwynne.

I’M STILL HERE – OK, after much deliberation, I’m proclaiming this the saddest of all Tom Waits songs. Clocks in at under 2 minutes, with some subtle orchestration nicely bubbling under the piano halfway through. The tag line, that universal lament, “You haven’t looked at me that way in years…” I almost lose it on that final title phrase, where his voice pushes the higher notes. He sounds almost too heartbroken to reach them.

JESUS GONNA BE HERE SOON –  This is the centre-piece of my play list, & one of the most puzzling songs in an already mercurial catalogue. Lyrically, at first it seems an irony-free, gospel-blues in the Blind Willie Johnson vein. Upon further study though, cracks in the armour begin to appear. A weariness in which the singer must trudge on convincing himself that salvation is just around the corner, though nothing in this long,hard life has given any indication for that to be true.
I couldn’t resist sharing 3 unique versions, as this song morphed from studio to the stages of the world.
First up is the album recording, stripped down to mostly gut-string bass & vocal. Then a live take (WATCH THE VIDEO IN THIS ONE).  Tom tosses glitter in to the crowd, & does his doom dance along to a Booker T. style, Stax shuffle. The stage is covered in sawdust, so that when he stomps, a cloud arises. In 1999, this was usually the second song sung from the stage, after he entered from the rear of the venue shout/singing the kick-off number, THE BLACK RIDER, through a bullhorn. I wish I could’ve included the delirious Vancouver version here, but this is almost as good.
The final version here is also live, but the accompaniment has a new dominating guitar line, backed by a Louisiana swamp dirge.

TIME –  A rare instance where lyrics also work as on-the-page poetry. Instant classic-just add music. More than a hint of mid-sixties Dylan, what with name checks of a parade of odd characters. A weeping Napoleon, the invisible fiance, & Matilda, among others. “The wind is making speeches, & the rain sounds like a round of applause.” “Memory’s like a train, you can see it getting smaller as it pulls away/& the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget, that history puts a saint in every dream.”

GREEN GRASS – “& if the sky should fall, mark my words/We’ll catch mockingbirds.”  The melody is a subtle, minor key variation on the New Orleans funeral march, FLEE AS A BIRD/DIDN’T HE RAMBLE. That songs title is even quoted within the lyrics here, sort of like Dylan tipping his hat to the ST. JAMES INFIRMARY in BLIND WILLIE MCTELL. Fitting, as the subject matter seems to be Tom talking to a former lover visiting his grave. This live take has him reaching down to perhaps his lowest register vocal ever. Love that down-the-spiral-staircase melody. A rare (unless you like Guns N’ Roses) whistle-solo. How can you go wrong when your opening line is, “Lay your head where my heart used to be.”?

DOWN THERE BY THE TRAIN –  No sinner is beyond redemption in this solo-piano gospel. A cavalcade of history’s most reviled figures meet up for a ride into heaven. Tom testifying “I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Boothe.”  This song first appeared in a stellar take by Johnny Cash on his Rick Rubin produced comeback. In interview after interview, you could hear just how thrilled even a grizzled old vet like Tom was. The Man in Black sings the Black Rider. “I’ve never asked forgiveness & I’ve never said a prayer/I’ve never given of myself I’ve never truly cared/I’ve hurt the ones who loved me I’m still raising Cain/I’ve taken the low road and if you’ve done the same…”

THE PIANO HAS BEEN DRINKING  (Not Me) – I always picture this song taking place a few hours after BAD LIVER & A BROKEN HEART (see pt 1 of play list), another song from the same record. A short, but perfect evocation of that blur of a night out at the dive bar. This insane TV performance is from a parody talk show hosted by Martin Mull & Fred Willard, complete with mock interview chock-full of one-liners. Vintage 70′s in every garish way. Must be seen to be believed. “The carpet needs a haircut, & the spotlight looks like a prison break.” “You can’t find your waitress with a Geiger counter/& she hates you & your friends & you just can’t get served without her.”

IN THE COLISEUM – The only version that counts, as far as I’m concerned, is the astounding concert arrangement from the 1999 tour. The setting is ancient Rome, where women, “control their men, with razors & with wrists.” Marc Ribot laying down the most unorthodox lead guitar lines behind the vocal. The lyric, “This one’s for the balcony, & this one’s for the floor,” seems a tailor made audience pleaser. The follow-up line, “As the Senators decapitate the Presidential whore”, umm, not so much! Again, Vancouver 1999 is definitive for me, ranking as the concert I most kick myself for missing. This doesn’t hit the heights of that, but it is from the same tour.

FALL OF TROY – Assuming this was some sort of ancient history lesson, I used listen through without much thought, as it’s on the massive ORPHANS box of rarities, & that’s a lot of material to digest. Turns out, it’s at least partly about someone named Troy! Then one day, I found this great radio performance (possibly it’s only ever live airing), & I could not get the first or last lines out of my head. “It’s the same with men as with horses & dogs. Nothing wants to die.” “My legs ache, my heart is sore, the well is full of pennies.” A sudden, ominous minor key chord ends the proceedings. An American tragedy sketched out with the finest of detail. “It’s hard to say grace, & to sit in the place/Of someone missing at the table/Mom’s hair sprayed tight/& her face in her hands/Watching TV for answers to me/After all she’s only human/& she’s trying to find her own way home.”

DEAD AND LOVELY – Film noir jazz. This has one of those melodies where you can tell exactly what’s coming next, but that in no way diminishes the impact. One of his best recorded ensemble pieces, his son Casey on drums. The bridge brilliantly inverses its lyric on the reprise, with Tom first warning, “never let a fool kiss ya” , before sounding the equally wise, “never let a kiss fool ya.”

JOHNSBURG, ILLINOIS – A few things set this song apart from being just another tear-jerker. First, its brevity. At a buck & a half, it is the shortest song on my list. Second, it’s specificity. Tom’s wife Kathleen is actually from the title city. Her impact on his career , especially as a co-writer, should not be underestimated. Finally, that slightly dissonant resolution on the piano during the final phrase is unexpectedly jarring (in a good way). More from Tom. “It’s just like a feeling of a sailor somewhere in a cafe, who opens his wallet & turns to the guy next to him & shows him the picture while he’s talking about something else & says: “Oh, here. That’s her.” & then closes his wallet”

CONEY ISLAND BABY – If you want a carnival waltz that sounds like it’s being played from a scratchy 78 through a 1920′s phonograph, then look no further. “When she’s with me, I’m the richest man in the town.” A woman so perfect that, “the stars make wishes on her eyes.” That bridge is just perfect, with his voice slightly breaking at the high notes. “She’s a princess in a red dress. She’s the moon in the mist to me.”

GOD’S AWAY ON BUSINESS/MISERY IS THE RIVER OF THE WORLD – Apocalypse now, cabaret style. I see these as sister songs, from the same record. As nihilistic as it gets, but after all, “If there’s one thing you can say about mankind, it’s that there’s nothing kind about man”. ”All the good in the world you can fit inside a thimble, & still have room for you & me.” Our sages advice? “Everybody row!”

I’LL SHOOT THE MOON – Let’s cap this off with something silly. A romantic huckster’s plea. I thought this was a cover until only recently. A cross between ALL OF ME, & MINNIE THE MOOCHER.  Wonder what happens if you call that phone number?!

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