Tom Waits’ Mule Variations Celebration Week: “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine, 1992)

**Leading up to Mule Variations’ 15th anniversary on April 16th, I’ll be talking about a favorite Tom Waits song each day (not from Mule Variations –we’ll talk about those on the 16th).

It’s been a fun week leading up to the 15th anniversary of Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, but before we get to the “big” event tomorrow, I’d like to talk about one final Waits track: Bone Machine’s “Murder in the Red Barn.” Along with Heartattack and Vine’s On the Nickel,” it’s my favorite Tom Waits song, so it’s only fitting that this mini-series of posts would culminate with it.

The nightmarish quality exhibited by Bone Machine makes it arguably Waits’ most uneasy record to listen to. Real Gone is right there, too, but there’s something about the production of Bone Machine that makes it feel darker and, well, scarier, than Real Gone. Bone Machine is Waits’ junkyard orchestra at its junkiest. It makes Rain Dogs sound like the London Philharmonic.

Bone Machine is one you need to stick with, though. While I’ve come to enjoy pretty much the entire record, the second half of it is significantly better. So if you tune out before about track seven (“Jesus Gonna Be Here”), you’re going to miss out on some top-shelf Tom Waits. And that’s right where “Murder in the Barn” makes its appearance.

“Murder in the Red Barn” offers the whole Waits package: delightful ambiguity, humor and wit, instrumental scene setters, and lyrics that remind you you’ll probably never write a song as good.

Waits spends four-and-a-half minutes pummeling you with a whole bunch of evidence why the guy in question didn’t commit this murder, despite the fact that the guy probably did:

Now the ravens nest in the rotted roof of Chenoweth’s little place
And no one’s asking Cal about that scar upon his face
‘Cause there’s nothin’ strange about an ax with bloodstains in the barn
There’s always some killin’ you got to do around the farm

Waits is having fun with his dark humor here. Reasons like the lyrics above are the equivalent of a child who knows there is coincidental evidence that can get him out of something he’s clearly guilty of. And the final couplet above is Waits giving true, hard-to-argue-with, evidence, while he flashes a wry smile the entire time. And he knows you see that smile. He also knows you seeing the smile doesn’t change the convenience of the evidence for his protagonist.

The song is based on this murder case –how closely I’m not really sure. The musical uneasiness and a lot of that coincidental evidence leaves you with the vibe that this guy is probably guilty. But when you consider that Waits spends the whole song explaining why, technically, a lot of this evidence could just as easily vindicate the suspect as convict him, he sounds more like a lawyer asking you to realize that convicting someone on this evidence is shaky ground (RE: reasonable doubt). In other words, the guy may be guilty, but he’s probably going to get off. Unless of course you base your conclusion on the actual story, in which case, whether he was guilty or not, the suspect was executed.

As is the case of most of the writing I love, I think I prefer the ambiguity.

One thought on “Tom Waits’ Mule Variations Celebration Week: “Murder in the Red Barn” (Bone Machine, 1992)

  1. I like how the YouTube video pairs this song with a picture of Waits where he looks like the lead singer from Counting Crows.

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