A Week with the Music of Tom Waits: Part 5

tomwaitsmegaphoneBone Machine (1992) is not as cacophonous as its successor The Black Rider (1993) is, but it’s way scarier. Bone Machine sounds like Waits, having grown bored with the chest of junk he used to build his trilogy of albums across the 1980s, went out to a cemetery and starting digging up corpses because, hey, human bones make for fantastic percussion.

Never mind the album’s title, which seems to fit cozily, but good luck listening to the album’s first song, “Earth Died Screaming,” and not thinking bones aren’t exactly the tool being used to achieve the macabre island rhythm. It’s like Bart Simpson telling unsuspecting toddlers at the dentist that the rattle inside spray paint is a kid’s tooth. It’s terrifying, occasionally disturbing, and kind of funny.

Amidst the skeletal percussion, the steady reminder that “we’re all gonna’ be just dirt in the ground,” and the general feeling that the Apocalypse can’t possibly be far off, Reverend Waits emerges like the voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness to assure everyone that “Jesus gonna’ be here, he’s gonna’ be here soon.” It’s not a warning of an impending judgment that so often accompanies the voices of those who claim the end is nigh; it’s a voice of someone trying to keep the faith while the world around them goes to Hell, and Jesus is coming to bail them out. And since things are deteriorating, the narrator concludes that His arrival must be soon.

The silence in the library is making me self-conscious of the volume coming through my headphones. I’m not one to disrespect the sanctity of a library’s silence, but I’m also not one to want people to think I’m insane. Bone Machine is probably one of the albums in my collection most likely to give people that impression. It’s one thing if Mozart is a little loud in my headphones. It’s quite a different thing if “In the Colosseum” is:

This one’s for the balcony and this one’s for the floor
As the senators decapitate the presidential whore
The bald-headed senators are splashing in the blood
The dogs are having someone who is screaming in the mud
In the Colosseum tonight 

I settle on a volume I deem acceptably loud for rocking, but quiet enough as to not escape the confines of my headphones and let Bone Machine churn on. “Murder in the Red Barn” is one of my all-time favorite Waits tracks. The ambiguity with which he presents the (lack of) evidence to this murder is, again, terrifying, occasionally disturbing, and kind of funny:

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

Bone Machine comes coasting to a stop about fifteen minutes later. For all its discord, I find it to be one of my favorite Waits albums —Rain Dogs offering the stiffest competition of the albums this series has talked about thus far.

The Black Rider, conversely, is not one of my favorite Waits albums. In fact, it’s probably my least favorite. Like 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years, The Black Rider is the soundtrack to a stage play. It’s rife with “themes” and “interludes,” and other scaffolding indicating its theater DNA.

I’ve briefly taken out my headphones as my own personal intermission between the two albums. The library isn’t as quiet as it was when Bone Machine started. There’s a man, clearly a recipient of a lifetime of privilege and general obliviousness, talking on his Bluetooth earpiece as he walks around — is there a technological invention that has made douchebags more easily identifiable?– yelling at some poor customer service rep who apparently “is an idiot,” and “doesn’t know what he’s doing,” because, you know, the library is the logical place to be having this “discussion.” The discordant Black Rider is going to be sweet, beautiful music to my ears in comparison.

Off the stage, much of The Black Rider is forgettable. Many of those “intros,” “themes,” and “interludes” don’t endure without the aid of the stage setting –they kind of just sound like thematic noise. Even after listening to this album many times over the last several years, it’s still hard to get through in one sitting. If not for the occasional signposts that highlight the trip — “Just the Right Bullets,” “The Briar and the Rose,” “Russian Dance” (Waits’ best instrumental piece, bar none), “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” “Lucky Day” — I’d probably never choose to listen to this album.

Speaking of thematics, something I love doing is using an artist’s catalog to piece together some kind of unified narrative –whether that story is true, or completely built from my imagination (RE: bullshit) doesn’t really concern me. Even though The Black Rider isn’t necessarily indispensable, it holds a romantic place in the Waits catalog, unofficially closing the junkyard era started by Swordfishtrombones ten years earlier. It’s thematically beautiful that the closing track of The Black Rider is “Carnival” –a one-minute-sixteen-second instrumental of carnival-esque madness. You can almost feel the camera panning out to an overhead, panoramic view of the scene. To the sound of a train whistle in the closing moments, the lights and music fade. The carnival –Waits’ carnival that has taken up residence for the last ten years– is leaving town. Its departure will leave a quiet, dusty homestead and six years of musical silence in its wake, from which perhaps Waits’ greatest achievement will derive its roots.