return to homepage
return to updates

TOM WAITS
casualty of cool

by Miles Mathis


In a recent critique of Elizabeth Gilbert, I called Tom Waits a phony, causing many readers to inhale their clove cigarettes, spin their derbies, stamp their engineer boots (bought new at Shepler’s Western Wear in 2008 but roughed up to look like they were stolen from a sharecropper in the 40’s), and write me off as a like totally unhip dude, man.

Now, I know I am not going to convince anyone of anything. That is not the purpose of my screeds. The purpose, since you didn't ask, is to present a third side in the modern dialectic. I create the trialectic, if you like, or especially if you don’t like. As in art and science, I go my own way, never looking back to see who is following. I know, like Orpheus, that that is feckless. Fair Eurydice is back there somewhere, and that is all that matters to me.

I don’t think I have ever seen a negative review of Tom Waits. Cool people are required to love him, and only the coolest people write music criticism. It is assumed that those who don’t like him are listening to DeBarge or Yanni or Celine Dion. So we once again have the appearance of a market split in two ways only. This critique is a reminder to the world that there is a silent minority (perhaps very small, perhaps just me) who like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and so on, but do not like Tom Waits.

Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits are often mentioned in the same sentence. In fact, Elizabeth Gilbert mentioned them in the same sentence in the same story, which is why I am doing it now. Some people think of them as similar in that they are supposed to be great songwriters with not-so-great voices. But in my opinion, there is a very big difference. One, Cohen is a much better songwriter. He often writes real poetry into his songs, and Waits never does. Waits has written one very good song—that is nonetheless not really to the level of poetry [“I hope that I don’t fall in love with you”], and a handful of good songs [“Downtown Train,” “Hold On”, etc.]. "Green Grass" is the best poem Waits ever wrote, I would say, but he didn't make much of a song out of it. Cohen, though, has written a couple of dozen really good songs, at least, and several that are classics. Waits has never written anything that is in the ballpark of “Suzanne” or “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye” or “The Stranger Song.” An even bigger difference is that Cohen’s voice, although only average, is never forced. He just sings the songs in a straightforward way, never trying to be cool, never trying to be someone he is not. Some would rather hear other people sing his songs, but although I love Judy Collins’ version of “Suzanne,” I think Cohen sings his songs more honestly than anyone. One of his albums creates a mood that cannot be matched by anyone else. Waits, on the other hand, is almost never satisfied to just sing a song. In the beginning, in 1973, he sang “I hope that I don’t fall in love with you” in his own voice, and it was great. But for some reason he wasn’t satisfied with that, and very soon he was singing everything in that fake carnival drunk-man voice. I am still not sure what he was shooting for with that. He either wanted to be an old black man or a hobo, but he ended up sounding like Bela Lagosi in the shower or Lurch playing with his hotwheels. I never could take him seriously after that. He was trying just too damn hard to be counter-culture.

Waits comes off even worse if we compare him to Dylan or Mitchell. Dylan wrote almost a score of classics in a very short time, and although he did some phony things, he made them work. He was trying to fake the experience of a much older man who had lived a much richer life, but he was talented enough to pull it off. He stole and cobbled and grimaced and posed in the right ways, most of the time, and really achieved a new sort of cool at times. He was a songwriter and actor of a higher order than Waits. Cool ended up getting Dylan before long, and the pretty house crumbled, but he had already created the sort of oeuvre you can live on for the rest of your life.

Then we come to Mitchell, the most talented of the bunch. Like Cohen, she could write a song to tear your heart out, with poetry, rhythm, melody, everything. But she could also sing. She sang in her own voice, in the beginning, and never needed to pretend to be someone else. She was channeling no one but Joni. And she was a better musician than anyone else, too. She could play any stringed instrument like it had just been invented: like no one else had ever looked at it or played it before. And she didn’t write one or two great songs, or ten or twenty, she wrote scores. From the mid-1960’s through Hejira, in 1976, she could do almost nothing wrong. Some time after that she got bored with her own talent, or became influenced by the culture of cool, and, like Waits, began channeling old black men. We needed Joni channeling Charles Mingus about as much as we needed Charles Mingus in a blond wig over an Appalachian dulcimer, singing “The Circle Game” in falsetta.

At any rate, most will say that it is unfair of me to compare Waits to Dylan and Mitchell. Even if Waits only wrote five good songs, that is five more than most people write. It is more than I have written. True enough. And if Waits had written the songs and hung back, like Cohen or a hundred others, I would have no reason to call him a phony. Or if he had sung his songs like a normal human being, instead like Monstro or the Incredible Hulk, I would have no reason to call him a phony. But he didn’t do that, did he? No, he developed the biggest phoniest persona he could, and the most ridiculous, most purposely unappealing voice imaginable, expressly to appeal to the margins of cool, to those college kids and critics and other eternally infantine persons that have propped up the avant garde from the beginning. These are the same people who were impressed by Duchamp’s urinal in the museum—in the same way that any four year old would be thrown into hysterics by pee-pee in the pulpit or a floater in the bathtub. These are the same people who were impressed by John Cage sitting on the piano—in the way that any teenager is thrilled by climbing on the school roof and throwing dirt clods. These are the same people who are fascinated by Damien Hirst putting the sheep in the Tate Modern, or by Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvas, or by the cacophony of Pierre Boulez, or by a thousand other modern “novelties.”

These people often play Tom Waits songs in public, at top volume, to show how avant garde and edgy they are, how unlike Mom and Dad and the Young Republicans. If they lived on the other side of town, they would have the windows down in the black sedan, the ground effects lit, and FiftyCent blaring at 200 decibels, breaking windows at Church’s Fried Chicken. But here at Wasp State U., they show that they are “artists” instead of frat boys by putting Waits on during the evening shift at the Java Jive. That is one of the personal reasons I can’t stand to hear Waits. For me he announces the coming of the art student in paint-splattered overalls, with the black makeup and the dyed hair and the dirt strategically left only in the most visible places. Every move and lean and look screams, “Look at me! I am different: post-colonial, post postmodern, deconstructing all I see and hear and step over, such a crashing and crushing individual that I must dress exactly like all other art students—moving the dirt and tattoos and staples and duct tape around a bit.

Yes, these people have been snagged by the same phony counter-culture that snagged Waits in the mid-seventies. Nothing has changed. Except that now it is no longer counter. It is THE culture. You will say the business suit is the culture, but that is not culture, that is business. Anywhere there is a pretense of culture, there you will find the cool, edgy, modern, post postmodern, deconstructed, ragged out, smoky, tattooed, lazy-voiced “artist”, artist manqué, artist wannabe, or groupie. That is 95% of the soi-disant culture, and there is almost nothing counter to that. You have what, the few nerds still taking orchestra in high school, the ones whose moms or dads play for the Philharmonic; and then you have the odd postdated realists like me, hiding our vestigial tails in our bloomers.

Yes, cool has infected an entire culture, but for that coven of us who were inoculated somehow—perhaps by some spore falling from space, as in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Except that it is only we who have managed to keep our bodies and minds and wardrobes uncooled. We have very little to say about ourselves with our shirts and our hairstyles, preferring to say it with our mouths. We do not pretend to like Tom Waits or Derrida or Duchamp or Warhol, just to fit in, any more than we would pretend to like Reagan or Bush or caviar or lapdogs or polo.

I say “pretend,” because in 9 cases in 10, or 999,999 cases in 1,000,000, that is precisely what it is: a pretense. Most people choose a group to identify with, for strictly social reasons, and then adopt the styles and politics and art of that group, caring very little what the actual content of those styles and politics and art really are. They are either culture or counter-culture, and if they are counter-culture they don’t look hard at anything else that is also counter-culture. If Tom Waits wants to sing like Elmer Fudd with laryngitis, fine: music is a secondary matter compared to counter-culture, compared to group identity. If Natalie Imbruglia wants to sound like Betty Boop with a helium balloon up her ass, fine. If Warhol wants to look like Cruella DeVille’s little sister, fine. If Duchamp wants to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa or exhibit a bicycle tire as art, fine. It is not the action or the content of the action, or the look or the sound or the meaning, it is now only the group association of the action that matters. Duchamp is against the upper classes, that is all that matters. Waits is against the suits, that is all that matters. Music, art, literature, architecture: none of them matter anymore but as expression of class solidarity. Music does not have to be musical or melodic or, heaven forbid, beautiful, and it doesn’t have to tell people who you are. It only has to tell people who you are not. Waits spent so much energy proving to the world he was not Barry Manilow or John Denver that he forgot to save some energy for telling who he was. He’s hiding behind so many levels of cool, you have to wonder if there is a real man there. Who is Tom Waits, without the voice and the alcohol and the hat and so on? Nobody knows. Unfortunately, nobody seems to care, which is probably why he drinks. It is the success of the act that is so depressing, to Tom first of all.

As with Tom, so with a large swath of American culture, and almost the entire swath of “the arts.” It is not democracy that has killed art, it is this particular disease of group identity, made epidemic and super-virulent by the media, that has killed or maimed art of all forms. The visual arts have been all but destroyed, and music is following the same path. When Joni went synth, we knew the end was at hand. Since then, half the popular songs are remakes: no one seems to know how to write a song anymore. Even Van Morrison is doing covers. Apparently Elton John, Van Morrison, and Rod Stewart agreed to swap discographies after 2001. And Rap proves my point like a thunderbolt. Rap is 1% drums, 1% voice, and 98% group identity. No one cares what the rappers are saying, because, like other modern artists, they aren’t saying anything. They are selling identity. We knew who Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake or Carol King was from listening to the songs. They were giving themselves away. But the rappers aren’t giving themselves away, they are selling themselves. They pretend to fight a culture of shallow white products, by what?—creating another over-produced product. Who would the rappers be without the clothes and the girls and the cars and the jewelry and the handsigns and the lingo? We don’t know. They can’t reveal themselves. That wouldn’t be cool. That wouldn’t be manly. That would be like pulling a Luther Vandross, man. The whole culture, across all lines, is a casualty of cool.

MOMA is one big advertisement for this culture of cool. No one goes to MOMA to look at art—there is almost no art there. They go for a dose of identity. It is like a club, they want to be seen there. They dress up and fix the hair and check the breath. If there is a line, so much the better. It is even better to be seen in line outside MOMA than to be seen in MOMA. Outside you can be seen by passing cars. Likewise for a Tom Waits concert. The music is not the draw, since very little that could be called music occurs. The draw is the other counter-culture people there. The audience is all being cool together, having a community smoke and a community drink and a community pose.

There is nothing terribly wrong with that, I suppose, except that it is undeniably phony. Phonies have to gather and snuggle and copulate like anyone else, and this is how they do it. It is no worse than the other gatherings of other types of phonies all over town, gathering at Starbucks or the Junior League or MENSA or the Young Republicans or the Aged Democrats. People have always been phonies, and always will, we assume. But I will leave you with one last observation: in the past, people managed to be phonies in a million different ways without destroying art, music, or culture. We may assume that the 19th century was rife with gatherings of phonies. If fact, we know it from looking at the record. Tolstoy claimed that these phonies were preventing art, but as we look back, we see that a large amount of art, including Tolstoy’s own art, was not being prevented. Tolstoy never had a problem finding a publisher. So we see that the disease then was virulent, but not yet super-virulent. Mass media had not yet become ubiquitous, and the phonies in any one group had not become adept enough at propaganda to completely inundate any field.

But now they can, and have. All fields have been inundated with the propaganda of group identity. All fields but art have been inundated by the propaganda of the military industrial complex. Art, still seen as pretty much useless by the military industrial complex, was left as a bone to chew for the self-styled “left”, and the left has masticated it until it is nothing but slobber. The phony left church has set up its new pews in the museum, and has spent all its misdirected energy redecorating the place.

You will say, “Well, if so, the die is cast. What can we do? History is inexorable. You have admitted that people are phony, and you can’t change human nature.” Maybe. Except that people don’t have to quit being phony, they just have to leave art alone of their phony energies. They have to look up at the ceiling of the new church/museum and say to themselves, “Hey, I am not an artist, why am I working on this redecoration project? It is not for me to draw over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with crayons and magic markers. If I have too much time on my hands, and consider myself a leftist, maybe I should actually be painting over the propaganda from the military industrial complex. Maybe I shouldn’t be satisfied with this bone I have been thrown, which is not really to my taste anyway. Maybe I should take a shot of courage and face reality. Maybe I should round up all my phony friends and go be phony on the steps of the Pentagon, or of Congress, or of the White House. If I want to sing bad songs in funny voices, maybe I should do it while picketing Raytheon or Halliburton or Exxon-Mobil or Monsanto. If I want to put urinals in funny places and draw mustaches on people, maybe I should put a urinal in the lobby of RCA or GE or General Dynamics or the World Bank. Maybe I should draw mustaches on the Bilderbergers or the Trilateral Commission. MAYBE I SHOULD BE PHONY WITHOUT SITTING ON SOMEONE WHO IS NOT PHONY.

By the way, if you want to see someone who is a real musical genius, go here.


If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.