Tom Waits: Pimping The Bottle

Booze is Tom Wait’s bitch. He rides it like a beaten three year old mule, treats it rough like a red haired stepchild, and has been dedicated to it’s topsy-turvy charms since he realized there was something in that cursed sideshow carnival ride of alcoholism that could be mined for swordfish trombone sound and fury. Waits is as much as a noise-monger as Lou Reed ever was with his feedback, except Tom finds his noise in kicking rusty old fenders and clapping burnt out bent spoons together that have been dropped by roving bands of junkies and sailors that inhabit the lines of his songs. Waits is a tough pimp-master of the bottle. His vocal approach is somewhere between the call and return of the Delta blues, Woody Guthrie and Dylan’s growling affectations and the death rattle of a country star in the back seat of a rickety Cadillac, being driven by some hapless college kid, heading down the Tennessean highway being driven to a show he will never make.

Tom’s best music is just as drunk as he was when he produced it. According to the interviews he has not had a drink since 1992. Shame. Tom’s art is better for a drink, but I guess producing another Rain Dogs is not worth his life and sanity. That is the big fear for every drunk: that they are not as productive, not as able to tune into the muse, not as interesting or artistically talented without it..and Tom is not. Tom is the rare soul that used booze, squeezed every drop dry of its inspiration and when he realized that the bottle was winning the tug of war, jumped off and into the cool clean water days of sobriety. Good for him. Bad for us. The audience doesn’t care if the writer or the poet or the musician bleeds themself dry – or drinks themselves to death – in the interests of art, in fact we applaud it.

I want to see that rabid foaming at the mouth era primo- Waits, the spittle bursting through the dam of his disintegrating teeth, red faced and bloated, sweating and wrecked on the shores of bourbon. His body twisting and turns inhabited by several different demons: bathtub gin, potato vodka, 120 over-proof rum and a parade of gut-rot wines and exotic 3am choices of liqueurs. Tom Waits is Brecht on the lash. Kurt Weil with the DTs. Jack the Knife with a flaming blue Jesus lined up on the bar when he is already 4 sheets to the wind and at least six shots over the edge, sweet Jesus! The musical theatre element to his work is secondary to his prodigious oral alcoholic input. He only sounds Irish because the motherfucker is so drunk, we are not accustomed to hearing an American let his boozy freak flag fly. He is Berlin bar-room cabaret silk scarf filtered aquavit made into the form of a man. Wait’s tendency to give his most sugary melodies to his direst darkest lyrics is just the tendency that every drunk has to get maudlin and sentimental by the end of a long, rough drunk.

The fucked up lurching, tumbling rhythms of his best work are nothing to do with the marimba but everything to do with that ethanol shake rattle and roll. I am tired of hearing these boomer critics give all the credit to the theatre, to latin percussive techniques, to all these lofty ideas and ideals. Tom got lucky – he has the constitution of a peasant ox, and the mind of an 18th century French poet who is dedicated to the Green Fairy’s charms, going through elaborate rituals of flame and sugar cube to get that wormwood alcohol into their desperate systems. Frank’s Wild Years chronicled a last gasp of an aging party fiend bar fly. You have to have lived that alcoholic wee hours dark corner of a bar life to dig that twisted Sinatra crooner schtick. Waits is a Laphroaig soaked peaty smokey leprechaun dancing along with the streetcars and the train tracks and the beat poets psychic and physical wanderings of his alcoholic mind and ethanol infused soul.

Waits conducts the long slow dance of Americana from his place behind the piano or the microphone, he is the band leader, with a band aid over his eyebrow, holding together split skin caused by falling down some unforgiving stairs after a fifth or two of something overproof and strong. He is a musical method actor: he is living the life he is singing. He is drinking the bottle he is pimping. He is no traveler, no tourist man, no wanna-be. He is playing the has been washed up and drunken beyond redemption part whilst being very much on the crest of an artistic and alcoholic wave. His personality could get ya drunk just watching it unfold. Critics say that he is theatrical, and he does perform, but no more than any drunk performs every day of their lives. There is no artifice, just ethanol-amplification of what Waits allowed himself to be for the sake of his art. Every artist has their tools and their fuel, and Wait’s main tool was alcohol, and his fuel was the same. The piano and the band and the staging of the performance was secondary to the alcohol and the words the booze freed from his mind, and the concepts and symphony booze played in his mind through the lens of his talent and the genius of his concepts. The bathtub he stands in to sing on stage was only drained of the moonshine gin a few moments before he got into it. Waits simply allows us to watch his glorious deterioration or amplification depending on yer point of view and vice of choice.

The Bruce Springsteen-consuming fans, who eat up that easy listening shite were never going to eat up Bruce’s boozy beat trifle like they should have done. Waits was popular but not stratospheric as he should have been. As an actor, Waits played himself over again. In Down By The Law, with his long pianist fingers and his mussed up straw-man hair he was a resounding success. By Ironweed, alongside Jack Nicolson, he got to play amid the characters he wrote and sang about. The saintly bum role suited Waits well, but still he was playing the booze, romancing the bottle, and that remained the sole orbit of his persona. The booze chose an invaluable champion, and Tom was so in tune with the bottle he knew when to jump off and sober up. I would have hated to be Tom come quitting time. The music is sweat and stubble and that sick romance of the drunk that had only ever lived up to its vast promise and possibilities in the musical field in Mr. Waits. Jim Morrison worshipped at the altar of alcohol, but it just turned him into a bozo. Hunter S Thompson and Bukowski made the bottle work for them, but writers are a different breed to popular musicians. Southern Comfort destroyed Janis Joplin after it made her…well I guess that was the smack, but the booze had its part to play.

Alcohol amplifies the animalistic parts of human nature: the shit and spunk and puke of life runs through Wait’s music. Waits sounded like a gold rush miner who had got wrecked on his own good fortune. Waits is not rock and roll, but but more a quarry miner for rich seams of Americana. He burst back on the scene in the 90s. My generation learned to love him more than his own ever got him. He spoke to our nihilism. The nihilism of the bottle let go of him at this point. He sobered up, and released I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, which is possibly the worst song he ever put out. It was perplexingly bad. He left the booze and the booze-muse left him too. Of course he released more records, tried to remember and memorialize the ghost of a thousand drunks. Sometimes he succeeded, mostly he did not. He never reached the gory-glory heights of his growling sing-song drunken gargle again. He just couldn’t do it sober.

I am not saying that if ya wanna write or produce your own Rain Dogs you need to get good and drunk or high, and to be frank, very few have the constitution to produce genius from the bad fuel of this ethanol intoxication. Most just get drunk, piss away their lives and die in a ditch. But for the few it provides them a bump into the Hallowed Halls of the Gods of Poetry and Music, at least for as long as they can make the ride last before they either give up the fuel or the ghost.

Tom Waits: the ultimate pimp of the bottle. All hail the great conqueror! He used the booze and did not let the booze use him, and that is wild, that is beautiful. That is not just rare…it is unique.


  1. Stephen

    Just brilliant: “Tom got lucky – he has the constitution of a peasant ox, and the mind of an 18th century French poet who is dedicated to the Green Fairy’s charms, going through elaborate rituals of flame and sugar cube to get that wormwood alcohol into their desperate systems.”

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