Telling one of his trademark shaggy-dog stories, Tom Waits recalls chasing a woman as she hops into her car outside a grocery store. “I grabbed her leg and I started pulling it — just the way I’m pulling yours,” he says. And so Waits’ story ends abruptly, without the expected punch line. It’s also the end of the hidden tracks that come at the very end of Waits’ sprawling new three-CD collection, “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.”
Those skeptics who don’t appreciate Waits tend to think that he is just pulling our legs. Is his whole act — that famously gruff voice, the freak-show lyrics, the non-sequitur-sprinkled stage banter, that porkpie hat — just shtick? Waits isn’t the only example of a performer whose persona and real person are hard to pin down. Genuine oddball artists aren’t easy to distinguish from gimmicky poseurs. Which artists are delivering surreal visions straight and unfiltered from some loopy brain lobe, and which are hiding behind a wall of jabberwocky because they’re afraid to reveal themselves with truly personal art?
In a recent interview with The Observer, Waits acknowledges asking similar questions about himself during the years after he married Johnsburg, Ill., native Kathleen Brennan, quit drinking and took a more peculiar turn with his music. “I was trying to prove something to myself, too,” he says. “It was like, ‘Am I genuinely eccentric? Or am I just wearing a funny hat?’ All the big questions come up when you get sober. ‘What am I made of? What’s left when you drain the pool?’”
Even Waits fans have to wonder if his public persona is just a beatnik character he’s been playing all this time. The impression he gives in interviews, however, is that he really is that guy. Maybe he invented this persona decades ago, but he has become the character he created. In any case, his music is so rich, so full of the beautiful and the beautifully ugly, that you can’t help feeling the presence of a genius — and yes, a genuine oddball — behind it all.
“Orphans” brings together 24 Waits rarities, including songs from movie soundtracks and tribute albums, with 30 new recordings. Waits is being deliberately vague about the recording dates, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s truly new. In another recent interview (with Stop Smiling magazine), Waits explains: “A lot of these were recorded within the last year. It’s new stuff. I don’t want to go into the origin of everything, but for me, they’re from questionable sources. I didn’t put any liner notes in because I didn’t want to overexplain it.”
Maybe the air of mystery is designed to make “Orphans” feel more like a cohesive new album rather than a collection of rags and bones. In fact, it’s a little bit of both. Some of the new tracks really are new songs. The most obvious of these is “Road to Peace,” the most explicitly political song Waits has ever recorded, with lyrics pulled from New York Times coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thanks to a reference to President Bush in that song’s lyrics, no carbon-dating is necessary on this one.
Other “new” tracks are recent recordings of old compositions, some of which Waits originally wrote for other artists, including Sparklehorse and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Others are songs from his stage plays, “Franks Wild Years,” “Woyzeck” and “Alice,” that did not make it onto the albums based on those musicals.Three styles of Waits music are segregated into three discs. The bruising, bluesy rockers are on “Brawlers.” The aching ballads are on “Bawlers.” And “Bastards” is full of monologues and more experimental music. That’s the general idea, anyway, but there’s actually a motley mix of styles on each disc. That’s fine, since some of Waits’ best albums, such as 1985’s “Rain Dogs,” were marked by jarring juxtapositions.
Unlike the typical Waits album, “Orphans” includes cover songs, showing Waits paying tribute Kurt Weill, Leadbelly, Jack Kerouac, Daniel Johnston, Skip Spence and the Ramones. Even the spoken-word pieces are dominated by other writers, as Waits reads texts from Charles Bukowski, “Woyzeck” author Georg Büchner, his father-in-law (an homage to a Pontiac) and the World Book Encyclopedia.
It all hangs together surprisingly well. “Brawlers” is both rousing and moody, with majestic moments like “Bottom of the World” offering a breather between the basement-blues numbers. “Bawlers” is reminiscent of another ballad-heavy Waits album, “Alice,” underlining Waits’ sentimental side and his knack for writing direct and simple melodies — tunes that sound so familiar, even if you can never quite place where you’ve heard them before. Weighted toward monologues and oddities, “Bastards” is an entertaining listen for Waits fans, but it will be the least appealing of these discs for the uninitiated.
Whatever musical idiom he chooses, Waits is a master lyricist, filling his songs with vividly named characters (Scarface Ron, Buzz Flederjohn) and references to places (Elkhart, Ind., and Kenosha, Wis., surface here). Waits has that rare gift for writing lyrics that stick in your mind like lines from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, a pulp-novel jacket or an apocryphal book of the Bible: “A rat always knows when he’s in with weasels.” “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs/Nothing wants to die.”
For those listeners who haven’t yet converted to Waits fandom, his gravelly vocals are the biggest obstacle. I’ve heard his singing compared to the Cookie Monster and Scooby-Doo. Yes, it is an acquired taste, but it’s also one of Waits’ best assets. He doesn’t always sing in the same style. In fact, he has several distinct voices: an unrestrained gospel holler, a gruff blues growl, a distant tone that resembles a transistor radio transmission or a megaphone announcement (only partly due to studio effects), and a falsetto that sounds slightly ill, almost lovely.
In a press release for “Orphans,” Waits describes his own voice as well as anyone else ever could: “At the center of this record is my voice. I try my best to chug, stomp, weep, whisper, moan, wheeze, scat, blurt, rage, whine, and seduce. With my voice, I can sound like a girl, the boogieman, a Theremin, a cherry bomb, a clown, a doctor, a murderer … I can be tribal. Ironic. Or disturbed. My voice is really my instrument.” Hearing that instrument is almost reason enough to make “Orphans” one of the year’s most noteworthy releases.Middle photo by Michael O’Brien; bottom photo by James Minchin III; from www.anti.com.