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Underground ( Tom Waits Cover ) 10.03.10

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I didn’t have access to Tom Waits music when I was a child, or a teenager, or a young adult. Tracks from Frank’s Wild Years would sometimes play late at night on Toronto’s CFNY or CBC Radio‘s Brave New Waves, but other than random instances, I just didn’t have an opportunity to hear his music.

I was fortunate enough to be working for Sony Music Canada in the mid-90s, and that allowed me to get to know the work of “auteur” songwriters Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in a comprehensive way, listening to their work retroactively, but chronologically. I decided to do the same with the work of Tom Waits, and fortunately, the late, great downtown Toronto institution, Sam The Record Man, sold the complete work of Tom Waits, at a discount price. Once a month, I would purchase two of his albums, again, chronologically. I wanted to understand how his sound evolved.

Much as I enjoyed his early work. Sorry Tom, I love the song Martha too, and remember how you barked out a “NO!” when someone in the audience asked you to play the song, at your Toronto concert from almost a decade back, during the Mule Variations tour, which was a marvelous show, incidentally. It’s his mid-period albums that blew me away though, and Swordfishtrombones was one of them.

Swordfishtrombones was a sharp departure from his previous work. His previous album was a soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola‘s once-maligned and now revered film from 1982, One From The Heart. That album was a throwback to an earlier Tom Waits sound, and was comprised of romantic duets with Crystal Gayle, of all people. I love the album. They are a wonderfully suited duo, considering how odd a pairing it may seem. I hope they do another album together someday. Wishful thinking?

Anyway, Swordfishtrombones had a unique sound to it. It was very spare, with lots of industrial clanging, and clashing, sonorous cacophony. It remains one of Tom Waits’ finest achievements, in my humble opinion.

The album begins with Underground, and the song set the stage for the rest of the album. It has always remained one of my favourite songs by Tom, and it’s a blast to quote/unquote: “sing.”

I decided to play around with my voice with this cover. Tom Waits deliberately changed the way he sang early on in his career, to create a character that best suited the kinds of songs he performed, and I still don’t know how he has been able to sustain his voice with his chosen style, which must place a lot of wear and tear on his vocal chords, but it’s a style that is unique to him, and I like it. When you hear Waits sing—like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or even Brian Wilson—you know it’s him.

Tom Waits consistently releases strong album statements, even today. I just wish he would sing Martha again live. 😉