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Published: 2011/10/25
by Brian Robbins

Tom Waits
Bad As Me


You almost gotta feel bad for Mick Jagger.

I mean, here’s poor ol’ Mick, off on his own and trying to make a go of it with his new guaranteed-gold supergroup Super Heavy, self-titled debut album and all, okay? (That would be Mick, Joss Stone, Dave Stewart, Damian Marley, and A. R. Rahman, in case you folks at home are keeping score.) And just about the time Super Heavy hits the streets, along comes Keith Richards with a little side gig going on – just a sit-in, mind you – and makes Mick’s deal look like slicked-up PVC compared to Keith’s well-worn funky leather.

And it’s not even Keef’s party; what we’re talking here is Tom Waits’ new Bad As Me album, you see. This whole album is loaded with the kind of stuff that makes Waits Waits – weird characters that we all know (and/or are); grooves that range from haunting hipster to junkyard raunch; and a cast of guest players who absolutely get it.

As far as guest Mr. Richards goes, he sits in on four of Waits’ epic excursions: the two of them look age in the eye in the lovely croak of “Last Leaf”; they swagger through “Satisfied” with elegant grease; they churn through “Chicago”, its backbone built on a frantic banjo riff by Waits. It’s the fierce “Hell Broke Luce” that will flatten you into your seat cushions, however.

The cut begins with a classic Waits rhythm workout, guttural horns and who-knows-what percussion joining together to sound like the guts of a giant clock made from jagged hunks of scrap metal, all rust and rivets – with the occasional hunk of oak 6×6 shoved into the gears for good measure – chunking and clanking in a manner that’s mysterious, yet makes perfect sense. You can hear a muttered growl from Waits and Marc Ribot answers him back with a dry, dry, dry guitar murmur that’s both raga and blues honk at the same moment.

I had a good home but I left, begins Waits, reaching down into the bottom of his lungs, banging the syllables on the beat/off the beat/between the beats.

I had a good home but I left, right, left, he continues, punching out the cadence in such a manner that there’s no question things have taken a turn for the military.

That big fucking bomb made me deaf, deaf
A Humvee mechanic put his Kevlar on wrong
I guarantee you’ll meet up with a suicide bomb

And then comes the chorus, sounding like a line of marching demons:

Hell Broke Luce
Hell Broke Luce

Waits takes the vocal back for himself, spittle flying from his cracked lips and the whole damn band now just one big ungodly rhythm instrument:

Big fucking ditches in the middle of the road
You pay a hundred dollars just for fillin’ in the hole
Listen to the general every goddamn word
How many ways can you polish up a turd

The demons leap back in:

Left, right, left, left, right

And then there’s a burst of Mr. Richards sounding like Chuck Berry at the gates of Hell, all gritted-teeth string bends before digging into a machine-gunned bass string riff.

Left, right

barks the demons.

Hell Broke Luce
Hell Broke Luce
Hell Broke Luce

they bellow, as Richards answers back with another series of wild-ass bends.

How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess
Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk

Waits roars as a third guitar is heard from, Will Bernard’s six-string tone all thick and dark.

Hell Broke Luce
Hell Broke Luce
Left, right, left

There’s a quick mortar blast of multi-guitarness, then a steady Keef churn-and-wail while Waits testifies:

What did you do before the war?
I was a chef, I was a chef
What was your name?
It was Geoff, Geoff
I lost my buddy and I wept, wept
I came down from the meth
So I slept, slept
I had a good home but I left, left

And suddenly the underpinnings give way and the pounding driving rhythm drops out. A cold breeze of sad and wasted horns, sounding like a cross between a tired ambulance and a tease of taps, then … BANG!

Pantsed at the wind for a joke
I pranced right in with the dope
Glanced at her shin she said nope
Left, right, left

Nimrod Bodfish have you any wool
Get me another body bag the body bag’s full
My face was scorched, scorched
I miss my home I miss my porch, porch

The sound of real gunfire and explosions – but the chorus is oblivious:

Left, right, left

Waits pleads:

Can I go home in March? March
My stanch was a chin full of soap
That rancid dinner with the pope
Left, right, left

Bernard’s guitar rumbles back in, then gives way to Richards, playing some of his fiercest studio licks of the past couple of decades. Waits’ sing-song growl just adds a few degrees of purgatory to the situation:

Kelly Presutto got his thumbs blown off
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough

Hell Broke Luce
Hell Broke Luce
Hell Broke Luce

There are screams way, way off in the darkness. Waits plows ahead, dripping with blood, sweat, and bitterness:

Boom went his head away
And boom went Valerie
What the hell was it that the president said?
Give them all a beautiful parade instead
Left, right, left

And then we come to the song’s conclusion as Waits’ character states the facts and asks an obvious question:

While I was over here I never got to vote
I left my arm in my coat
My mom she died I never wrote
We sat by the fire and ate a goat
Just before he died he had a toke
Now I’m home and I’m blind
And I’m broke
What is next

The performance is audio equivalent of a graphic novel: deadly serious emotions and situations delivered in a bigger-than-life manner. The musicians that Waits has shared his vision with take the load on their shoulders, as well. That’s Flea’s bass grinding up against the drums of Casey Waits (yep – Tom’s son); Charlie Musselwhite weaves strands of harp throughout the madness; and Clint Maedgen, Ben Jaffe, and Chris Grady’s horns only add to the song’s imagery.

And that’s just one cut.

Bad As Me finds Mr. Waits offering up everything from herky-jerky-hiccupping rockabilly with a gasoline shimmer (“Get Lost”, featuring perfect guitar from David Hidalgo); Beat poetry as road blues (the lonesome slog-along-the-shoulder of “Face To The Highway”); and a waltz that’s as memorable for the great Auggie Meyers’ accordion as it is for Waits’ wistful delivery (“Pay Me”). “Talking At The Same Time” is as close to a falsetto as you’re ever going to hear coming out of Tom Waits’ throat, while “New Year’s Eve” is going to tug at that same thing inside of you that “Tom Traubert’s Blues” did all those years ago.

What do you expect from Tom Waits at this point in his life (62 in December)? Sober, non-smoking, happily married, and a proud father, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the man who sounded like he was 62 when he was 22 toned it down a little and reigned things in a bit.


Move over, Rain Dogs. Tom Waits is badder than ever.

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