Straight-up blues piano hits it strong on the intro. Languorous and tight and a little bit seedy. Then that whiskey voice comes in, stumbly-smooth.
Let’s put a new coat of paint on this lonesome old town
We’ll laugh at that old bloodshot moon in that burgundy sky.
Everybody loves Tom Waits already, right? I mean, I don’t have to introduce you to his impeccable performing, his singular and masterful and sincere approach to material that in anyone else’s hands would be clichéd? The bar fly, the sensitive road tripper, the Jack Keruoac guy but with balls and amazing musical chops? (Or Bukowski, if that’s your thing, but a Bukowski who’s not an asshole and who knows when to cut himself off?) I discovered Waits’s earlier music when I was in high school, and never tired of those lyrics–straight out of some dimestore West Coast noir novel–and that piano and this vocalization that could make a moody contemplator or a carsick lover out of the most cynical of souls. There is romance, here, ugliness and all.
Early Tom Waits makes me feel like I’m a teenager again, contemplating getting the heck out of dodge, driving in a brown Suburu station wagon with Brooke asleep in the passenger seat on the 10, heading east into desert and new horizons and the great expanse of a country I’ve never really been to before. And he was doing this in the 70s when disco was king, and the 80s when MTV pop was happening, and he kept doing it into the 90s and through now— making songs that sound like they’re the vintages of previous decades but also sound like no one ever had phrased them this way before. Like no one but Tom can nail the feeling of a late night in a broke-down diner off a lonely old highway somewheres. Timeless.
As I grew up, I grew with his music—his transition into “weirder” stuff in his mid-career and later albums. I grew almost accustomed to the uncanny ability he has to take the noir personality to its logical evolution with spooky filmic sounds made by bizarre and homemade instruments, his gravel voice growing into his aged persona, wearing the ravages of time on his self and sound like a proud rock ‘n’ roll iconoclast. And along with the music, his proclivity for not allowing people to use his songs in commercials, his (imagined) Northern California family home full of bizarre instruments, his side career of mad-man cameos in apocalyptic films, and his heartbreaking turn in one of my favorite movies of all time, Down By Law. You know about all this, right?
Good. Because I don’t want to spend too much time on that today. Today I want to talk about California.
(Don’t worry. I have lots of Tom Waits records. There will be plenty of time to get into many aspects of the man and his music.)
I happen to be working on a writing project about California, and I’m starting to read up on California essays and literature. Of which there is a bottomless amount. I finally launched into Joan Didion’s 2003 book Where I Was From, billed as a ruminative take-down of the myth of California. To my surprise–I generally think Didion is a master of personal essay, and has written brilliantly on California in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, among other works– I don’t like it. The book has some problems with structure—feels like it could have used a more hands-on editorial approach—but also I just don’t get the feeling that she is passionate about her topic. I think she makes some interesting points, and she does her research, but for the whole book I keep finding myself saying, “Dude, Joan, have you ever been to California?” I mean, since the 60s? I know she grew up here, she’s lived here, she has written some insightful essays about this wacky state. But I just feel like… she doesn’t really get it.
The book lacks a focal point—a person or event on which to hinge the author’s ruminations. Instead she meanders around the pages doing research, looking to 19th century novels for descriptions of the “character” of the state, seeking to “discover” and to disprove an endless list of un-stated assumptions about California, constantly restating her points that California is no different than any other place, that California is reliant on federal infrastructure money, that California is a land of robber baron developers and land owners, not of small farmers and grassroots communities. That California is full of hard economic truths and harsh disappointments of the American Dream. California is not as great a place as you think it is.
Well, yeah. I repeat: Have you ever been here? Well I bet you didn’t arrive in a truck on a rainy night after a long haul at work:
101 – don’t miss it
There’s rollin hills of concrete fields
And the broken lines on your mind
Maybe it’s a class thing.
Okay, it’s definitely a class thing. Didion’s sources and angles are mostly from a wealthy class perspective, including an anecdote in which her mother says that it’s not polite to talk about class—sure sign that they’re of the “upper” class persuasion. Didion spends a lot of time talking about the opinions of land barons like Hollister and Irvine and, so far, sees fit for only a couple mentions of those who actually lived and worked on their land. Even when she investigates a surburban working-class town outside of Los Angeles that was built and crashed by the defense industry, she’s filtering the experience through a perspective of privilege. Somehow this hasn’t bugged me as much in her other, extensive writings on California. It’s been lurking there — part of her thing as an essayist is that she’s removed, an outsider. But this time, it bugs.
And maybe it’s a generational thing. Or maybe it’s the topics Didion happened to be interested in here, or the inclusion of her own boring family history, or her insistence that she is exposing the dirty, capitalistic truth about California. Whatever. Maybe she just isn’t the right person – noted New York intellectual that she is – to talk about California to me.
Maybe the right person is a musician, in his newsboy cap at the piano or with simple acoustic guitar backing him, singing about highways and loneliness. Tom Waits does write songs about other places—his song narratives can criss-cross the country like an interstate. But his Los Angeles songs were the first I encountered. Instead of an intellectual approach to the myths and realities of California, this guy is like the state’s bartender—a sharp observer, of everything, sympathetic but not bendable. He sees the lies of Hollywood in close-up, feels the pain of the itinerant wanderers, the seekers, the hustling kids who come out West looking for a place that doesn’t exist and then stay, changing the nature of the myth of the place by their presence.
So I’d like to invite Joan Didion to listen to some Tom Waits with me. Preferably in a diner at 2am. Then let’s drive down the 101 and end up on Skid Row in LA. Let’s pass trailer parks of migrant workers, working hard, and burned out downtowns, and when we drive over and through them—and we will be driving—let’s notice the way the freeway bisects blocks in Oakland, in Mid-City LA, in all the places that existed before these ribbons of concrete built us around them.
Sit with me, Joan, in a suburban California teenager’s myopic bitterness. In a stripper’s just-another-night at work. In the gnarly situations and relationship you bear witness to when you’re a bartender, or a piano player, or a card dealer, making your way in the world by selling other people ways to mourn their days.
Sing with me, and with Tom, the soundtrack of too many nights lost to too many other people’s priorities. The song of the drunk old man with the paper bag bottle on the corner. The song of a place that is both the sparkling end of the ocean and the snake-oil salve for a seeker’s wounds.
This is the story of people and places whose stories are too often romanticized, and this is the way they are romantic, too. This is the song of Saturday Night in California.
Joan Didion, are you listening?