First Shipment of Gravel

This post started out as an ambitious project: I was going to review three DVDs in the pop/rock documentary category, and the common denominator would have been the gravel-voiced singer. I have come to the realization, though, that each deserves its own post.  This won’t be, then, an economical three-for-the-price-of-one review. I’m sorry, but because of Tom Waits, the other two (Captain Beefheart and Larry “Wild Man” Fischer) will have to wait.

Tom WaitsTom Waits–Second Hand Stories made me kind of uncomfortable, at first; when I picked up the container, I saw emblazoned across the back of it “THIS FILM IS NOT AUTHORIZED BY TOM WAITS, HIS RECORD COMPANY OR MANAGEMENT.” Anything that shouts its dissociation from the artist so clearly is suspect, or at least legally obligated to appear so.

This DVD seems to be part of a series of critical treatments titled Under Review, and one of the Captain Beefheart items I was considering was apparently produced by the same outfit.  As I indicated above, I was uncomfortable at first–dissociation from an artist doesn’t carry an immediate element of attraction–it almost seems like they’re saying “Waits wouldn’t like this.” It’s not necessarily an admission of critical guilt, but it doesn’t help.

I watched this 81-minute review of the 1983-2006 portion of Waits’s career twice, nonstop, without even blinking.  It’s that good. Right off the bat, there’s some interview footage of Tom’s 1970’s producer Bones Howe that is so gracious–the whole project is about how Waits left Howe in 1981, left the style the two had patented, and started off in a new direction with his new wife Katherine Brennan and the album Swordfishtrombones, and Howe’s words make it clear right away that this is not going to be a straightforward critical assessment of the album or the performer.

Swordfishtrombones I place in the highest category of Pop/Rock albums: it has astounding variety, and there isn’t a weak song on the album. In my personal pantheon, it’s up there with the Beatles’ White Album and Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All. I kid you not, if I had only four albums to take with me to a desert island or a summer camp or like that, it would be these three and Ashkenazy’s recording of the London Symphony performing Sibelius’s 5th Symphony.

I have to say that, in the 1970s (before I could even pronounce “Sibelius”), I absolutely hated Tom Waits. His appearance on PBS’s Soundstage in the mid-1970s confirmed me as a shortsighted musical conservative who was not interested in this scruffy fellow who adopts the persona of a run-down lounge singer.  In the late 90s, however, I heard a presentation analyzing Swordfishtrombones, and that overtly theoretical, analytical review of the album caused me to reassess my opinion of Waits on the spot.

This DVD takes the best elements of Waits’s life and his career since 1981 (which are not the same thing) and combines them with interviews with music journalists, musicologists (which are not the same thing) and music critics (which are not the same thing), interweaves them with concert footage, film footage and ends up with an unusually satisfying product: a treatment of an artist that doesn’t come off as servile.  In fact, the critics–Nigel Williamson of Uncut, Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, authors Barney Hoskyns and Patrick Humphries, as well as Waits’s former producer, Bones Howe–contradict each other, reinforce each other, argue (if indirectly), and in so doing, go a long way toward filling out a picture of Waits as a musician, especially in the years since the release of Swordfishtrombones. And I must say, it’s gratifying to hear people, who are in the business of making pronouncements about musicians and their careers, declare that album a turning point for the singer when it was also the one that turned me around, so to speak.

The critics also seem to be interested in doing justice to him as a person; of course, it’s difficult to be certain of something like that, but for all the differences of opinion, there’s a consensus that Waits is a good guy, and while that’s not a requirement for being a great musician, it doesn’t hurt.

Second Hand Stories does have one tendency that is a little weird, and it will be interesting to see if some of the other DVDs in the Under Review series do something similar: when there’s no concert footage or music video of Waits performing some song, we’re subjected to some marginally related public domain film footage: during “Frank’s Wild Years,” we get footage of Anna May Wong; for “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera shows up inexplicably; and for others, we watch clips of commuter trains, rivers of lava, and speakeasies. Curious choices, certainly, but hardly a huge problem.

Look for a review of Captain Beefheart: Under Review soon, and I’ll let you know if there’s any noteworthy stock footage of road construction or pirate ships.

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