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Friday, May 28, 2010

Tom Waits: Singing for the Least of These - My TruthVoice Presentation

The music of Tom Waits is definitely an acquired taste. He won’t be appreciated by everyone. He is eccentric. His music is hard to define, difficult to pigeon hole. It’s not quite rock, not folk, not country. It’s jazz, or maybe it isn’t. It’s almost a burlesque when it’s not a waltz or a tango. It’s a “Cemetery Polka” . It’s a gypsy song with a gospel choir at the state fair or a field holler sung by a prison gang along a Texas highway. Alongside traditional instruments like the guitar, piano, and drums you’re likely to hear accordions, horns, clanking chains, wheezing calliopes, and hurdy-gurdies. Tom Waits doesn’t easily fit into any one category.

And that voice… He will never be described as a “good” singer. He would never have made it as an “American Idol” contestant. No. He sounds as if his voice has been pickled in brine for six month, then taken out and beaten with a meat tenderizer before being run over by the car. I’d like to be able to sing like him, but I don’t want to gargle with razor blades, and whisky and shards of broken glass.

But it’s amazing what he can do with that voice. I am continually surprised by the range of emotions that he can conjure through those vocal cords. He can growl and he can croon. He can in one track shout and scream and howl like the dogs of war and in the very next deliver such a tender and affectionate ballad as to make heaven weep - and both with that same gravel throated voice.

“Half of me” he says of himself, “I feel like a jackhammer. I love to holler and stomp my feet and throw rocks. But there’s another side of me that’s like an old man in the corner that’s had too much wine. I’m probably too sentimental for my own good sometimes.”

Though he has never developed a huge following, you are probably more aware of him than you realize.  In addition to his career as a musician, Tom Waits has also appeared in a number of movies, including a couple of my favorites: Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola , (he played the lunatic, Renfield) and Mystery Men alongside Ben Stiller and William H. Macy (He played Dr. Heller – an inventor specializing in non-lethal weapons like the “Blame Thrower” and “the Canned Tornado.” He has a role in the recent film, The Book of Eli. You probably know the Rod Stewart song Downtown Train – Tom Waits wrote that, not Stewart.

And here is the portion of my talk where I would introduce the biographical information of my subject. I would tell you that Tom Waits was born on such and such a date in this or that city in that state. But those kind of details seem – at the least – irrelevant to the person, or rather, the persona under discussion . Instead I’ll relate a few of the things he’s shared about his life, and I’ll let you determine how factual, or true (and the two are not always the same) they might be.

“My father was an exhaust manifold and my mother was a tree.”
“I was born in the backseat of a Yellow Cab in a hospital loading zone and with the meter still running. I emerged needing a shave and shouted, ‘Times Square and step on it!’”
“I live at Bedlam and Squalor. It’s that way.” (point both directions)
“I didn’t just marry a beautiful woman. I married a record collection.”
“Let me fall out the window
with confetti in my hair,
deal out jacks or better
on a blanket by the stairs,
I’ll tell you all my secrets
but I lie about my past.
So send me off to bed forever more."
(Tango 'til They're Sore)

Tom Waits’ music is populated by all manner of unsavory characters: Tramps, vagabonds, hookers, criminals, strippers, arsonists, sewer-dwelling drunks, dwarves, and circus freaks. He sings of sailors on shore leave, and farmers staring out over their fields. His songs are about mechanics, run-down middle aged business men, and lonely housewives with ugly dogs. He sings of soldiers, home from the war and widowed soldier’s brides. While the rest of the entertainment industry may be celebrating the famous, the rich and the well dressed parading down the red-carpet, Tom Waits is singing of the poor and humble and the unknown. Tom Waits sings for the very least of these… and in doing so, I believe, he sings for God.

“…I tell you the truth, whatever you have done for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25: 40

These then – the mentally ill, the tired, and the broken-down, the many varied and strange characters who inhabit his songs – these are the least of these, my brothers, the ones Jesus spoke about, and the ones Jesus came to serve. Jesus came, not for the healthy and wealthy, but for the sick and the poor. He left the ninety and nine who were safe and secure and went searching for that one that had wandered away and was lost.

He came for the woman in Tom Waits’ song: A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis .

She’s the reason for the season, she and others like her who need the love and comfort that the savior of men offers. He came for broken, hopeless people on the precipice of despair. He came for those who look around at the world and who are afraid that maybe this is all there is.


What does it matter, a dream of love
Or a dream of lies
we’re all going to be the same place when we die
Your spirit don’t leave knowing
your face or your name
and the wind through your bones
Is all that remains
And we’re all going to be
just dirt in the ground.

It doesn’t sound like scripture. But then again, maybe it does.  The last verse of that song says:

Now Cain slew Abel
He killed him with a stone
the sky cracked open
and the thunder groaned
along a river of flesh
can these dry bones live?
Ask a king or a beggar
and the answer they’ll give
is we’re all going to be
yea, yea
we’re all going to be just
dirt in the ground.

Tom could just as well be singing the words of Qoheleth, the Teacher:
“So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all.” Ecclesiastes 9: 1 – 2a, 3a

This is the evil in everything under the sun: the same destiny overtakes us all. Yeah, yeah. We’re all going to be just dirt in the ground. Can these dry bones live? Only you know, God, but God, I hope so. It seems that even though Tom sings a hopeless Ecclesiastes kind of song, even he believes that there is a glimmer of hope. Though often gloomy and on the verge of despair, his songs retain a hope, a light, a premonition that the future won’t be as bleak as the present may be.


The Ice Man’s mule is parked outside the bar
where a man with missing fingers plays a strange guitar
and the German dwarf dances with the butcher’s son.
And a little rain never hurt no one.
And a little rain never hurt no one.

They’re dancing on the roof and the ceiling’s coming down
I sleep with my shovel and my leather gloves
A little trouble makes it worth the going
and a little rain never hurt no one.

The world is round and I’ll go around
you must risk something that matters
my hands are strong, I’ll take any man here
If it’s worth the going it’s worth the ride

She was fifteen years old
and she’d never seen the ocean.
She climbed into a van with a vagabond
and the last thing she said
was, “I love you ma.”
And a little rain never hurt on one.
And a little rain never hurt no one.

This is not the bright and sunshiny Joel Osteen –Your-Best-Life-Now-smile-all-the-way-to-the-bank kind of religion. It’s hard and it’s cold. It’s dirty from soot and it’s rough around the edges. It has calloused hands and dirt under its nails. But it is not loveless and it is not hopeless.

The first several times I listened to this song, I thought that the girl had been abducted or murdered by the vagabond. But I realized later that this isn’t a song of despair. This loss, her leaving her family was a “little rain” but not a hurt. She was leaving to find her dream. The family left behind is dancing and enjoying life – even with the sadness of her going away. There is love and there is hope. There are dreams worth chasing, and you must risk something that matters.


Hold On is a love song, but not a warm fuzzy, romantic comedy kind of love. It’s not a pop song kind of love. It’s an irascible love. It’s a love that holds on through tough times, a love that perseveres, a love that won’t let go of the beloved - won’t let go of us – even when we’ve run away and we’ve cursed the lover. It’s a love for all the prodigal sons and daughters sleeping in the gutters and alleyways.

This is the kind of love found in the music of Tom Waits and in the gospels. And let’s face it; this is an unnatural kind of love. It’s natural to give up on love. It’s natural to let go. We strive to protect ourselves from hurt and pain. And humans, by nature, push away those who hurt and disappoint them.

But God’s love isn’t a natural love , and God does not give up or push away those who hurt and disappoint him. Instead, he continues to call us home.


Come on up to the house. Come back home all you runaway sons and daughters, the father still loves you. Come back home harlot brides, the husband still welcomes you. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. There’s one for each of us.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many places to live in… " John 14: 1 – 2

And this isn’t just a pie in the sky some day in the great by and by eternal hope. The song calls us to “come on up to the house.” It’s a song and it’s an invitation for the right here and the right now. Come on up to the house, come into the kingdom. Yes, you’ve got trouble. And yes, I know you’ve got worries. But come on up to the house and we’ll get through them together. We’ll fellowship with each other. We’ll share our troubles and we’ll pool our resources – you and me and all the broken people of the world. This is a song of the Church – or the church as it should be.

The Church should be a haven (and a heaven) for the broken. The Church should be a refuge for the refugee and a place of comfort for the depressed and the grieving. Come on up to the house.

But (and there always seems to be a “butt” getting in the way…) sometimes it seems that the church has become more of a museum for the saints than a hospital for the sick. And the Jesus described in the Church seems to be a CHOCOLATE JESUS

He’s sweet and delicious. We receive him as a gift in an Easter basket full of fake plastic grass and plastic eggs. This chocolate Jesus is full of empty calories and gives us a sugar rush of frenzied energy – but he’s nothing more than a hollow shell of savior. This Jesus doesn’t do anything for us. He can’t do anything except make us fat. The Jesus of the gospels is not this sort of Jesus. And the Jesus we find in the music of Tom Waits is not this kind of Jesus. It’s a Jesus that many churches wouldn’t even recognize.

The Jesus of the gospels and of Tom Wait’s music wouldn’t be recognized in many of our churches today. He came without a name, without an entourage, without flash, and without pomp or circumstances.

“He had no form or charm to attract us, no beauty to win our hearts; he was despised, the lowest of men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, one from whom, as it were, we averted our eyes.” Isaiah 53: 2- 3

He came to us without anything. He came naked into the world like us. He lived in poor and humble circumstances. He held no position, and owned no property. "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Luke 9:58

Sometimes I think we miss the vagabond Jesus, the son of man who didn’t even have a place to lay his head. Our churches miss the Jesus who was run out of town the time before, this Jesus who was arrested and executed as a criminal. This Jesus who, though he was fully and truly God, put aside his divinity to be one of us. He came to be one who needed a cup of cold water.

He came to bring comfort to those who were afraid. And there is plenty to fear in the world. Reports of natural disasters as well as human designed catastrophes assault us in the news. We cannot predict the future. And we fear the uncertainty. Waits sings of these eschatological and apocalyptic style fears.

Well, maybe “sings” is the wrong word. That voice – choked and strangled and mangled almost beyond recognition – tears a hole in the speakers and rips through the air riding on a percussive locomotive, not a steam engine, but an engine from hell powered by the screams and shrieks of the damned.


There was thunder, there was lightning
then the stars went out
and the moon fell from the sky
It rained mackerel, it rained trout
and the great day of wrath has come
and here’s mud in your big red eye
the poker’s in the fire
and the locusts take to the sky
and the earth died screaming
while I lay dreaming, dreaming of you.

It’s an ecological nightmare. It’s death, and ruin, and the collapse of human civilization.

It’s all the things we cannot control, cannot explain, and cannot contain. It’s forest fires and oil spills. It’s bomb threats at the high school and handguns on the playground. It’s missing children and it’s a lonely cancer ward. War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan, wars and rumors of wars, AIDs, Swine Flu, Floods and Earthquakes. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse have traded in their horses for Ford Mustangs and their engines are roaring at full throttle across hot desert highways.

There are “wars and rumors of wars” and people are afraid. The violence in “those countries over there” spills out and engulfs the world a seemingly endless conflagration. Our leaders appear unable to stop it. Instead, they often seem to be instigating and welcoming these conflicts. It’s not often that Tom sings politics – but the song OUT ON THE ROAD TO PEACE he wrestles with the complexities of the strife in the Middle East only to conclude that “maybe God himself is lost and needs help, out on the road to peace.”

This is, of course, a suggestion that will raise the hackles of many Christians. God does not need our help. And God, most assuredly, is not lost. This idea that God is lost and that God needs help is similar to another of Waits’ songs: GOD’S AWAY ON BUSINESS .

As a result of his concentration on the dark and bleak and all things “sinful”, many have accused Waits music of being godless. The Irish magazine Hot Press described his 2002 album, Blood Money, as a “Jesusless” album. In fact an interviewer once asked Tom about the “godlessness” of his songs.

Waits: “Godless? Really? Oh!”
Interviewer: “Wouldn’t you say?”
Waits: “I don’t know about that.”
Interviewer: “The absence of God.”
Waits: “I don’t know about that. Do you think so?”
Interviewer: “Well some of the songs. Well one explicitly “God’s Away On Business.”
Waits: “Oh, okay. Well he’s away. He’s not gone. He’s just away. You have to understand He was on business. A guy like Him has got to be busy, looking after a lot of things.”

Where was God? Why didn’t God…? These theodicean questions are often found in Tom’s music. It’s a question as old as humans themselves, asked in every age in every language everywhere. Why do we suffer? Why do we hurt? If God is good and if God is kind then why did my child die? Why did the tornado strike? Why?


Where was God on 9-11? Where was God during hurricane Katrina? Where was God during her miscarriage? Where was God during his parents divorce? Why do terrible things happen? Why do terrible things happen, even to people who love and fear and worship God? I don’t know. I don’t have any answer other than silence. Job asked these questions and he didn’t really get an answer. Jeremiah asked these questions and he didn’t get an answer. Tom Waits asks them too. I don’t think he expects to be the one to get an answer but it’s good to ask the question – it’s important to ask the questions anyway even if it seems that there is only silence as a response.

And in that silence I hear one last voice from one of the least of these… That last voice is the voice of an unidentified homeless man.

In 1971 English composer Gavin Bryars was working with a friend on a film about people living in one of the rougher areas of London. In the course of the filming some of the people broke out into drunken songs, little bits of opera and sentimental ballads. But one singer wasn’t drunk. He sang a simple religious tune. His voice was ragged and frail and you could almost hear the freezing cold of the street. But, ultimately, it wasn’t used in the film.

Later, Bryars realized that the recorded snipped of this man singing could be looped and played in an endlessly repeating loop and that his singing was in tune with the piano. Bryars composed a simple accompaniment for the voice.

I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing

A further recording of the piece was made in 1993 with Tom Waits singing along with the unnamed tramp. And, I can’t think of anyone better suited to join this unidentified homeless man in his song. Tom’s connection to the poorest and surliest, the straggliest, and sweatiest of humanity brings an earthy dignity to this mans song, and a quiet trust and security. In spite of everything, in spite of trouble and calamity, in spite of death and loss, in spite of hurt and pain and ruin and loneliness, there is trust and there is hope. There is hope because “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”

Tom might not be a great singer but I believe he’s singing for the least of these and that he is singing the song of the church, and whether he knows it or not, he’s singing for God.


  1. JEFF! Amazing insights. THANK YOU for sharing and graspin g the human struggle expressed so well by a singer that can only be appreciated when one gets past the crude imagery (at times) and saucy talk that embarrasses the average church-goer...if, as you have done, we listen beyond what at first glance seems profane, we will discover a wealth of spiritual insight that could only be shown by GOD. We have so much to much to be gracious about as GOD has been gracious to us! Appreciate your lesson, brother!

  2. Thanks Dan... i think it's surprising how embarrassed and offended the average church-goer gets considering the amount of crude imagery and saucy talk there is in our bible.


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