Monday, August 16, 2004

"I hide in the stairway, and I hang in the curtain, and I sleep in your hat."

Tom Waits is one of my favorite singers. Not many people know about him even though he's been in the business for about 40 years. In addition to recording albums, he occasionally pops up in films. In 2004, he has appeared in movies both esoteric (chatting with Iggy Pop in "Coffee and Cigarettes") and popular (crooning a bar song as Captain Hook in "Shrek 2").

One of the reasons I like him is that he's one of the most evocative singers on the planet. The world his songs portray is the urban postwar American landscape full of all-night diners, flea bag motels and beat up bus stations. It is a film-noir kind of world populated by alcoholics, two bit criminals, and beatniks. His lyrics paint such vivid pictures, authors should be snapping up his music to study him.

I've been listening to him in the car lately and remembered two moments of cultural connection I had earlier this year. There is a song called "9th & Hennepin" on his 1985 CD "Rain Dogs". Here is a portion of the lyrics:

"And no one brings anything small into a bar around here
They all started out with bad directions
And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear
'One for every year he's away', she said."
I first heard this song last November. About three months after that, I watched the movie "Harvey" and heard Jimmy Stewart say the line, "nobody ever brings anything small into a bar". About three months after that, I read a 1992 sci-fi book called "Destroying Angel" by Richard Paul Russo. In the book, the protagonist asks a waitress about the tears tattooed on her face, and she responds that she has "one for every year he's away". The protagonist then thinks to himself that he's heard that line somewhere before.

So we have a 1950's Jimmy Stewart movie that inspired a 1980's Tom Waits song which in turn inspired a 1990's neo-noir detective story: From movie to song to book. It's funny the way pop culture works sometimes. And I'm sure that Waits would feel as home drinking in a bar with an eight foot rabbit as he would in the trash strewn alley of a futuristic, yet decaying, San Francisco.

In the end, it all makes for some great storytelling.

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