December 7, 2009
TOM WAITS (born 1949) turns sixty today — and it’s not his fault that NPR wants to stick a bronze plaque on him and declare him a National Landmark. He’s been making little teratomas of music for decades now, freakish little knots of hair and teeth and eyeballs that blink at you. Yes, he still writes piano ballads that bend down their branches and odd little groove contraptions that plow and putter behind the shed, and queer transmissions banked in static. But Mr. Waits does not purvey weak, hind-titty sucking blues to vamp behind Terry Gross and her warm chuckle, and he’s not your cuddlesome anecdote about “nurturing creativity” at TED. There’s been some mistaken transference between the quality of Tom’s work and the marketing of Quality; for some, he’s taken on the virtue of a Saab’s all-leather interior. So for those of you who have the nagging sensation that you ought to like Tom Waits but just can’t get into him, I release you from that delusion of Good Taste. He’s not for you. Listen, Shakespeare is Quality too, but you wouldn’t want Lear teaching at your kid’s pre-school. And you don’t really want Tom Waits on the megaphone in your back yard, beating on a boxspring with a tire iron. Unscrew the jar, shake him out, and let him scuttle away.
David Smay is the author of the 33 1/3 book about Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones.
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