I get a night off and you get the second installment in what I hope to make a weekly feature: the guest blogger. Tonight, one of my oldest friends makes me look silly with his incredibly insightful post about Tom Waits's 1976 classic and the turning point it represented in his path as an artist. George Barron is a lawyer by day, father by night, and a damn fine musician when he has time. You can hear his guitar work on my 2003 album Smile If You Absolutely Want To and also on my rumored-to-be-forthcoming new album, whenever that happens.
Title: Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)
Artist: Tom Waits
Album: Small Change
This post will not include any discussion of music theory. I'm not a musician, I'm a guitar player.
In the early 1970’s Tom Waits was not the growling carnival barker of despair and doom that we know and love today. He was a sincere, slightly goofy singer/songwriter/storyteller. 1975's "Nighthawks at the Diner" is a great example of this Tom Waits, a live album in which he is as much comedian as singer – like Dean Martin after a three-day bender. On “Nighthawks,” Waits is funny and engaging and even sort of cute.
1976’s “Small Change” introduces us to a new Tom Waits. This Tom Waits is not funny, except in the most acerbic way, as in his rant against commercialism, "Step Right Up." The goofiness is gone, the love songs are steeped in pain and there is nothing cute about this guy. The songs are written for the most part in the first person, and Waits assumes the role of one of the dysfunctional denizens of the urban underbelly that is his canvas. This Tom Waits is a man in danger, and possibly a dangerous man.
“Tom Traubert’s Blues,” the first track on Small Change, is a big step forward for Waits. It is a beautifully sad song that sets the tone for the album and for the next stage of Waits’ career. The protagonist, Tom
Waits Traubert, begins
with an expression of regret, acknowledging that he is to blame for his
“Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did/Got what I paid for now”
It only takes another verse for Tom to proclaim himself an “innocent victim.” So which is it? Tom isn’t able to say for sure, and that confusion is the first hint that there are deeper problems afoot. The chorus of the song, sung over a soaring string section is:
“Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you'll go waltzing Matilda with me”
Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a love song about a woman named Matilda (particularly if you’d only heard Rod Stewart’s criminally bad 1993 cover). In fact, Waits once said that this song is about a woman he met and waltzed with in Copenhagen.
Waits was, as usual, pulling the interviewer’s chain. Here’s the first clue: “waltzing Matilda" is Australian slang, used to refer to vagrants, bums – what we would call today homeless people.
So we know that Tom is homeless. But it’s not that simple. In another proclamation of innocence, Tom makes it clear that "Matilda" is not just the result of his suffering, “she” is the cause:
“And you can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailor/And the old men in wheelchairs know/That Matilda's the defendant, she killed about a hundred/And she follows wherever you may go”
So who or what is “Matilda”? Waits has said that the inspiration for this song came when he spent an evening on skid row with a bottle of rye in a paper bag, talking to the men there. By Waits’ account, all the men he spoke to blamed a woman for their downfall. Maybe he was telling the truth, and “Matilda” means women in general.
But I think that Waits’ "Matilda" is something else. “Waltzing Matilda” is what Tom does to cope as best he can with his demons – waltzing Matilda = dancing with the devil. Homeless, probably an alcoholic, possibly mentally ill, Tom is fighting a battle to keep his sanity - and losing:
“I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alley And I'm tired of all these soldiers here No one speaks English, and everything's broken And my Stacys are soaking wet”
“I begged you to stab me You tore my shirt open And I'm down on my knees tonight Old Bushmill's I staggered, you buried the dagger in Your silhouette window light to go”
In any event, Waits’ decision to use the “waltzing Matilda” line and leave it open to interpretation is clever. It makes his repeated, lilting invitation that the listener "go waltzing Matilda with me" positively chilling.
“Tom Traubert's Blues” is a defining moment in Waits’ career. It introduces the lyrical darkness that becomes increasingly prominent on later records. It marks the beginning of Waits’ habit of writing and singing in character, and in a sense, the beginning of Waits’ acting career. It is our introduction to a new Tom Waits. He is no longer the goofy guy who told waitress jokes in the early 1970s. He is not yet the man on fire who would proclaim that God is "away on business" and that we will all ultimately be "just dirt in the ground." The Tom Waits we meet for the first time in “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the key to understanding both what he was and what he would become.