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Book 1 - Wasted and Wounded
Book 2 - Innocent When You Dream
Book 3 - A Junkman's Choir
Book 4 - The Last Leaf on the Tree
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Tom Waits' Music to Stories Series

Wasted and Wounded: Volume One

This collection unearths the stories that run parallel to those of Tom Waits' early songs. They do not retell as much as push the envelope wider, strain the meaning of a few lines, and stretch the place the song occupies so that the river rats and abandoned dogs, crying children on the street and shifty-eyed suits, salesmen with their patter and hobos with their rags, can shoulder out a space. Searching for the American dream and distracted by a promise, a woman tosses pennies into liquor bottles in a half moon bar, a fast car leaves the parking lot with the radio on full, even while a knife fight wounds the street and an old man pumps quarters into a one-armed bandit.

The songs tell the story of a man who carries the Midwest on him like a ring he can't get off, who rattles on the wide streets of the American west like a tin can tied to a junkyard dog and crowds in the eastern cities where the brownstones spill out onto the broad steps of long afternoons. Refusing to be caught by the despair of the endless nights, he jockeys for dollars with the sell-outs, fishes for the glisten of silver among the litter in the alleys, and sleeps under the bridge on a rainy night.

Innocent When You Dream: Volume Two

This second volume of my Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs series follows the shifts in his music as Reagan's eighties tumbled into the nineties. The narrative voice shifts with his music as the stories drift outside the personal to examine the world around him just as much as it does his reactions to it.

Tom Waits' middle period is much more experimental than his early work. The piano-playing hard-drinking and smoking Waits of The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner settled down into the much stranger magician and carnival roustabout of the eighties. Drawing upon three-penny opera, vaudeville, classic blues and industrial music, Waits began to experiment with non-traditional instruments, bagpipes, marimba, pump organs, and odd percussive "instruments" such as brake drums, a damaged Chamberlin, and a Stroh violin.

His lyrics shifted with his music, and the characters of his ballads from Closing Time were less recognizable as he shifted Swordfishtrombones to Island Records in 1983. Then his music became more experimental than the songs of his earlier albums. Rain Dogs continued that experimentation two years later, and he began to tell the stories of people trapped on the outside of society. In another two years, he followed the story of Frank, a kind of alter ego if Waits had lived a different life, as if Frank from "Frank's Wild Years" hadn't doused the house in kerosene and driven away. It was about this time that Asylum released some older versions of some of the early work, capitalizing on Waits' growing popularity and taking advantage of their contract with him. This proved to be a kind of unconscious elegy to Waits' early work as he went even further afield, and showed the shift to the experimentation in Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs and how that became extended into Bone Machine.

This third volume of my Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs series is an attempt to tell the story of his later period beginning with the dark tapestry of tales and stripped-down guttural roar of blues rock in Bone Machine. Released in 1992, in many ways that album was the hollering inbred cousin who didn't find enough room on Rain Dogs. Within a year The Black Rider tells its listeners-in case we have forgotten from earlier albums-that "There's a lot of things in this world / you're going to have no use for." The anodyne to this is not the roustabout drinking of his earlier period, however, for "when you get blue / And you've lost all your dreams / There's nothin' like a campfire / And a can of beans." The campfire and the can of beans do not cure the world's ills; there is just nothing like them.

Like the first two volumes of Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs, I use the lyrics and music to tell the story waiting in the wings to come on, the one that the songs either avoid or never intended to let loose. I use the nightmare calliope of Mule Variations from 1999 and Alice and Blood Money from 2002 to evoke Waits' carnival barkers, inept profiteers, and balladeers to reach outside the wreckage of the personal to peer into the blackened well of those characters' lives. Raising their tangled stories like belladonna in the garden, I hope that the nightmare rides through albums like Real Gone's 2004 seemingly antithetical stories somehow combine with the narrative I am trying to pull out from Waits' exploration of Middle America, with its losses, its joys, and the cars everyone was driving when we went over the cliff.

The Last Leaf on the Tree: Volume Four

This fourth and last volume of my Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs tells more stories of Waits' later period beginning with the blues, ballad, and experimental bastards of his musical career from Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. Released in 2006, Orphans was compiled of songs that extended as far back as Rain Dogs and contained many which had not been previously released. I end the book series with Waits' latest album, Bad as Me, also from Anti-Records in 2011. Bad as Me continues digging in the rich vein Waits had been following since the eighties. Like a miner working a seam, he is tirelessly following the mineral to its source, and has dug deep into the earth itself, releasing the primal holler and backwoods stomp alongside the operatic subtlety of jazz and blues rhythms.

Like the first three volumes of Narrative in Tom Waits' Songs, I use the lyrics and music to tell the story waiting in the wings to come on, the one that the songs either avoid or never intended to let loose. These most recent releases tell the poignant story of the war's effect on the warrior, the aging musician up against the constant rejuvenation of his craft, and the twinges in the muscles which is the love that sprawls through the stories in the later albums. The love story which keeps the protagonist alive and breathing and sparkling through the darker elements of a world gone mad with money and weapons.

Until Waits releases another album, however, this is the last volume of my series. That being said, like thousands of other Waits fans, I eagerly await the next entrance into a world we would never have experienced without his unique talent.


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