Tom Waits is unusual. That’s a given. That’s his strength, his currency. To paraphrase the man himself , he’s something of a “crooked tree”, unconventional and unpredictable. There’s that voice, that gait, distinguished yet primitive features, his fondness for strange instruments, bizarre sounds and haunted melodies. And there’s his immense lyrical and melodic gift which has made him one of the most unique figures to have emerged out of the early Seventies West Coast singer/songwriter scene.
Upon first hearing his trademark guttural growl, I can only recall a sense of absolute horror. I was in my maybe in my early teens and I think his version of Downtown Train, the video of which was playing on BBC or MTV late one night. My ears had become attuned to a blow dried version of the same song by Rod The Mod – comparisons of which I have already detailed here– which as was customary at the time slathered on the overblown, synthetic production. Was this really professional singing, I thought to myself? This is terrible…how is he getting away with it? etc, etc. That voice, that rumble of half drunken gibberish must be a put on.
A while later, Waits again made a visit into my tiny closed mind as I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula. Waits portrayed Renfield, Dracula’s insane henchman./servant and again, that voice except now he was actually playing a part and his raspy London accent along with his startling presence made a more positive impression. I was aware this was a singer/songwriter and yes, I still couldn’t process the logic behind a musician also being an actor at the same time.
Years went by, my taste diversified and I started to show more of an interest in Waits and his music after hearing him perform a stunning version of the West Side Story/Sondheim number ‘Somewhere’ on a BBC documentary in 2001 about the history of American Popular music. It floored me. The lush orchestration against the rough edges of his voice was both abrasive and beautiful because of the incredible yearning in his voice. It was unvarnished, true yet melodramatic at the same time.
I don;t profess to be a Waits-ian scholar, there are plenty of middle aged aficionados out there with a lot more knowledge than I of the mans career and music. But I’ve always admired his artistic spirit. There’s an incredible sense of play and theatricality in his music and in his acting performances, however dark they may be at times.
Here is a selection of some of his work on the big screen, the majority of which has seen him collaborate regularly with Francis Ford Coppola and indie auteur Jim Jarmusch. Waits always manages to bring a relaxed, believable, lived in quality to his performances which makes him a welcome though criminally underused screen presence. He has an acute sense of performance and style, likely carried over from his musical alter ego and experiences on stage.
Down By Law(1986) Dir:Jim Jarmusch
Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992) Dir:Francis Ford Coppola
Short Cuts(1993) Dir: Robert Altman
Coffee & Cigarettes(2003) Dir: Jim Jarmusch
Domino(2005) Dir: Tony Scott
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009) Dir: Terry Gilliam