Lost in Translation

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2007-04-13 22:05:26 (UTC)

"Closing Time"

“Like fitting a square peg in a round hole”, that is how
some people would describe your storyteller’s existence in
this time and place in the world. You can call me old
fashioned or outdated-- it may even be just plain
stubbornness that aids my reluctance to adapt to any current
trends or technological advances; it is this part of my
brain that really likes Tom Waits.

I am a believer some of the most beautiful scenarios in life
exist in the mind. At any time you might find me in a dimly
lit cocktail bar -off an old highway somewhere- hanging out
with insomniacs, crossroad truckers, and absent minded
alcoholics. Underneath the swirling smoke vapors and single
callous lamp, Tom is in the corner, hunched over a ratty oak
piano, cigarette dangling from his chin, singing songs of
lost loves, lonely sailors and one armed bandits. At a
lonely table in the back- I sit, quarter of two in the
morning, counting the empty pints of Guinness while spitting
out with drunken conviction about how I’ll probably never
get married and how I couldn’t even handle it if I did…good

And with that, lies the beauty of Tom’s music; it makes you
love all that’s wrong with yourself and coaxes you to
rejoice in your deficiencies. It’s to no wonder that he and
Johnny Cash are hallowed by inmates in the federal
penitentiary systems.

With to particular sound, concept or direction in mind, Tom
wrote the songs that graced “Closing Time” from the heart,
(for the heart) and serving as a caricature of Rock and
Roll, the album’s emotion and musical identity would mutate
the status quo. Songs like “Martha” are a perfect example-
written from perspective of a man drunk on black coffee,
determined to confront his past he calls his
love-gone-astray from a dampened pay phone in the first
verse, “Operator, number please: it's been so many years /
Will she remember my old voice, while I fight the tears?”
The piano echoes of sporadic raindrops as his voice sounds
aged, battered and full of regret for the sin of allowing
such a masterful and wonderfully congenial woman go all
those years ago. The second verse begins by Tom contrasting
their lives’ as they are now, “And I feel so much older now
and you're much older too / how’s your husband and how’s
your kid- you know that I got married too?” he then descends
the conversation, suggesting to the listener he was perhaps
an unfit and possibly unfaithful partner,” Lucky that you
found someone to make you feel secure, / 'cause we were all
so young and foolish, now we are mature” The digression
continues till the final verse, “And I was always so
impulsive, I guess that I still am / And all that really
mattered then, was that I was a man.” In so many words he
admits to his love that he was not in tune to her
femininity, possibly implying that if he would’ve been
physically able to drop the male-macho routine, their
relationship might have survived. At the grand old age of
21, Mr. Waits knew what most men twice his age didn’t;
hindsight is always 20/20, “And I remember quiet evenings
trembling close to you...”

My favorite work on Closing Time is by far “Old 55”. The
original version was released in 1973 with little chart
success and it wasn’t until late 1974 the remake -serving as
a B-side to the number one Eagles hit “Best of My Love”-
would receive notoriety the original could not. Allocated
the first song on the record, you hear Tom slowly calling
the tempo, 1 2 3 4… ascending into a heavenly, upright piano
finger-driven rattle, while the stand up bass added a cozy
bouncy texture. “My time went so quickly, I went
lickety-splickly out to my old '55”. In the predawn morning,
Tom leaves his companion’s mountain-side home (or trailer
for that matter), in his beloved automobile and drives off,
“As I Pulled away slowly, feeling so holy, God knows, I was
feeling alive”. There have been plenty of “stabs” at the
true meaning of the song; I like to believe it’s about a
memorable one night stand, and I guess it’s the experience
of leaving someone’s place [at that hour] and encompassing
feelings so close to what he is describing that I gather my
assumption. “And now the sun's coming up, I'm riding with
Lady Luck, freeway cars and trucks, Stars beginning to
fade…” With emphasis on the little details, he absorbs all
around him, drawing the benign conclusion that he may have
left her prematurely, “…and I lead the parade / Just
a-wishing I'd stayed a little longer, Oh, Lord, that the
feeling's getting stronger.” Could it be she is more than
just a one night stand? In true Waits style, the song ends
never answering that question, he just stresses the
significance of his departure, “Now six in the morning, gave
me no warning; I had to be on my way…” The real question is;
will he be back?

Now let’s just assume for a second that I, (that is me),
we’re able to convince some incredibly tolerable, bighearted
and severely near sighted woman to care enough to actually
consider marring this old sap; the song I would choose on
that monumental occasion would be “Little Trip to Heaven”,
the second to last track on Closing Time. Sounding like an
ol’ liquor-lounge-jazz tune Etta James would’ve been proud
to call her own, Little Trip to Heaven begins slowly; the
cradling black and white octaves, followed by painfully
blissful brass puffs, seasoned with swishy-swash brush
swipes on a freckly snare drum…true beauty as my new wife
and I graze the dance floor. The first line of the song says
it all- “Little trip to heaven on the wings of your love”-
the rest are just adjectives. He just looks at her, “I don't
need to take no trip to outer space / all I have to do is
look in your face” and before he even has a chance to wink
he’s thinking, “And before I know it I'm in orbit around you
/ thanking my lucky stars that I found you” He embellishes
in everything she is and admits she is his source of
strength, “You're my north star when I'm lost and feeling
blue / the sun is breaking through the clouds don't you,
don't you know it's true?” And finally, how does a man
describe his love for a woman too beautiful to be described?
He repeats himself; incessantly“…honey, I know nothing ever
going to take your place and it's you… And it's you, and
it's you… and it's you… and it's you… and it's you…” He
carries on like that till seemingly the air from his lungs
is all but depleted, then he ends the song brilliantly, “And
it's you, and it's you… shoo-be-doo, ba-da-da.” …And it’s at
this very moment you will see my hand clasped onto hers as I
spin her body sideways, with the music fading out, under the
spotlight, leisurely descending my love towards the floor;
with her left leg up and looking right into my moisture
filled eyes, she will now understand what devotion really
is. In front of everyone in the audience, in that classic
dip position I lean and I kiss her. No questions need be
asked after that.

Tom Waits’ voice was once described by music critic, "Like
it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the
smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run
over with a car." A little harsh perhaps, but I remember way
back in 1996, when Cesar Rosas (Lead singer of Los Lobos) in
a record store, taught me a little something about music.
After exchanging some intelligent conversation, Cesar led me
the W’s in the rock aisle. I was shocked when he pulled out
Closing Time and said, “Study, listen, and learn from a
genius”. He told me that if it wasn’t for Waits, he probably
would’ve never become a musician, so that night, I took it
home. At first listen I was wondered if he was joking with
me. I thought to myself, this guy can’t sing a lick…The
songs are raw, unpolished and hard to listen to; what was he
trying to pull? The CD sat on the shelf for a while and
after one rough and tumble night I played it again. This
time the experience was very different. I discovered the
melodies and timing were impeccable. The songs were
heartfelt and genuine. His rat-tat-tattered voice didn’t
bother me as much as it did before; the only question now
was why the difference? The answer was I wasn’t listening
with the right kind of ears. Just like fine art must be
viewed by the right kind of eyes or aged wine being tasted
with an experienced palette- you must tap into an entirely
different part of the brain to appreciate such
craftsmanship. The songs on Closing Time will stand forever
in my mind as representations of calm in chaos, beauty in
ugliness and youth in old age, the good thing is, I
discovered this early.

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