Tom Waits' "Bad as Me" reviewed

The new Tom Waits LP, Bad as Me, was given a mixed review on SoundOpinions last week, but from what I’ve heard so far, it contains some excellent material. One of its songs seems very much part of the zeitgeist, corresponding with Isabel Wilderson’s best-selling American history, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great migration to cities like Chicago. This excellent video persuaded me to buy the record:

What a great piece of Chicago history this is! The archival footage of the Maxwell Street flea market and blues players (I’m guessing from the early 50’s or late 40’s)is something I’ve never seen. Instead of just an excellent song (whose rhythms mimic the trains that made the town), it’s a piece of social history–a snapshot of one important destination in the American Dream. Although Chicago was not all that it was sold to the southern black, it did allow for Mississippi Delta men like Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf to make a new kind of music in the semi-hospitable town.

It seems to me that with the new technology and the news of the day, Waits is doing as the Chicago bluesmen did:  making new sounds to convey their realities. That’s why I could not agree with one of the SoundOpinion guys, who claimed that this record was weak Waits, a re-tread of the sound he’s been using since 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. Yes, some of the collections have been hit-and-miss (inconsistent quality) since what I consider a masterpiece, 1985’s  Rain Dogs, but everything I’ve heard on this one is high-quality Waits.

None of this will persuade listeners who can’t get past the man’s voice, which is as ragged and real as an old tavern stool. If you’re looking for pleasant, unchallenging listens, go elsewhere, but if you like your troubadours with lived-in voices, Waits should be in your collection. This album could be a good introduction to his work. The songs range his spectrum from ballads to bluesy rockers, and if you like these, there are more than 20 albums out there.

One other song whose potency astounds me is an anti-war song called “Hell Broke Luce,” which couples an industrial age rhythm with a war veteran’s tale of loss and anger (what follows is my transcription–some lines are probably different):

I had to good home but I left
I had a good home but I left right – left
that big fuckin bomb made me deaf, deaf
a humvee mechanic put his kevlar on wrong
I guarantee you’ll meet up with a suicide bomb and hell broke luce hell broke luce

dig fuckin ditches in the middle of the road
you’d pay a hundred dollars just for filling in the hole
listen to the general every goddamn word
how many ways can you polish up a turd?
and left – right left – left – right, left right
hell broke luce, hell broke luce hell broke luce 

How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess
Got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?
and hell broke luce, hell broke luce left – right – left
What did you do before the war? I was a chef, I was a chef.
And what was your name? it was Jeff, Jeff.
I lost my buddy and I wept, wept.
I come down from the meth so I slept, slept.
I had a good home but I left, left.
Can’t stick the wind for a joke
i benched right in with a dope
glanced at her shins she said nope left – right – left 

Big brown bugfish have you any wool?
Get me another bodybag the bodybag’s full
my face was scars, scars
i miss my home i miss my porch, porch left – right – left
Can I go home in March?
life stands as a chin from a soap
that rancid dinner with the Pope and left – right – left 

Kelly Persona got his sons blown off
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough (x2)
and hell broke luce, hell broke luce hell broke luce
Boom went his heavy weight and boom went Bowery
What the hell was it that the president said?
Give them all a beautiful parade instead and left – right – left 

While I was over here I never got to vote.
I left my arm in my coat.
My mom, she died and never wrote
We sat by the fire and made a toast.
Just before he died he had a toke.
Now I’m home and I’m blind and I’m broke. 

What. Is. Next?

Waits mixes machine gun and bomb sounds along with an Islamic woman singing. It’s a powerful audio concoction, and to me an undeniable statement about a foolish war.  What is next?, a listener wonders. 
Thank you, Mr. Waits, for staying engaged and musically strong at 62. 

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