Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
My mom once told me that the reason she liked Janis Joplin so much was
because you could hear a painful life when she sang. Tom Waits has had
the same effect on two generations. But it's more than just pain you
hear when Tom Waits sings-- it's happiness, drunkenness, drama, anger
and truth. Brutal truth. For Waits, there's nothing shocking; no killer
behind the door or bogeyman under the bed. You hear it in his voice:
he's been through too much to be surprised. That's why his deadpan reading
of the psycho- homicidal "Frank's Wild Years" never rises above a humph,
or why the rhyming non- sequiturs of "Singapore" seem so orderly and precise.
"The Black Rider" would qualify as macabre under most circumstances, but with
Waits singing, it's macabaret. With a knack for being both self- assured and
extremely fragile, this man is the most unstable rock to ever play a piano.
For ten years it was the lounge bar at Island Records where Waits
played. Some might say that it was his early jazz- beat years that gave
Waits his identity, but maturity suits him fine, and it's his
Island years chronicled on Beautiful Maladies which see him
narrating with the cynical wisdom of someone who's been there, wherever
"there" may be.
There's no attempt at chronologically recapping the seven albums Waits
recorded for Island, which makes sense since his musical growth looks
more like a used dartboard than a graph. He never hit the same mark
twice, and he didn't score higher with each additional shot because you
never knew if he was seriously aiming or just making a drunken toss.
For all of Waits' high points, he's highest when he fits what he's
singing. The cracked childhood of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" couldn't ask
for better vocals than Waits' bourbon wheeze, and "Time" finds optimism
That's what makes Waits unique. Not only can he sing with wisdom
(whether real or invented), but he can sing about loss without falling
into heartache and he can sing about hope without letting go of pain.
Even though half of his tales are stranger than fiction and none of them
give explicit insight into Waits himself, you get the feeling that you
know all about this guy. Because no matter what the song, it's being
sung in a way only Tom Waits could sing it.