09 October, 2020

Tom Waits Time Machine

"Tango Till They're Sore" is the fifth track on the timeless Tom Waits album Rain Dogs, released by Island Records in 1989. It clocks in at less than three minutes but that brief amount of time can do a lot. Its effect on me is a kind of time travel, twenty-three years into the past.

The song opens with an off-key barroom piano, perhaps one that's missing keys, and a metronomic ticking like someone tapping a sliver of plastic on a sheet of linoleum. The plinking melody is soon joined, all at once, by an upright bass, a couple of brass instruments, and the plaintive vocals of the Vagabond, the estimable Mr. Waits, whose voice makes Joe Cocker's sound almost AutoTune-smooth by comparison.

Without ever adopting an actual narrative, "Tango Till They're Sore" takes the perspective of a hedonist ruminating in a flophouse, considering how he wants his death, and subsequent funeral, to be. "I guess daisies'll have to do," Waits croaks, a man resigned to dying because he plans to have a good time in the process. ("Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair," the chorus pleads.) His list of final requests, for the funeral and beyond, includes a roast pig, a rousing New Orleans band, and someone hang on to his beloved clarinet "until I get back in town." You could call this funereal optimism.

I once mentioned the song in a short blog post that functioned as a belated eulogy for my friend Justin. Lounging around his condo with my friends, following a late-summer evening our favorite local record store, I heard Tom Waits for the very first time and practically climbed the walls to get away from the minor-key cacophony of Rain Dogs' opening track, "Singapore."

I warmed to the sound eventually. It just took a few listens. If I've learned anything about music in my years since, it's that some of the hardest stuff to hear can become the most satisfying, the most meaningfully enjoyable music there is. That's what Tom Waits was for me. It got so I couldn't get enough of his scratchy growl, his song's surreal characters, his devil-may-care musical style, and his singular persona.

As for that song from Rain Dogs, it came to be associated with Justin, a friend whose death comprises one half of the single most harmful, most enduring, most resented event of my life. Even today I can't hear it and not think of how Justin talked and talked about his funeral, about the different ways he'd thought about dying. He'd never discussed the way he actually died, of course, taking his own life within hours of his girlfriend's mysterious, grisly death. And that incongruity has contributed to the endurance of my feelings about the song, which are somehow simultaneously scornful and tender.

I appreciate difficult music that doesn't give itself up to listener all at once, the way a pop song does. I like the intellectual struggle to understand what it is that a piece of music is intended to do; why it works, sonically speaking; what message, if any, it contains. Working toward an understanding deepens a listener's relationship to it. Deep listening enriches your relationship to the music, giving it a chance to sink into your bones as you sink into its melodies, rhythms, and lyrics. Eventually it might even become part of you.

"Tango Till They're Sore" became a part of me more than half my lifetime ago. It's not a song I hum in the shower, nor one that I find myself wanting, at random moments, to hear. But when I get in a certain mood and feel like cueing up Rain Dogs on a warm Midwestern night, the whiskey-warped melody that starts plinking along, eleven minutes into the album, throws me right back into the long-past past. A resurrection. A revival. A memory not worth indulging but there, and strangely enjoyed, just the same.

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