Monday, February 10, 2014

rediscovery: tom waits- 'alice'

‘It’s dreamy weather,’ goes the opening line of Tom Waits’ 2002 album ‘Alice’—which is made up of music that Waits wrote for Robert Wilson’s adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany in 1992. I’ve been ripping CDs and dumping them all on a backup drive lately—it’s a time-consuming process for me right now due to the constant state of malfunction that is my circus of Macintosh laptops. In 2012 I split the cost of a refurbished Macbook Pro with my wife since we were both doing a bunch of telecommuting online-based work—when it came it had a lot of problems including the fact that the USB hubs never worked (the headphone jack has to be jiggled in order for it to work). Our other main laptop is a 2006 refurbished Macbook that I bought with my birthday money in 2008. Since the USB hubs on the regular Macbook work we have to update our ipods and such on it, however, the superdrive croaked in about 2010 and then the replacement external superdrive that I bought in 2011 croaked early last year. Ripping CDs now involves ripping them into the Macbook pro and then Blue-toothing the files to the Macbook so that they can be backed up. In short it’s quite a time-consuming process that I’ve found a curious sort of zen-like appreciation for lately. Now I’m forced to prioritize what’s most important to me to listen to and backup. As I do this I’m selling the CDs back for trade at Reckless and discovering a fair amount of music that’s been collecting dust on our 1TB backup drive.

While ripping the three discs of ‘Orphans’ I discovered ‘Bone Machine’ and ‘Alice’ that I must have backed up in 2007 or 08. When I loaded ‘Alice’ onto my iPod I found it difficult to stop listening to it and continue to two weeks later. It’s one of those oddly-timed correlations with time, place and re-discovery of something old and forgotten at just the right time. I’m finding ‘Alice’ to be the perfect post-holiday winter album. I think it’s been a particularly brutal winter for most, but for me it’s been a strange and wonderful one. The past two winters have been far too mild having an overall more negative effect on the constant whingeing that seems to be what everyone in Chicago does from about mid-January clear up until the first few days that the temperature edges past the 60 degree mark at some point in April. You hear a lot of ‘I’m moving to California—who needs this?’ and ‘I need 80 degrees and sunshine.’ People who live here their entire lives fall to pieces in February claiming they can’t take it any more even though they know full well that an early Spring is a nothing more than a cruel mirage. My love of winter is well-documented and I’ve always figured that if I can maintain this stance while living here then it’s not just a contrarian type of pretension. The only thing that sucks is that all I hear during my favourite time of year is complaining from everyone surrounding me. Meanwhile during those difficult summer months I find that I am expected to keep my mouth shut. Because of this I seek out a very specific type of music to listen to during the season—it’s usually sad, beautiful, mournful and filled with a great sense of intangibility. ‘Alice’ has all of these things in spades.

Besides the opening track I found the carnival-chant ‘Kommienezuspadt’ charming and perfect. Then there was the first time I heard ‘Watch Her Disappear’—it was one of those golden ‘holy shit!’ kind of moments. Where ‘Circus’ from 2004’s ‘Real Gone’ had previously held the title of my favourite Tom Waits spoken-word piece it was completely blown-away by the dreamlike eeriness and staggering beauty of ‘Watch Her Disappear.’ Every line is perfect—it’s just abstract enough in its heightened dreaminess deliriousness. It makes me curious as to how this song was used in the play—describing dreams in prose is always a thorny type of business. It’s a device I cop to constantly in my own writing and I have no idea if I do it well or not. In songs it’s usually easier, but often works better in an impressionistic sense. The imagery of ‘Watch Her Disappear’ is more vivid than lyrics have any right to be. Since I’m struggling with specific lines to quote I’d rather just print the lyrics below—

‘Last night I dreamed that I was dreaming of you
And from a window across the lawn I watched you undress
Wearing your sunset of purple tightly woven around your hair
That rose in strangled ebony curls
Moving in a yellow bedroom light
The air is wet with sound
The faraway yelping of a wounded dog
And the ground is drinking a slow faucet leak
Your house is so soft and fading as it soaks the black summer heat
A light goes on and the door opens
And a yellow cat runs out on the stream of hall light and into the yard
A wooden cherry scent is faintly breathing the air
I hear your champagne laugh
You wear two lavender orchids
One in your hair and one on your hip
A string of yellow carnival lights comes on with the dusk
Circling the lake with a slowly dipping halo
And I hear a banjo tango
And you dance into the shadow of a black poplar tree
And I watched you as you disappeared
I watched you as you disappeared’

Somehow each line bleeds into the next—the images are so crystal clear and alarmingly vivid. It strikes me as a type of out-of-season fever dream where everything is hyper realistic and overwhelming. There’s also the issue of the voyeuristic nature of these observations at odds with their stirring and longing beauty. It’s the perfect example of exactly what makes Waits such an unparalleled songwriter.

Then there’s ‘Poor Edward,’ which is a tale of a boy who is born with two faces—one is his own and the other is his female devil twin. The two can’t be separated without causing his death and yet the two are completely at odds—his good nature eventually caving to the terrible things she says causing him to resort to suicide in order to kill them both. The irony being that the lyrics describe this action as solidifying an eternity in hell for the two of them—possibly the devil twin’s intention all along. Such a bleak song can only be followed by the amusing ‘Table Top Joe.’ ‘Fish & Bird’ is one of those songs that creates an impossible love story between two animals that are doomed to never be together—it’s the story of a whale that falls in love with a bird. Then there’s the closing instrumental ‘Fawn,’ built on a rickety-sounding mournful violin. So much arresting power crammed into 48 minutes—perfect for such dreamy weather.

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