Tom Waits has got to be one of the most original balladeers alive. His raspy voice doesn’t pretend to be anything except for the experienced and world weary vehicle for his poetry. I find his music amazing in how his songs capture something that feels so specific. I can’t really put my finger on it. In “The Part You Throw Away” I think it’s the haunting accompaniment that makes the song like no other. Pizzicato violins seem to evoke the sound of a Japanese Koto and the mournful clarinet lines sound like they are from an old world European cabaret after hours. Tom and his songs are definitely all one of a kind.
On April 24 we are celebrating the NYFOS 30th Anniversary with a concert at Merkin Hall at 8:00. Tenor Paul Appleby, a NYFOS regular over the past decade will be with us singing Schubert, Lennon and McCartney, and several other things. Paul has an enviable international career by now, and we don’t get to see him very often, so this this will be a treat for Steve Blier and myself. I remember being backstage before a concert with Paul in Washington D.C. about 7 years ago. Our next concert would be based on the hours of the work day. It was coming up right away, and we were just a song or two short. Paul pulled out his phone, tapped in a line, and held his phone out to us. “Do you guys know Tom Waits”? He inquired. Uhhh, not really, we kind of know the name was our lame reply. There appeared on the phone a bedraggled, smoking, drinking, piano playing, singing (well, I’ll let you be the judge) Tom Waits in “I Cant Wait To Get Off Work”. It was mesmerizing, and the song did make it on to our program, with James Martin portraying a stylish janitor, waiting to just get home and see his baby. Paul Appleby’s artistry has been a given since his Juilliard days. He had that special thing that doesn’t appear in young talent but once every many years. And his deep ideas about music and singing are always provoking, and fascinating to argue, and eventually agree with. And he does indeed have some good ideas. Here is Tom Waits in that recording Paul showed us. Do yourself a favor and come hear Paul on April 24.
This number is dedicated to all my wonderful HENRY’s bartenders at closing time. My Song of the Day today is from my modern everyman, Tom Waits with his delightful song, “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” The time is ripe for some rich satire.
“The Piano Has Been Drinking” is special to me because of its unique perspective on my life’s work, service. Waits focuses on a particular moment that hospitality professionals know well: closing time. There is a moment at every bar, as the night comes to an end, when the air goes out of the room. Your best guests have left before the cleaning crews start working the dark edges, slowly moving into the dim light. Everything changes at that moment, as a night of endless possibilities suddenly becomes a morning of bitter reflection. Last call lures so many to stay beyond their limits and to test the patience of those that serve them.
Waits’ growling, slurred vocals fit a particular vision of the over-served lounge pianist who’s drooping eyes rove over the room at closing time, leaving no thing and no one unscathed. His fingers move up and down the keys carelessly, aimlessly, while his lyrics pull it all into focus.
And the telephone’s out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make
And the piano has been drinking, the piano has been drinking…
And the box-office is drooling, and the bar stools are on fire
And the newspapers were fooling, and the ash-trays have retired
But it is his denigration of the owner that sets my heart afire with love for this song. “And the owner is a mental midget with the IQ of a fence post.” Let alone that he has rhymed that line with “As the bouncer is a sumo wrestler cream-puff Casper milquetoast.” This is one of those songs so well suited to its writer’s gifts that we are left to bathe luxuriously in its wonder.
Tom Waits: The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me), aka The Bartender’s Prayer
Studio Version from Small Change, 1976
Live Version from Bounced Checks, 1981
Live Television from Fernwood Tonight w/ Martin Mull & Fred Willard
PPS. If you want more politics in a Waits-ian vein, try this on for size – God’s Away on Business. Waits wrote it with his wife, Kathleen Brennan for a Robert Wilson musical of Woyzeck, the songs from which are on Waits’ Blood Money album.
This week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!
Somewhat like the Gillian Welch song from yesterday, Tom Waits’ Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) has a slightly trance-like quality to it. Within a repetitive form, off-kilter and brilliant lyrics stumble and lurch forward, only to be caught each time and put upright by the chorus, a Waitsian interpretation of Australia’s unofficial national anthem “Waltzing Matilda.” “Now I lost my Saint Christopher now that I’ve kissed her” is among my all-time favorite lyrics. Slightly cryptic, like the Welch, it perfectly sums up–for me–the dizzy feeling of falling head over heals in love. My personal affection for this song–admittedly sentimental–likely has something to do with the fact that my partner is Australian.
Tom Waits (1949) – Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) (1976)
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