Writer Wednesday: Tom Waits

WaitsI’m going to try something a little different this week.

Like most good things, I discovered Tom Waits late. While I had heard his music here and there over the years, it wasn’t until 1999 when I finally experienced Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine. This is the kind of album that people have a rough idea what they’re in for in the first ten seconds of the first track, and either you’re on the bus or you’re not. I must’ve listened to Bone Machine about 20 times in a row, on full blast, dancing and writing and acting like a total lunatic (thanks, booze!). At one point, even the neighbors came over to figure out what they were hearing.

Now I know Tom Waits isn’t a name that enters people’s minds when they think about writers, but what interests me is the power of storytelling, whether that’s in a book, a movie or a song. And Tom Waits has quite a few beautiful moments of storytelling in his three CD set Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, such as “Missing My Son” and especially “First Kiss”:

And she had an Easter bonnet that had been signed by Tennessee Ernie Ford
And she always had saw dust in her hair
And she cut two holes in the back of her dress
and she had these scapular wings
That were covered with feathers and electrical tape
And when she got good and drunk
She would sing about Elkheart, Indiana
Where the wind is strong and folks mind their own business

And she had at least a hundred old baseballs that she’d taken from kids
And she collected bones of all kinds
And she lived in a trailer under a bridge
And she made her own whiskey and gave cigarettes to kids
And she’d been struck by lightning seven or eight times
And she hated the mention of rain

“First Kiss” is probably about Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan, but I want to look at it simply as a piece of writing, because it’s successful even without knowing the context. What I love most about “First Kiss” is how it works like a character sketch, each line adding a newer dimension to this woman until she’s as real as that first kiss the narrator will never forget. There are more details in these 30 lines than some characters get in an entire novel, and this is what makes it so perfect.