Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When Unsuitable Role Models Collide

At University, I became rather fond of the International Herald Tribune, and virtually gave up reading the English newspapers (too pompous, too long-winded, too Anglocentric). It was good to get a different perspective on domestic news, a broader sweep of world news, more depth on the American political scene - and all of it reported in a more concise and pithy form than we usually get in our overblown broadsheets.

But above all, the 'Entertainment' news was great because - back then in the '80s - in almost all important matters of popular culture, it happened in America 3-6 months earlier than in the UK. For instance, I well remember eagerly awaiting the arrival of Paul Simon's landmark 'Graceland' album after reading early reviews of it in the IHT - long before almost anyone else in England had heard of it.

It was also here that I read of The Pogues' early efforts to 'crack' America (they were my favourite band of the time), and was delighted to learn that my No. 1 musical hero, Tom Waits, was an early convert. He observed, teasingly: "I particularly enjoy the screaming." (Yes, indeed. I remember one bibulous afternoon in rooms in Christ Church when my buddy Matthew managed to provoke a formal complaint to The Dean from one of the offices across the street - after playing the opening few seconds of their instrumental track 'Wild Cats of Kilkenny' several times in succession, at maximum volume. It opens with a particularly deranged shriek.)

A few years ago, my delightful friend Lizzie - my No. 1 E-Penpal (well, back in the good old days, anyway), and still the only person to have visited me here in my Asian exile - sent me the excellent Christmas (or birthday?) gift of a secondhand copy of the (rare, out of print) biography, Small Change: A Life Of Tom Waits by Patrick Humphries. I had learned in a review of this when it first came out in the '80s (again, as like as not, in the Herald Trib) that Tom and the boys had hung out together drinking quite a few times back in their 'wild days' (I'm not at all sure that The Pogues aren't 'wild' still; but Tom has adopted a much more sedate lifestyle in his later years); and on one especially heavy evening, Jem Finer (the hopelessly alcoholic Shane MacGowan may have provided the lion's share of the lyrics, but Jem was the main creative force in the band musically) went on an all-night bar crawl around Chicago with Tom.... and Tom's mother!

That is one drinking session I've always wished I might have been a part of. In my dreams, at least, in my dreams.

The book, Small Change, is, as it turns out, a pretty thin biography, mostly cobbled together from existing interviews with the man in the music press rather than new research. However, since it is (STILL, I believe) about the only thing written on Tom's life and work, we have to be grateful for it. And it does include many, many small gems such as this:

"While scathing about his songwriting, Waits has expressed an admiration and even affection for the shoes of Neil Young."


The British Cowboy said...

It's not my fault I haven't visited. I was a broke student, then a non-broke lawyer with no time off. And I did send two strangers to visit you by proxy.

But I will come. Oh, yes, I will come. And then you will be sorry.

Froog said...

Proxies don't count.

You say you're going to come, you'd better come. I am fully prepared to BE SORRY. You should set yourself a time limit for making this happen.