Jun 20 2011 5:28pm

Planet of Sound: Tom Waits, “Black Wings”

Tom Waits(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Tom Waits is one of music’s preeminent storytellers, and the stories he tells fit the voice he tells them in: whiskey-soaked, growling, broken-down, and sinister. Waits has been rasping out tales of the desperate and the damned since the early 70s, and as he’s aged, he’s done the opposite of mellow—he’s gotten even darker and more dramatic.

An admission: when I first heard Waits’ voice, in high school, I boggled that anyone could even listen to it, let alone love it. It seemed both abrasive and jokey; I thought he had to be trolling, seeing what sort of ridiculousness he could get away with passing off as “singing.” But over time, I’ve come around. For the right songs, that voice fits like nothing else.

“Black Wings,” the bleakly cinematic tale of a Stranger Come to Town, is one of the songs that voice is made for.

The song is from Bone Machine, Waits’ 1992 album, which somehow managed to win a Grammy award despite being his darkest to that point. Recorded in a nearly bare cement room, with Les Claypool of Primus supposedly playing human bones on the intro track [via] , Bone Machine’s songs come in different styles (blues, rock, country, folk, all filtered through Waits’ theatrical voice and vision), but the overall sentiment is of gleefully anarchic gloom.

Nestled in among songs about death, murder (a type of death), and apocalypse (a really big death), “Black Wings” sets the horror to simmer rather than splatter, but it’s still satisfyingly creepy.

When the moon is a cold chiseled dagger
and it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone,
he rides through your dreams on a coach and horses,
and the fence posts in the moonlight
look like bones.

Talk about atmospheric—and talk about atmosphere music can provide that prose cannot. “The fence posts looked like bones” is the sort of horror metaphor that has been completely hobbled by overuse (like, say, “the branches looked like grasping fingers”). But in a musical context, with the menacing way Waits enunciates “bones,” it works. I bet that metaphor was absolutely killer the first time someone used it in prose—and it sounds like the first time, here.

Into this ominous atmosphere, spaghetti-western guitar swirling behind, strides the nameless subject of the song.

Well they stopped trying to hold him
With mortar, stone and chain
He broke out of every prison…

The character Waits creates here is individual but archetypical—the details are unique, but the larger form is universal. I see very obvious parallels in the Stephen King characters Randall Flagg (“The Walkin’ Dude”) from The Stand and the Man in Black from the Dark Tower series. These are mysterious men or more than men, of (initially) uncertain power or motivation, who are always on the move, leaving everything unbalanced and off-kilter in their wake.

There is, however, an ambiguity to this character’s ultimate goals. He doesn’t just kill men with guitar strings, he also saves babies, and if “some say they fear him,” still “others admire him.” It’s interesting the way the song’s title affects our perception of the character; if those rumored wings are black, it’s villains who come to mind as parallels, rather than someone like Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name. But the line in the song does not specify the color or type of wings. Feathered-angel and leathery-devil are both possible. (Membranous-insect seem unlikely.)

Or there might be nothing supernatural at all. When Waits sings “he can turn himself into a stranger,” that’s a far cry from saying the man can turn himself into a bat or other animal. Anything truly fantastical about this character is merely rumored—most especially those wings. And the rumors seem likely to stay unconfirmed, with no eyewitness reports: “one look in his eye, everyone denies ever having met him.” Which fact, of course, brings us right back around to the possibly-supernatural again.

The Stranger archetype Waits is playing with here feels easy to recognize, even if it’s hard to define exactly. The rumors, the mystery, the fear, the incredible deeds, and the lack of a name to pin on it all, all add up to a character who embodies the second half of the adage “there are only two stories in the world: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.”

Now I just want someone to explain why I can’t find a TV Tropes entry about this, with five hundred other examples of nameless strangers in long flappy coats.

Joshua Starr is a fan of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.

1. mpappas
I had the same experience encountering Waits in highschool (VH1 Storytellers) and thinking how could anyone like this guy. Flash forward 25 hardened and jaded years later and the Black Rider always feels right. An acquired taste, no doubt. Like an aged bottle of cheap wine or a broken glass and rusty nail sandwhich.
2. raygungirl
Similar thing here. The first Tom Waits song I heard (and knew was a Tom Waits song) was "The Piano Has Been Drinking," when I was still in high school. I didn't get that it was tongue-in-cheek, and his voice grated on me. I didn't like it. However, I had already heard "Goin' Out West" in a scene in Fight Club, and I loved that song, though I didn't realize it was Waits.

Eventually it all clicked, and I realized it was the same guy (and that he was also the guy from Dracula and Mystery Men - my mind was blown). By 20 I was a Waits fanatic, especially after hearing "Big in Japan" and "In the Colosseum." It just turns out I prefer his later, more experimental stuff to the earlier, croony stuff. (Though there are a few oldies I like a lot, such as "Blue Valentine.")
Ryan MacDonald
3. Phishmanr
I guess because I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits voice has never been anything but comforting to me (Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Jeff Tweedy always just seem to land right in my ears). In any case, I'm just happy you showed some love for one of the best acts of the last 30 years.
4. DarrenJL
Tom Waits is awesome. I first saw him as Renfield, not as a musician. He stole all his scenes in that flawed film. Considering Oldman at the time, that's no small statement. Checked him out from there. Maybe it was that I was listening to a lot of metal at that age, but I loved his voice from the getgo. If anything, when I first found his older albums, when he was a velvel-throated crooner by comparison; I found them hard to listen to! I've gotten past that, of course.
Joshua Starr
5. JStarr
@1: Ha, good to know I'm not the only one who took a little while to 'get' Tom Waits. But yeah, Black Rider--I totally dig "Just the Right Bullets," which could have fit right alongside the songs on Bone Machine.

@2: I had no idea he was in Mystery Men! "Goin' Out West" is one of my favorites: such a great first-person character sketch of a totally disturbing character, with a perfect chugging motorcycle beat.
-When you say "later, more experimental" stuff, would that include "Swordfishtrombones" and "Rain Dogs," from the 80s? The tracks you mention are from Bone Machine and Mule Variations, 90s albums, which are great ("Get Behind the Mule..."), but I don't hear a lot of people argue that they actually top the 80s ones.
-Oddly, I still like the first Tom Waits song I ever liked, from his first album, even though it doesn't exemplify much Tom-Waits-iness at all: the all-innuendo "Ice Cream Man."

@3: I grew up liking Bob Dylan, too, but his voice never seemed *aggressively* weird, like Waits's. Part of my problem with Waits was how I thought his voice was a "fake," a put-on. Dylan just seemed slightly nasal, and not technically skilled, but interesting, and doing the best he could with what he'd got. What I've since learned, of course, is that singing in a "natural" voice has absolutely nothing to do with quality,and "authenticity" is not the only virtue. I can barely imagine being "comforted" by Waits' graveliness--I bet *he'd* be surprised by that idea, too--but hey, I respect it.

@4: Yeah, if you were already used to listening to metal bands with voices that sounded like angry bears, I could see how Waits would be no problem. When I first heard Waits, the only metal I'd heard was probably Metallica, and I probably thought Hetfield's voice was kind of weird, too.

And glad you all like Waits, too : ) ... I knew people would have some stories or thoughts about that guy.
Tim Nolan
6. Dr_Fidelius
Tremendous musician, and a great writer of weird fiction. M. John Harrison even included Rain Dogs in his list of 'Some Good Fantasy' a couple of years ago.

One day I hope to frighten my grandchildren with 'Children's Story' at bedtime. Spotify link here, but you can find it on YouTube too.
Tom Waits – Children's Story
(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? Who the hell is he?)

Oh, and a good question for a SF&F pub quiz: which film character has been played by Tom Waits and Nick Cave in the same movie?
Joe Romano
7. Drunes
Add me to the list of people who didn't "get" Tom Waits either the first time I heard him, but soon after that voice haunted me. It's perfect now, like a glass of 100-proof bourbon... served neat, of course.
Joshua Starr
8. JStarr
@6: "Oh, and a good question for a SF&F pub quiz: which film character has been played by Tom Waits and Nick Cave in the same movie?" Somehow can't IMDB it, but it's gotta be some version of the Devil, right?

And that's a great fact about "Rain Dogs" on MJH's "Good Fantasy" list.

@7: I wonder how much whiskey/bourbon Waits *actually* drinks...
9. Calliope66
I could go on and on about how much I love this man and his music! He's got it all: Sad and nostaligic, murderous and bluesy, classic and cool, and ass over teakettle crazy. I love your point about how he's only grown darker over the years rather than mellowing. Waits is a truly unique artist. If I go to my grave never having seen him perform live - which I've been trying to do for twenty years now and can never seem to catch him - that will be one of the hardest regrets to swallow.

BTW-Tom Waits/Nick Cave did the voice of Captain Hook for Shrek 2 from what I could google.
Tim Nolan
10. Dr_Fidelius
A prize for the lady in the chiton! I admit it's stretching things a bit to say they play the same character. I don't think Hook has any lines apart from the songs.

@JStarr MJH seems to be a big fan of Mr Waits. I swear there was a reference to '16 shells from a thirty-ought-six' in Light. (I've done my gushing in an earlier thread.)
Roland of Gilead
11. pKp
I'm in a Waits-inspired rock band at the moment. Here's our cover of "Fumblin' with the Blues" :

(sorry about the horrendous recording, although it does add a certain Waits-esque cachet :)

That man is a genius, that's for sure. And he just keeps releasing great stuff.

Fans of Waits might want to check out a "world-punk" band called Firewater : they've got the same kind of gravelly voice and gloomy outlook, but with more of a rock vibe.
C.D. Thomas
12. cdthomas
He had me since Frank's Wild Years, an album I damn near memorized. I only wish I saw his Robt. Wilson-staged play, The Black Rider. I think I saw Alice, but then again that might have been a dream....
13. Eugene R.
Tom Waits has owned me since Mule Variations (1999), and he has led me to some great music and some other great artists (like Dan Hicks, covering "The Piano Has Been Drinking"), never mind the "hidden" choral line in "(I'm In Love with a) Jersey Girl".

Oh, and the TV Tropes page that you are looking for is "The Drifter", which references the Stranger archetype (though it attributes it to Joseph Campbell, by way of Star Wars).
Joshua Starr
14. JStarr
@9: Well, he's still makin' plenty of music, so I'm assuming/hoping he'll keep touring!

@11: I enjoyed your originals, too! Particularly "The Fall." Firewater wasn't bad, either.

@13: Thank you! Yeah, "The Drifter" looks about right. Interesting that it's focused on the "good" version of the archetype--there are plenty of bad guys like this, too.
Theresa DeLucci
15. theresa_delucci
I first fell in love with Tom Waits when I was fifteen. I was reading Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite and her characters were listening to Small Change on the road to New Orleans. I picked up The Black Rider and Small Change from the local headshop and just instantly loved it. Maybe I was already more world-weary and jaded at fifteen than others?

As luck would have it, I was visiting my uncle shortly after getting into Waits and he worked on the Broadway production of Big Time. He took my parents backstage to meet Waits and everything. My parents never mentioned it before. He was so shocked that I had ever heard of him, he gave me all of his Waits vinyl collection because his own kids just wouldn't appreciate it. Nighthawks, Big Time, Heart Attack & Vine..

@14 First, love this post, love the Waits appreciation. Been meaning to say it earlier, but got busy.

Waits is still making music, but he doesn't seem to tour very much. And when he does, it's always in weird small cities. But I've decided that next time he goes on tour, I will spend any amount to travel and see him live just once in my lifetime. Him and Leonard Cohen. Two of the world's best songwriters, storytellers, and singers. It'd be worth the credit card debt for the experience.
Joshua Starr
16. JStarr
@15: Oooh, that's a good Waits discovery story. And the vinyl bequeathal is awesome. Didn't know he toured so rarely--definitely sad for those of us who haven't seen him yet, particularly since I'm just positive he'd be an amazing presence on stage. The see-at-all-costs plan does, indeed, sound worth it. (And really glad you liked the post-thanks!)
John Adams
17. JohnArkansawyer
It's funny to read the people who came to Waits later in his career who have trouble going to the earlier recordings.

When Swordfishtrombone and Rain Dogs came out, many of the people I knew who, like me, got into Waits in the seventies had trouble (to put it mildly) with the newer records. Heartattack and Vine should have warned them, but perhaps its bluesiness lulled them.

The more things change and all that.

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