Random questions posed by NHC editors and readers and answered by Ariel.
Q. Since [Tom] Waits is a master at finding beauty in the sordid and tragic aspects of American culture, why is it important for us to look back on that world? What do we learn from the broken dreams that he paints in his music?
Waits’s mastery in finding beauty doesn’t make looking back important. To be honest, I don’t even know if it is important. His songs capture a place in time beautifully, but those same situations are still around today. There are still hookers in Minneapolis (or a strip club at least, according to Google) and there are still small-time hoodlums trying to make their way. Tom Waits’s songs are not an important chronicling of history, just a gritty pastiche of the seedier part of town a few decades ago.
What I get from the broken dreams in Waits’s music is that staggering sense of beauty you mention. Songs like New Orleans in the Fall are so painfully beautiful, both lyrically and the way he sings them. It’s all about the ballads. Waits knows it too. I heard him on Q years ago, saying, “Don’t just listen to the ballads.” But that’s where his power lies: Tom Traubert’s Blues, Flower’s Grave and so on. I think his poignancy is best captured in that one line from Picture in a Frame where he sings, “I’m gonna love you ’til the wheels fall off…” It’s something I aspire to, both as a human and as a songwriter.
Q. Why would Waits not fit into an ecstatic dance program… Why is it musically alienating?
It’s not. You just have to choose the right song. I’ve played The PIano Has Been Drinking so many times that my friend Ed said, “You know, he wrote other songs, too, Ariel.” So, the next time, I played Tom Traubert’s Blues. It works if you know where to put ’em. The weirdness is definitely a factor you have to play with.
Ariel Llama is an ecstatic DJ, inventor, composer, teacher and test pilot.
photo: Mule Variations with Ariel and Llama.