The title of this thread is more specific than it needs to be, but in an All-Star Jam comment on the current SHOWDOWN poll (ie, SHOWDOWN: Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart?), Townsman geo began to get at some of the issues I’m hoping we can explore:
I voted Captain Beefheart in the current poll, but I also really like Waits. Despite their apparent surface similarities, big, deep hollering voices and a tendency toward the aggressively harsh sound, they really come from different places. Waits is much more of a traditionalist. He brings a junkyard’s worth of musical detritus to what is, at heart, a traditional approach to songcraft. Beefheart, at his best, almost completely obliterates the most basic conventions of the electric blues based music that he started out in.
I’ve been revisiting Tom Waits recently, through his new live album, Glitter and Doom. The song selection is pretty good, the band sounds great, the recording is nice and live sounding… There’s a lot to like about this as a live album, including a second CD entitled Tom’s Tales, which I’ve yet to spend time with and which I suspect may be the best part of the concert. However, I can’t help but thinking that, compared with Captain Beefheart, an artist I love and an artist who must have been influential in Waits’ early-80s refashioning of his musical arrangements along “junkyard” lines, I am lukewarm on Waits.
For me, as geo notes, Waits is still a traditionalist at heart. I find his vocal style and all the junkyard trimmings to be a little distracting. “You don’t have to work junkyard,” I want to tell him.
The funny thing is, before Waits ever “worked junkyard” I couldn’t stand his music. The percussive elements and seeming Beefheart influence drew me in and allowed me to enjoy him on any level. These days, when I go back and listen to the two pre-junkyard albums I own, even they sound pretty good. Nevertheless, in my book Waits will always be supermarket-bought Jarlsberg (ie, fancy Swiss cheese) to Beefheart’s Italian Market-bought Oro di Sardenia, my favorite aged sheep’s cheese. His voice, in particular, is so over the top on this live album and other more recent albums that I’ve heard. The songs, which could be great, sound like they’re coming through a veil. I’d rather just hear the songs.
“But Mod,” you might be thinking, “if anyone’s singing is over the top it’s Captain Beefheart’s voice!” That’s true, but to my ears his vocal approach is key to sound of the music – and his music is almost all about sound. There’s not really a veil over the arrangements of a Beefheart song; each song’s skeleton is essentially the artifice. Not even the most pipe-tamping, tweed jacket with courdoroy elbow patches-wearing Beefheart fan among us would clear his throat and say, “You know, the songwriting of the Captain is grossly overlooked.”
I get more enjoyment out of Tom Waits’ music (especially Rain Dogs and Swordfish, but also the barfly stuff) which probably means that Beefheart’s music is better.
I didn’t mean for that to be an overly negative comment. It’s just that sometimes a little water in the whiskey helps it go down a little bit smoother.
No apologies necessary, hank fan. That’s a funny and apt way to put your point of view! Unlike some threads we conduct, this is NOT one to assess who’s RIGHT. The only thing that’s perfectly right is that some will prefer one artist over the other. It’s the WHY that most interests me.
Both Waits and Beefheart have a welcome place in my record collection. But I think Beefheart, overall, is at a higher artistic level. In particular, Lick My Decals Off Baby is a raving masterpiece, a record of crushing power that ranks in sheer intensity with the Stooges’ Fun House and Miles Davis’s On the Corner.
And yet, Waits, I feel, does not get enough credit for how he uses his voice. Mod, your reaction to “Downtowm Train,” which is a song I thought you’d like, tells me a lot. Waits really sings his heart out on this one. You might do well to compare Waits and Stewart’s version–you might get a better appreciation of how Waits’s voice works within the song. That is, his voice matches the emotions of the lyrics. Some might call it more of a theatrical approach, which is what Dagmar Krause takes on the Art Bears’s Winter Songs (a record I know you dig).
Tom Waits made an album that changed my life. Bone Machine came out when I was a freshman and I borrowed my uncle’s copy. That’s one of the prime albums that probably set me on a lifetime of not listening to latter-day Pink Floyd.
Nevertheless, I never became a huge Waits fan. Now he’s a little too hip for me. When I reacquired Bone Machine a few years later, it no longer sounded quite so wild as I remembered.
Beefheart, I don’t dislike, just not really interested. I think I have a couple of his later albums. I am equally disinterested in Pere Ubu and The Minutemen. I guess I have a problem with squawking fat dudes.
Good point that Dagmar Krause’s theatrical approach doesn’t get under my skin, Dr. John, but Waits’ does. Maybe I’m more accepting/attracted to overly dramatic women? “Singapore” is probably my favorite Waits song, and I like the second side of Frank’s Wild Years a lot, so his approach doesn’t always bum me out. I just wish he’d back off a notch.
Though I think of myself as a big Waits fan, I voted for Beefheart. I read Barney Hoskyns’ biography of Waits recently and took the opportunity to revisit his work. I had never paid attention to the Asylum stuff, and listening to it altogether it seemed kind of schticky, which I think even Waits would agree with.
The problem came when I listened to all of the post-Swordfishtrombones stuff within the space of a few weeks. It seemed equally schticky, just a different schtick. These are all albums I loved when they came out, but with at least a year or two in between, sometimes five or six years. I could really hear the gears working, and everything sounded much less wondrous.
So right now I don’t feel like listening to Waits at all, which I don’t think I’ve ever felt about Beefheart.
Bummer! I thought the video would be Beefheart performing on Bandstand. That would be something…
This poll very problematic. Jellyfish is like Ralph Nader, they’re never going to win and they’re just siphoning votes away from one party. It was very selfish of them to inject themselves into this process, no matter what statement they are trying to make.
Check out that girl smiling while Beefheart chats her up on the phone.
Yeah the whole clip rules. An audience of mixed race kidz dancing to Diddy Wah Diddy — awesome!
Just thinking … is there anyone else like Waits whose career took such a left turn in musical style after making it as an established artist with his own sound?
That’s a good question, BigSteve. Would Peter Gabriel count when he went solo and suddenly started delivering “normal” songs, or was that a radical RIGHT turn?
…also, Phil Collins & Gabriel