Friday, July 10, 2009

In Praise of the Bizarre, or, Why Tom Waits Will Save Us From The Nazis and Save My Soul

I don't know if I've ever told you this before, but I really like Tom Waits. Yes, I know that's a little like saying I like... um... cake*... but it is, nonetheless, true. Tom Waits has been a part of my life since high school, and if I were to fill out one of those "Which Albums Have Shaped You?" Pick 5's on Facebook, Rain Dogs would have to be on my list. But what keeps me amazed about Waits is how, almost ten years after I first started listening to him, he keeps surprising me with the both the depth and breadth of his art.

OK, wait, let me backtrack and explain to you why I'm telling you this now.

So you know that I've been reading Gogol lately, and, yesterday, I finally got around to reading The Nose, of which I had heard a lot about, but have never before read. And, kind of to my surprise, what it reminded me the most of us was not Kafka but rather Woyzeck by Georg Büchner. It was the sense of humor, I think, the slapstick, the kind of naïve peasant sensibility with which the narrative unfolds.

But what really struck me about The Nose was the manner in which the main character, Kovalyov, goes about the streets of St. Petersburg, in search of his AWOL nose, and throughout, he tries to find someone to blame for us bizarre predicament, from his barber to his doorman to the mother of a young woman whom he had been courting. But there is nobody for Kovalyov to accuse for his situation; not that he can be necessarily faulted, either, but the point is that this is just something that happens, that, you know, sometimes your nose just runs off your face and becomes a state counsellor for the Russian government.

I'm sorry, that was a long sentence.

But it brings me to Woyzeck, which, as you know, will eventually get me back to Tom Waits. And then to Heidegger.

Woyzeck has the same kind of desperate, slapstick frenzy that characterizes The Nose.** Woyzeck is shown as being a kind of victim to doctors and soldiers, but in the end, he doesn't have somebody upon which to lay the blame for his sense of victimhood. And how does that end? Well, he murders his wife and then kills himself. So, yes, he ends up much worse than Kovalyov, but they both run into this obstacle of having an anger and a frustration to vent and not being able to find anyone upon whom to vent. It's a form of impotence, of course, but also an example of something that we see even today in our post-existential world - you feel angry, and deeply, deeply wronged, but, in the end, there is nothing to stand there to act as an object for your anger.

Which is why we get shit like Mars Hill. And Nazis. Horrid, horrid, Nazis. That is, groups that invent a target for their rage when they cannot find one in this world.

Which gets me back to Tom Waits.

My second favorite Tom Waits album is Blood Money, which Waits wrote as a soundtrack for Woyzeck.*** Of course, I only learned this years after I had bought the album and read the play. But the fact that Tom Waits has such a deep and committed appreciation for this strange and fractured play says a great deal about his ideological standings. Which is why I love him. Woyzeck, like The Nose, is a story about one man, one very flawed, ridiculous man, trying to find something approximating justice in his world, and, in the end, failing miserably. And for Tom Waits, this is a kind of hero worth memorializing in song. Beyond that, Tom Waits has devoted his entire career to cultivating an ideology directly opposed to the kind that is celebrated by the SA; an alien and an outsider that has perhaps become a kind of a trope in today's irony obsessed white middle-class culture, but one that, I think, will be important to remember during these coming times of woe and want.

For evidence of this, I direct you to Tom Waits' IMDB page:

  1. (2010) (post-production) .... Engineer

  2. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) .... Mr. Nick
    ... aka L'Imaginarium du Docteur Parnassus (France)
  3. Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006) .... Kneller
    ... aka Pizzeria Kamikaze (International: English title: informal title)
    ... aka Pizzerija Kamikaze (Croatia)
  4. Domino (2005) .... Wanderer
    ... aka Domino (France)
  5. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) .... Tom (segment "Somewhere in California")

  6. Mystery Men (1999) .... Dr. Heller
  7. Short Cuts (1993) .... Earl Piggot
  8. Coffee and Cigarettes III (1993) .... Tom
    ... aka Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California (USA)
  9. Dracula (1992) .... R.M. Renfield
    ... aka Bram Stoker's Dracula (USA: complete title)
  10. At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) .... Wolf
  11. The Fisher King (1991) (uncredited) .... Disabled veteran
  12. Queens Logic (1991) .... Monte
  13. The Two Jakes (1990) (uncredited) .... Plainclothes Policeman
The Fisher King. Coffee and Cigarettes. The Two Jakes. Fucking Mystery Men! Even in his film career, which, I might remind you of, is his secondary career, Tom Waits has crafted an oeuvre of distinctively independent characters with distinctively unique aesthetics.

I'm tired now, but my point is this: That embracing the absurdity and ridiculousness of life is key to resisting the impulses of resentment, entitlement, and anger that lead, well, maybe not to fascism, but to the kind of attitude towards life that encourages violence and the oppression of others.

That is, that the world would be better and more full of pirates if only everyone listened to Tom Waits.

*Which I don't, really, unless it's carrot cake.
** And
Crime and Punishment, although that novel, in my opinion, is lacking insofar as it is not nearly as darkly comic.
Blood Money is also the album I was listening to when I drove my mother's car into a tree. So, you know, score one for Tom Waits.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

what about his role in down by law. he's great as the disgruntled DJ