Giving thanks for Rain Dogs by Tom Waits
In what's become an annual tradition for us, we ask a few members of Team Backbeat to reflect on an album they're thankful for in honor of Thanksgiving.
The first time I remember hearing Tom Waits was when his video for "Downtown Train" was played on Teletunes. It was sometime during the mid '80s while I was in high school. To my Clash-loving ears at the time, I'm pretty sure I thought to myself he sounded like Springsteen. If I could go back in time and punch my fifteen-year-old self in the throat for even thinking bullshit like that I would.
I'd pretty much forgotten about Waits until I heard Bone Machine while volunteering for San Jose State University's radio station. One of the guys there handed me a stack of CDs, including Bone Machine and whatever Alice in Chains was out at the time, and he told me to go home and listen for any cuss words and mark them, so the station wouldn't get fined by the FCC.
When I got back to the tiny room I rented in this old Victorian house, I put on Bone Machine, and it both fascinated and confused me. But I kept listening to it repeatedly while looking at the liner notes and maybe recognizing two names -- Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Joe Gore, whose name I knew because he wrote for Guitar Player magazine. After that disc sparked a heavy Waits interest, I backtracked from his '70s discs like his debut, Closing Time, as well as Heart of Saturday Night and Small Change.
And I wish I could remember the exact date, but it must have been sometime between '92 and '94 when I discovered Rain Dogs. I mean, I would have thought I would have written down where I bought the disc, or at least some written thoughts on it hearing for the first time two decades ago, but I can't remember much, except that Rain Dogs -- which I still consider Waits' finest album (and the one I recommend to anyone looking to start on a Waits voyage) -- didn't hit me immediately. But it did hit me eventually, trickling into my bloodstream, song by song, until it was practically part of my DNA.
While Swordfishtrombones, released in 1983, was a major departure from 1980's Heartattack & Vine, Waits went even further with Rain Dogs, released in 1985, possibly thanks to some influences of Harry Partch, Kurt Weill and Captain Beefheart. Although some of Waits earliest recordings echoed his surroundings of Southern California, Rain Dogs, which he wrote in a Lower Manhattan basement, feels inherently New York for the most part, and it's been said that it was a loose concept album about "the urban dispossessed" of New York City.
More importantly, Rain Dogs contains some of the finest songs in Waits's catalog like "Jockey Full of Bourbon," "Tango Till They're Sore," Time," "Clap Hands," "Cemetery Polka" and "Gun Street Girl." And you can't overlook the musicians that Waits recruited for the project, including guitarist Marc Ribot, saxophonist Ralph Carney, as well bassists Larry Taylor and Greg Cohen who helped make the disc so phenomenal.
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