In 1983 three albums were released: Swordfishtrombone by Tom Waits, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes by Was (Not Was) and Infidels by Bob Dylan. Both Swordfishtrombone and Infidels were released in the fall. I couldn't find a release date for the Was (Not Was) album. I mention these albums because they are three of the first five or six albums that I bought on my own. I still own and regularly listen to all three.
Since fall is approaching we are arriving at the twentieth anniversary of my purchasing of these pieces.
I reckon today I will talk about Swordfishtrombone and address the other two albums in the coming days. I want to do this because each of these albums has had a huge affect on what I listen to now and also how I think and view the world. I was 16, they must have twisted me in some way since I played the damn things over and over again.
Swordfishtrombone by Tom Waits: I owe a great debt to a DJ at an unknown radio station at a small college in Traverse City, MI. The radio station is called WNMC, it's still going strong, and the DJ was called Dennis Sofie (Sofi?). He had a program that came on for three hours every Wednsday called "Mondo Radio Show." I used to have one or two audio tapes and I would record his shows and play them all week and then record the next show over that show the following Wednesday. I'd give anything to have a copy of one of those shows. I discovered so much music because of Dennis and his show but the most important musician he turned me on to was Tom Waits.
I remember he would play a cut or two by Tom Waits every week. Late in the summer he announced that he was going to play two whole hours of Tom Waits because the following week Waits was coming out with a new album which he would play in its entirety the week following the two hour special.
Anticipating the two-hour special I bought extra cassette tapes and was prepared to record and save the Tom Waits two-hour special. I bought the only tapes an unemployed 16 year old could afford: the cheap kind that came three in a plastic bag. Cases were not even included. I recorded the show and naturally played it all week while waiting for the unveiling of the new Tom Waits album. Remember when playing an album from start to finish on the radio was considered risky because people might steal it with their evil tape decks? We all know how audio tapes almost killed the recording industry.
The Tom Waits I was accustomed to (along with anyone else who cared) was the drunken piano crooner who emulated the, then unknown to me, beat poets. The album Swordfishtrombone was nothing at all like Waits' earlier material. I remember that Swordfishtrombone was the first time music ever completely surprised me and shifted the whole planet. Imagine a socially retarded (normal, I reckon, but didn't know it then) 16 year old listening to a radio at night and hearing noises come out of his radio that are totally unlike anything he has ever heard. A 45 year old man in 1955 hearing Elvis for the first time couldn't have been more shocked. It was like the landfill across the county highway had come to life and started a band. Some of the percussion sounded like rusted machine parts, Tom Waits used his vocals to add weird atmoshpere and the combination created a sense of place, a soundscape, that had only been approached before on Hendrix's Electric Ladyland.
And the Lyrics! My goodness. After I heard the album on the radio I went out and bought the audio cassette version of it. I don't know where I got the money for that. Since I had it on cassette there were no lyrics. The vocals were often distorted and slurred and I had to interpret. "He went down down down and the devil jumped on his head." I think he said that. "Me and that mule scrambled back up the pole? Into the hole?" I was never sure. I was familiar with the Beatles and Hendrix at this point in my life and this was the first time I heard someone contemporary attempting such obvious poetry.
Science fiction novels had caused me to want to experience a different world but this music made me realize that there were concurrent people and things that were weirder and more interesting than what I find in a SF book. I also began seeing things under my nose that I had missed before.
I was also astonished to find that only one other person in my high school had even heard of Tom Waits. The guy that had heard of Tom Waits was one of the scary stoner guys and he had a cursory knowledge of the artist. This was the first time I had ever discovered music on my own that no one else had heard of and when they did hear of it either didn't like or were confused by it and hated. It felt good. Real good.