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I’ll Tell You One Thing, He’s Not Building A Playhouse For The Children

Tom Waits was 70 at the end of last week. On the one hand this was quite surprising. Tom Waits?! 70?! No way! On the other though, Waits has looked at least 103 since the first time I set eyes and ears on him, round about the time they played a clip of In The Neighbourhood or some suchlike off of Swordfishtrombones on Whistle Test, or perhaps even the Oxford Road Show. This was back in the mid 80s when pop was shiny and bright with clean hair and cleaner teeth and here was Waits, crumpled and tramp-like with an electric shock of hair that even Keith Richards might’ve taken a comb to, his rough hewn chin and sharp cheekbones giving him the look of a werewolf on the verge of an asthma attack, attacking, not playing his upright piano. Cool as the proverbial fuck.

 

Waits really perfected that beatnik bum look, looking like the hobo in a Rockwell painting that had managed to peel himself free from the canvas and flop onto the nearest flat surface. It was in place for Closing Time, his first album, and he sort of grew into it with each subsequent release.

Delivered with a voice that’s equal parts gravel and gasoline, Waits sings bourbon-soaked mini operas of loving and losing, of romance and heart-break – Grapefruit Moon, for example, or Martha, or the astonishingly brilliant and Desolation Row-like Kentucky Avenue, yet he can be laugh-out-loud-funny when the mood needs lifting. Seek out All My Friends Are Married on Nighthawks At The Diner for a prime slice of all-bases-covered Waits’ melancholic pathos. In fact, listen to the whole album, it might just change your life. That’s an instruction, by the way, not a recommendation.

Tom WaitsMartha

As his back catalogue grew to be as wild and varied as the bottle selection behind a Bowery bar, so too did his approach to music. Waits’ anything goes attitude meant that accordions played polkas while bits of metal clanged rudimentary rhythms, skewed blues flipped and flopped underneath funereal Salvation Army band dirges, spoken word sections fought for your attention with ambient jazz….fantastically unpigeonholeable, that’s yer Waits.

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Regardless of the style, the substance is always there. Taken as music-free words on a page, a Tom Waits’ lyric is a work of art in its own right, as essential a read as Bukowski or Kerouac, wonderful beat-influenced poetry that will be subjected to wonky actual beats once inside a recording studio. On 1999’s Mule Variations – 20 years ago – jeez! – you’ll find two of Waits’ most incredible tracks.

Tom Waits What’s He Building?

On What’s He Building?, Waits snarls a fantastic spoken word account of a mysteriously sinister neighbour who’s piqued the irk of the singer. Static squelches its way across the band waves. Heavy tools clank. Bandsaws whine and whir. The menace creeps as Waits lays out his problems with his neighbour. Or should that be neighbor?

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines
He never waves when he goes by
And he’s hiding something from the rest of us
He’s all to himself, I think I know why
He took down the tire-swing from the pepper tree
He has no children of his own, you see
He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?
Now what’s that sound from underneath the door?
He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor
And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low
And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show
He has a router and a table saw
And you won’t believe what Mr. Sticha saw
There’s poison underneath the sink, of course
There’s also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse
What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
I heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayor’s Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
But what’s he building in there?
He has no friends but he gets a lot of mail
I bet he spent a little time in jail
I heard he was up on the roof last night, signalling with a flashlight
And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
We have a right to know

It’s the perfect soundtrack to a still-to-be-written Stephen King short story, a modern-day gothic horror tale of untold holy terrors behind suburban curtains. I wonder if Stephen King has heard it?

Rubbing uncomfortable shoulders with the creeping menace of What’s He Building? is the plaintive Take It With Me, a song so small and sad you wouldn’t believe it was the same artist who’d done both.

Tom WaitsTake It With Me

It’s a sweeping-up song, end of the night barroom jazz, a long look back on a love lost. We’ve all been there but, as usual, Waits puts it best.

Oceans as blue as your eyes,” “We lived in Coney Is-land,” “It felt just like the old days….

The memories linger, like the tendrils of tobacco and whiskey curling around the mouth of the piano player, playing to no-one but you in the corner of the bar.

In a land there’s a town, and in that town there’s a house
And in that house there’s a woman
And in that woman there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

This isn’t one of Tom Waits’ best-known songs, but it should be. Listen. Repeat. Share. Thanks.

2 thoughts on “I’ll Tell You One Thing, He’s Not Building A Playhouse For The Children”

  1. I got a promo cd of ‘Mule Variations’ in O/Price Paisley back in 1999 (?). Over the years, it’s become one of my fave Waits albums. Big In Japan setting his stall out really well, the heartbreaking tale of Georgia Lee (“Why wasn’t God watching”), Pony proving that white men can sing the blues, Hold On having one of the best opening lines of a song ever …… “They put a sign up in our town, ‘If you live it up, you’ll never live it down'”. Great post, as always Mista C. ps don’t get me started on ‘Kentucky Avenue’, get’s me EVERY time!

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