It’s 30 years since Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs was released. Tina Jackson revisits the carny barker from hell’s album of gutter tales to see if it’s still the best kind of drunk and disorderly.
What and why: Rain Dogs, released in September 1985, was Tom Waits’ eighth album and it chronicled much of the same after-hours territory as everything else by the gravel-voiced bard of the underworld. It was a game-changer nonetheless.
Before, Tom Waits was a hipsterish, low-life chronicler with a beady eye out for the foibles of the fallen. With Rain Dogs, he wasn’t casting a knowing eye on it all. It felt as if he was way in there, collecting stories in the most secret nooks and crannies of downtown New York City, stuffing them in his pockets and later, mixing it all up with a great big devil’s mixing spoon. A raggedy showman, doffing an imaginary ringmaster’s hat in the direction of Kurt Weill and Charles Bukowski, drawing back the curtain and gleefully inviting his audience to join him in a swaggering procession on the wrong side of the road.
For Rain Dogs, the second in a loose trilogy (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years), Waits went out on the streets with a cassette recorder and hunted down the found sounds and ambient noise he needed to recreate the texture of life off the beaten track.
In an age of glossy, synthesiser-based, overblown and over-produced musical schmaltz, Waits offered a salty stew of surreal sea shanties, wonky waltzes, tangos and tarantellas, bawling-at-the-moon ballads, twisted poetry and a syncopated cacophony of marimbas, accordions, creepy guitar runs and percussion: banging pots, rattling bones. There was no centre to it. If ever there was an album made up of liminal spaces, it was Waits’ filmic odyssey into this carnival freakshow of people in the margins.
“The songs the mostly male, middle-class music critics a) regard as some of Waits’ best work and b) think are most authentic, are as sentimental as only maudlin drunks can be. But that’s artistry, not authenticity, and Rain Dogs is definitely art.”
Rated or dated: It didn’t sound like anything else when it was released 30 years ago and it still sounds only like itself now, although many of its ingredients have filtered into wider pop-cultural currency.
Rain Dogs blazed a trail for the music, books and films dealing in pirates, sideshows, barflies and people with “a tattooed tear / One for every year he’s away, she said” (9th & Hennepin). But there’s little to match the dark vision, or the gritty romance of Waits at his best, and he’s at it here.
Who in their right minds could resist the rollicking invitation, tinged only faintly with menace, of its pirate-song opener Singapore: “We sail tonight for Singapore / Don’t fall asleep while you’re ashore.” No chance of falling asleep on Waits’ watch.
Next up is the sinister graveyard shuffle of Clap Hands and the barked-out music hall cautionary tale, Cemetery Polka. Three songs to dislocate the listener from their everyday reality and plunge them into the world Waits has so brilliantly evoked. Or constructed, or even conjured.
One of his best tricks (every showperson has tricks, and Waits, last seen on tour performing in a giant circus tent, is every inch the showman) is to make the unwary listener believe that he is the song, not the singer. But who cares which, when it is this good?
Rain Dogs is a series of snapshots, strung out and strung together, with no one heart, or single narrative, though it includes big, bleeding-heart ballads and moments of urban romance. Hang Down Your Head, Blind Love, Downtown Train – the songs the mostly male, middle-class music critics a) regard as some of Waits’ best work and b) think are most authentic (whatever that overused word is supposed to mean in the context of a work of art) – are as sentimental as only maudlin drunks can be. But that’s artistry, not authenticity, and Rain Dogs is definitely art.
Perhaps the off-the-wall collage of found sounds, the hall-of-mirrors ambience, the hectic joie de vivre and the battered beauty are Rain Dogs’ real triumph. Pull on some beaten-up Cuban heels, and Walking Spanish feels as weird and wired and wonderful as it did the first time.1958 Views
Tina Jackson is a Leeds-based writer and journalist with a parallel existence as a dancer and variety performer.