Oftentimes, an idea or theme communicated via music can come off as underwhelming—some artists become so obsessed with the minutia of a philosophy or concept which influences them that they forget the fact that music can sometimes express emotions and information better than any other language can. It’s a problem I often see with concept albums—artists can make a great story, like The Sword’s 2010 album Warp Riders, and make great music with it, (again, I point to Warp Riders), but the two never seem to line up or compliment each other as well as they could. (Example: the track “Tres Brujas”. It’s a great song with some rocking riffs, but the music doesn’t really do anything to enhance the lyrics. It’s just a Sword song with concept album-style lyrics.) Some of the greatest science fiction authors ever, such as Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, had fantastic settings and ideas that have proven to literally change the way we look at things, but the depth of their characters and the quality of their prose was more often than not lacking and exceptionally dry. No matter the medium, the meeting of philosophy/concept and art has always been a point of contention for me—at what point does your philosophy overtake your creation? We can fall into navel-gazing so fast and forget that there are so many other variables that can influence aesthetics other than its philosophical underpinnings.
But at the same time, music and story can come together in amazing ways, such as the work of singer/songwriter Tom Waits. If a concept album is, for lack of a better word, a musical novel, then Tom Waits and his work is the aural equivalent of a short story collection. Each song in the Waits catalog, in one way or another, portrays a little vignette in the demented mind of its creator. Waits wields his lyricism and music like an insane carnival man turned performance artist, trying to bring in character via his burnt whisky growl and his, at times, eclectic use of instrumentation. For him, the concept is key, because everything else—including the music—is essentially an extension of that concept, always coming back and complimenting it at every possible level. But how does he do it? What makes Waits’s story and themes hit home more than Warp Riders? It comes down to the base elements of a song, and how nicely they dovetail with a story, and how said story dovetails with the elements of a song. Music is made more magical by telling a story, and storytelling is made more magical by musical accompaniment—these two elements can seem disparate at times, but together they can elevate this sort of art to depths we never imagined.
Out of all the Waits music I’ve listened to, there’s always been one track that I come back to and repeat ad nauseam: “Frank’s Wild Years”, off of the 1983 album Swordfishtrombones. Despite only being shy of two minutes, Waits manages to take all his songwriting and storytelling skills and put them to work in this track, telling the story of a man named Frank who reacts to the tedium and grievances of his life by burning his house down—with his wife and dog still in it.
The way Waits attacks this story, though, is where the song really shines. You could leave “Frank’s Wild Years” just at that summation. Waits could’ve done this entire story like a piece of flash fiction, another sort of take on “for sale: baby shoes, never worn”. But he doesn’t. First of all, his lyrics, while relatively abstract and more rooted in “telling” than “showing” (to dust off an old writer’s proverb) give off some key details:
Well, Frank settled down in the Valley
And he hung his wild years
On a nail that he drove through
His wife’s forehead
He sold used office furniture
Out there on San Fernando Road
And assumed a $30,000 loan
At 15¼% and put a down payment
On a little two bedroom place
His wife was a spent piece of used jet trash
Made good Bloody Marys
Kept her mouth shut most of the time
Had a little chihuahua named Carlos
That had some kind of skin disease
And was totally blind. They had a
Thoroughly modern kitchen
Self cleaning oven (the whole bit)
Frank drove a little sedan
They were so happy
You get the basics—Frank lives in California’s San Fernando Valley, just north of LA; maybe he had a bit of past, but it’s sort of been pushed aside now that he’s married. As a result he’s stuck in the throes of modern life—shitty job, unfulfilling life, mortgage bills covering your subconscious like kudzu vines. But he doesn’t say all of that—so much is implied. His wife sometimes is quiet. What seems to get more attention than anything is the dog—the most specific details are about a disgusting tiny blind dog, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to like his wife. He doesn’t just settle down and forget about his past; it’s hung “on a nail that he drove through / his wife’s forehead.” All of this is accented by Wait’s delivery—spoken with his infamously hoarse baritone—and announced with a pretty bluesy organ playing beneath everything. Note how Waits coughs and pauses at certain times; before talking about Frank’s wife he takes a break, and after describing Carlos he coughs. There’s something off here, but what exactly that is cannot be said. I must admit that I laugh whenever I hear that line, complimented by the cough—it’s a purposeful combination of caesura and foreshadowing, as if he’s like Wiley E. Coyote, waving a sign saying, “REMEMBER THIS.”
Then we get to the root of the story, where all that Waits has constructed goes tumbling down, like a toddler with building blocks.
One night Frank was on his way home
From work, stopped at the liquor store
Picked up a couple Mickey’s Big Mouths
Drank ‘em in the car on his way
To the Shell station, he got a gallon of
Gas in a can, drove home, doused
Everything in the house, torched it,
Parked across the street, laughing
Watching it burn, all Halloween
Orange and chimney red, then
Frank put on a top forty station,
Got on the Hollywood Freeway,
And headed north
Obviously there isn’t any serious character development—at least, nothing that jumps out at you. Maybe Frank’s always been fucked up. But, again, there are certain details that are told and some that aren’t. We don’t get why Frank does this, but we do understand that he’s probably inebriated on a particular brand of malt liquor, and that he gets his gas at Shell out of all places. When his house burns it doesn’t just burn—Waits uses more intricate imagery to describe the conflagration, as if its something that Frank really likes and wants. Maybe his so-called wild years included some acts of arson. Waits’s cough shows up again, right after Frank sets fire to his house (“torched it” *cough*). Then, to clinch everything, and tie the bow of his song nicely, Waits finishes: “Never could stand that dog.” Poor Carlos.
Imbued throughout this entire song is the aforementioned organ, and some percussion mixed down low, the former of which is where this song, I think, gets most of its power, because of the way the unrelenting casual tone combines with Waits’s dark imagery. Never once does the organ use the tritone inherent in the song for some malevolent purpose—it remains light, albeit tinged blue. It’s supposed to be vanilla. It’s a melody that would maybe play in a lounge bar while some rich benefactor buys everyone a fifth of Dickel. Combine this with Waits’s delivery—methodical, but calm. He doesn’t rasp and whisper like in “Clap Hands” or uses the full power of his voice like “Underground” or “In the Neighborhood”—the story of Frank’s wild years is told like he’s at that bar, cradling that fifth of Dickel in his hand and coughing into the other. If you want a more filmic analogy for all of this, “Frank’s Wild Years” reeks of Lynchian motifs—the dark, seedy underbelly of society is examined, but it’s contrasted with lightheartedness and innocence and possibly even some naivety. Even if you cut out everything in “Franks’s Wild Years” except for the last ten seconds, you’d get a sort of humorous feeling from it—the organ feels almost irreverent and uncaring about the weight of the world bearing down on one’s shoulders.
We often forget that music is a language, full of its own intricacies and foibles, and although the idea of the epic concept album seems to be on the rise—we’ve had a number of very well-received concept albums in the last few years, including good kid, m.A.A.d city and Terminal Redux—music seems to be more of a delivery service for these grand narratives than a way of putting these elements together in a way that accents both story and music. Musicians have their different methods—Billy Joel writes with lyrics in mind, for example—and I don’t want to come in the middle of one’s creative process, but I urge musicians to look at the tools available to them and to perhaps integrate them on a deeper level. If Tom Waits can tell a small story this powerful and mysterious in under two minutes, and narrate it perfectly (both vocally and instrumentally), then think what others could do. Music doesn’t have to be some deep, complex philosophy or epic storyline—sometimes it can just be a little ditty you tell at a bar, about a man with a shady past and a penchant for Mickey’s Big Mouths.