Artist: Tom Waits
Title: Jockey Full Of Bourbon
Description: single; album track, Rain Dogs
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988
The Everyman, an independent arthouse cinema, Hampstead, North London, 1988. A venue I have never visited before in a steep, rarefied area of London I have only driven through. The very concept of an arthouse cinema is still new, and mightily alluring. I’d made a new cinephile friend, Nigel, a medical student, who was also blowing my postgraduate mind with Burroughs, Ballard and Vidal. His tastes in cinema were for the American new wave (he was nuts about Scorsese and Coppola, as was I, but also the more commercial Brian De Palma) and their indie successors: Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, Wayne Wang. I’d broken my arthouse duck with Chelsea School of Art co-conspirator Rob when we’d discovered the coded delights of Peter Greenaway in the last year of college. But it was Nige who whisked me off to the Everyman, with its then-radical flapjacks and carrot cake for sale in the lobby, to see Down By Law.
A slow-moving, European-influenced bayou prison break movie, shot by Jarmusch in high-minded black-and-white, I will never forget the sensation of seeing its open credits. (They remain among my all-time favourites.) Cinematographer Robby Muller’s camera glides from right to left past row upon row of porch-fronted clapboard New Orleans houses, shotgun shacks, parked cars, weatherbeaten projects, French-quarter balconies and even graves while a twangy guitar, stand-up bass and bongos accompany. The voice, low and ravaged, sings of drop-dead suits, mohair vests, downtown trains and “a two dollar pistol”, perfectly in synch with its surroundings. (Even though it was written three years earlier and probably about New York or LA or Minneapolis, it fitted the pictures as if written in the stars above Louisiana.) Hello, Tom Waits, pleased to meet you.
Now, as an NME reader of many years standing, I knew of Tom Waits. The album from which Jockey Full Of Bourbon was timely ripp’d, Rain Dogs, had gone straight to the top of the paper’s end of year scorecard for ’85. (I guess I was too busy listening to Psychocandy, Steve McQueen and Meat Is Murder to investigate.) His previous, Swordfishtrombones, was adjudged the sixth best LP of all time by the staff in a 1985 poll, when, let’s be fair, it was fresh in their ears. I’d heard his crooned songs in Coppola’s One From The Heart, which I’d seen on video in the early 80s, but felt he wasn’t my cup of tea.
Thanks to the keen ear and eye of Jim Jarmusch, who’d also cast Waits alongside another musician John Lurie in Down By Law, thus making the connection complete for the uninitiated, I was now on the case and compensating. I purchased Rain Dogs (whose slower Tango Till They’re Sore had also been chosen for the Down By Law soundtrack), then Swordfishtrombones, then Franks Wild Years, and what a rich and nourishing ride into underbellies, back alleys and lounge bars it was. Since that first flush, I’ve filled in Waits’ entire back-catalogue, buying every new release from Big Time onwards, his first that I was able to purchase when it came out.
Waits is a performer who gets wierder and harder to like the older he gets, which is refreshing. (His first albums are almost easy listening, but God I’ve learned to love Closing Time and Foreign Affairs.) Jockey Full Of Bourbon represents all that was unique about his less wild years, when critical acclaim and a modest commercial equilibrium were not incompatible. (Rain Dogs, praised to the heavens, only scraped into the Billboard Hot 200, but geniuses are not always recognised in their prime.) Having made his name at the piano, Waits was now throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, with more emphasis on guitars, double bass and all sorts of things you could hit. There’s a whipcrack sound in Bourbon that really drives things along. If the image of a slow crawl in a car wasn’t already burned into your consciousness, you’d still have this down as a song in transit.
Waits’ imagery draws deep from the well of the most cinematic kind of Americana, from box cars and handguns to whiskey shots and doughnuts “with names like prostitutes”. It may be that it’s even more poignant and tasty to romantic outsiders, tourists like me and my friend Nige. We were based in ugly but honest South West London; even being in Hampstead made us feel like we had a day pass, never mind the “Cuban jail” or the “Hong Kong bed” where Bourbon took us. “Hey little bird,” he growled, “Fly away home.” You don’t need the sullied, figuarative, X-Factor version of the word “journey” in the case of Tom Waits. You need a ticket.
With each passing year, I’ve grown more attached to Tom Waits. Subsequently discovering the panoramic works of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth – and in cinema, Michael Cimino – gave new colour to the landscapes Waits was painting with words, accordion, marimba, tin lid and grunting. I once did a karaoke impression of him onstage at the 100 Club wearing a pork pie hat and a stick on “soul tooth”. Whatever it sounded like to the assembled, inside it felt like I had surrendered myself to him. Like Woody Allen’s Gershwin, his tunes always sound like they’re in black and white. To me, he’s the great American songwriter, greater even than Springsteen or Young or Stipe or Carter.
In the second part of Down By Law‘s opening crawl, the camera goes from left to right this time, and the view gets rougher: a black man assumes the position against a police car, skeletal cars are dumped on waste ground, the air gets dusty, there’s writing scrawled on a plasterboard wall … and then Tom Waits appears at a door. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.