Tom Waits, Jockey Full Of Bourbon (1985)

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Artist: Tom Waits
Title: Jockey Full Of Bourbon
Description: single; album track, Rain Dogs
Label: Island
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.

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Jim Bob, Cartoon Dad (2007)

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Artist: Jim Bob
Title: Cartoon Dad
Description: album track, A Humpty Dumpty Thing
Label: Cherry Red
Release date: 2007
First heard: 2007

Mighty Mouse is on his way
Here I come to save the day

Can we put aside our petty musical differences and at least agree that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine were – and at Christmas time, still are – a pretty unique proposition in terms of fusion pop music, taking the minimalism of the Pet Shop Boys, roughing it up with punk rock electric guitars and arch pun-based social commentary, and lobbing said cocktail to the top of the charts? You don’t have to love them to appreciate them. I did love and do love them – and yes, we will be hearing from them again.

In the meantime, those among you who took Carter USM to your 100% cotton bosom in the indie boom years of the early 90s will raise no eyebrow at the inclusion in The 143 of a solo piece from the duo’s singer, who has forged a workable solo career in their wake and from whose seventh post-Carter album (fourth under his own name) this abiding kitchen-sink favourite comes.

Neither Jim Bob nor Fruitbat was the leader in Carter – each relied upon and, you might say, completed the other – and both have continued to make music, born to do so. But Jim Bob had custody of the voice, and its his voice that elevates Cartoon Dad as much as the thoughtful lyrics and the clever arrangement. To declare an interest, I consider Jim a friend. We’re not in and out of each others’ houses, in fact I’ve never been inside his house and he’s never been inside mine, but we exchange Christmas cards, and if ever I’ve been able to involve him in my random media career I have unashamedly leaped at the chance. (Luckily, he and Carter are held in sufficiently high regard for me to be able to do this without self-consciousness. Also, I was a fan before I met them and would have remained so had I not.)

In 2006, on the release of his sixth (or third) album School, I found myself filling in for Mark Radcliffe on Radio 2 and suggested Jim as an in-studio acoustic guest. It was an album with a story, and I relished the opportunity to spread the love. At the end of 2009, having that year suggested him to Robin Ince as a suitable musical turn for his mixed Lessons and Carols for Godless People bill, the Times asked me to contribute to a New Year’s spread recommending “New Faces”; I twisted the brief and nominated Luke Haines and Jim Bob, two old farts, to be frank, but hitting corresponding solo highs to my mind. (I argued that 2010 being the year Jim turned 50 made it a landmark.) I wrote:

Jim ought to be as beloved as a Costello or a Dury or a Davies, with slices of life as tuneful, arch, dramatic and unapologetic as Teenage Body Count, Cartoon Dad and The Golden Years Of Lonely Old Dears.

Of the aforementioned recommended three, Cartoon Dad tackles and humanises the vexed issue of an unnamed protest group who are clearly Fathers 4 Justice via a lilting, brass-fanfared lament to a “muggy Monday morning” spent scaling St Stephen’s Tower (the structure that houses Big Ben), and the apparent fruitlessness of the unfurling of a superhero-costumed lone parent’s “stupid protest banner”. References to Converse, Tesco Metro, the Body Shop, Lucozade and Happy Meals do Jim’s usual job of painting a picture through the joining of cultural dots, while the tale is tragicomically told with equal attention to mundane detail, whether it’s Mighty Mouse’s forlorn-sounding “supermarket bag” or the tourists taking pictures from the London Eye on their “cameraphones”, which meant something in 2007 and fixes the song in time.

On the subject of those voyeuristic snappers on “the Wheel”, we learn that they “suspected a PR stunt … But secretly they hoped I’d jump.” It’s a devastating couplet because you’re certain he’s about to rhyme “stunt” with “c—“. But it’s not his style. He prefers to channel his righteous ire through droll erudition and wordplay. Jim, a paragon of humility, might blanch at the notion of being a poet, but his literary ambition crossed over with the music on A Humpty Dumpty Thing as it came bound with a short story, Word Count. He’s always been a weaver of stories. The album is built around four unused songs he originally wrote for Mark Ravenhill’s Dick Whittington pantomime. This is one of them. Hence streets paved with gold and an arch reference to Golden Arches?

I mentioned the fine arrangement and it’s sympathetic to the song, with the brass band intro exquisitely pitched, the drama subsequently built up through a rat-a-tat-tat staccato section and a daringly literal chime before a reference to Big Ben striking. (More Dick we may assume.) I realise I’m quoting back a fair chunk of the lyric, but it would be self-defeating not to. Like so much of Jim’s solo and Carter catalogue, Cartoon Dad takes you by the hand and leads you through the streets of London, “all along the River Thames, from Westminster to Southend and into the sea.” And it boasts this perfect twist at the end. Savour it.

Dr Samuel Johnson, you were very nearly right
I was tired of London
But I would never tire of life

Mighty.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Beyond Belief (1982)

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Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Title: Beyond Belief
Description: album track, Imperial Bedroom
Label: F-Beat/Columbia
Release date: 1982
First heard: circa 1999

I’ve got a fee-e-ee-ling
I’m going to get a lot of grief

Although late to his albums, I can honestly say now that I listen to Elvis Costello in his prime in a state of awe. It is not to overstate the case to reveal that when I am in the presence of his finest work, I feel a real sense of privilege. And none more keenly than when I listen to Imperial Bedroom, the second of his LPs to invade me during the aforementioned lull at the end of the century when I forsook new music and flooded the gap with albums by classic artists I felt I had to get to know better.

Aware and noncommitally fond of his singles from Watching The Detectives through to A Good Year For the Roses in 1981, the first Elvis album I bought during that self-educational pre-millennial frenzy was Punch The Clock, from 1983. I was instantly hooked by the jaunty likes of Let Them All Talk and Everyday I Write The Book and the morose glory of Pills And Soap and his reclamation of Shipbuilding. So, Imperial Bedroom, released a year earlier, I came to from the wrong direction.

To name Beyond Belief, its opening track, as my all-time favourite, may seem odd, especially among all those memorable singles, not all of them hits, and the more obviously “important” Pills And Soap and Shipbuilding. Let’s be perfectly clear: I could list about 25 Costello songs, most but not all with the Attractions, that sit at my top table. I could make my selection from pretty much anything on Blood & Chocolate, or Get Happy!!, or Goodbye Cruel World, or King Of America, or the Attractionless Spike and Brutal Youth, or even, hey, The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, perhaps its highlight I Almost Had A Weakness. (I’m rustier on his more recent works, but that must be resolved in my own time.)

But Imperial Bedroom does not put a single toe wrong, from its beguiling Barney Bubbles pastiche of Picasso to the orchestral fade of Town Cryer. And hearing track one Beyond Belief just makes me excited as it means I’ll soon be listening to the cheeky Tears Before Bedtime, the torrid Man Out Of Time, the heartbreaking Almost Blue, the gossamer Kid About It, and the crooked waltz of Imperial Bedroom itself, which came only as a bonus track on the CD (typically for Elvis, the title track of an album rarely features on that album – you’ve got to love that about him, the ornery fellow).

Beyond Belief, a short hop at two and a half minutes, drops us without much warning into Fabs engineer Geoff Emerick’s studio environment: a little hissy, dare I say, which suits the energy of the performances and with enough reverb to give melodrama to Elvis’s voice; out of a simple bassline and some tickled hi-hat and a barely audible sustained keyboard chord it comes, “History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,” he trills, almost blue already. (History doesn’t repeat here, of course, as it’s the first Elvis album without Nick Lowe at the controls.) He’s mannered, of course, dipping down in self-parody, rising up for the line, “in a very fashionable hovel,” and I truly understand why, like Dylan’s, certain respectable adults have a problem with his voice. That nasal voice. Almost sneering. But these are the elements which I love about it. And the clever wording around which he wraps his tonsils!

I think it was the way this opener ensnared me at first listen that keeps me coming back to it, to sup from the fountain. Who but McManus would even construct phrases like “this almost empty gin palace” or “her body moves with malice” or “locked in Geneva’s deepest vault” and expect them to fit into a two-tiered pop song? Around every corner with this erudite songsmith you get a new arrangement of the English language that intrigues and challenges and paints pictures every bit as colourful and bendy as Barney Bubbles’. “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard”? I mentioned awe, right? It’s like reading a great novelist, or listening to a great orator at the stump, or seeing a beautifully but assymetrically framed shot in a foreign film. I’m not even sure at this remove what Beyond Belief is about, and that’s the alchemy. Most Elvis songs seem to be about relationships gone South. This one certainly “seemed so appealing” but now it’s “beyond belief.”

About a minute in, Pete Thomas goes all over his kit, and the song prepares to go up a gear; there’s even a gunshot, or what sounds like one. By the time Steve Nieve’s piano cascades we’re into full pulp fiction mode: a lot going on at a high level of emotion, in a very confined space. It’s head-spinning. And it doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s kind of all verse. I guess you might even dismiss it as a kind of intro, rather than a song, an establishing shot, a mood-setter, but it has it all, from where I’m sitting, even if it does fade out way too soon. Hello, cruel world.

I’ll admit to going for long periods without calling up my Elvis Costello and/or the Attractions albums, and I always wonder why. As a lyricist of quality and distinction, he’s in the superleague. As a singer of character and tenacity, he is out there on his own. As an albums artist, he’s David Bowie with a band. To quote Town Cryer, from the end of Side Two, he’s “a little down, with a lifetime to go.” Amen to that.