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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Bob Dylan, Tell Me That It Isn’t True (1969)

Bob-Dylan-Nashville-Skyline

Artist: Bob Dylan
Title: Tell Me That It Isn’t True
Description: album track, Nashville Skyline
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1995

We’re playing with the big boys now. Any 143 best songs limited to one entry per artist might include the Beatles, the Stones, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan. And some of these giants may yet turn up (don’t want to ruin it for you). I don’t have an intimate relationship with Dylan. I am patently not a disciple of his music. But neither do I have a problem with him, as some do. I like his honking voice. He’s self-evidently a keystone artist of the 60s and his influence is unfathomable. Without him, folk may never have turned into rock music. And, like Bowie, who wrote a song about him, his staying power and ability to change hats is not in doubt.

But I don’t have a snap answer to the question, “What’s the greatest Bob Dylan album?” or its woollier twin, “What’s your favourite Bob Dylan album?” (I have stock answers to the same question with the Beatles and the Stones substituted, but not Dylan.) When I worked at Q magazine between 1993 and 1997 and passed the big three-oh, I acted accordingly, and opened myself up to all sorts of “classic” music.

Our office was almost on top of the flagship HMV on London’s busy Oxford Street, and – in full-time employment, with pension and shares scheme, remember – I would often avail myself of the 3-for-2 offers on non-chart CDs. My intention was to fill the gaps in my record collection with important LPs with which I was not acquainted. I remember snapping up a couple of Dylan standards during that consumer flurry – Freewheelin’, Blood On The Tracks, Desire – and gave them a few spins. But if I’m honest, I never really truly got beyond the hits.

The permanent office CD collection at Q was motley. We had a battered CD single of Showgirl by the Auteurs (that went on a lot when the lagers came in), an album by Jackie Leven, something by Strangelove, and Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan. I found myself putting this on more than once during the working day, but it was not a single that grabbed me – the more familiar, singalong likes of Lay Lady Lay or the Johnny Cash duet on Girl From The North Country – but track three, side two, Tell Me That It Isn’t True.

Due to a rare lapse in journalistic instinct, I know for a fact that I took my touchstone track Tell Me That It Isn’t True to be Nashville Skyline Rag, which is track two, side one. Not 100% sure why. But when I’d left Q – and left full-time employment; the shares were worth shit – and invested in my own copy, I jumped ahead to Skyline Rag and was deeply disappointed. Not a Proustian peep. However, as soon as I heard the first line, “I have heard rumours …” followed by that resonant Dobro (I’ve looked this up; don’t finger-wag me if I’m wrong, guitar freaks, it could be Pete Drake’s pedal steel …), I was back in love.

Historically, the 1969 album – a number one hit in the UK – was an evolution from the acoustic-leaning John Wesley Harding, also recorded in Nashville, and showcased a new, smoother “crooning” style of vocal from Dylan. As I’ve picked up on his albums in the wrong order, I don’t hear them chronologically, but I shared an office with a man who not only did, he did so religiously. He was John Bauldie, one of the UK’s foremost Dylanologists and Q’s part-time production guru. (As editor, I once took John out for a lunchtime pint to encourage him to apply for the full-time post, but he was happier with the freedom to pursue his Dylanology when he wasn’t at his post. You had to respect that.)

The dedicated publisher, editor and chief scribe of Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, John – or “the Great Bauldini” as Danny Kelly playfully christened him – was our font of all Dylan knowledge. A lovably grumpy soul, capable of long-running feuds where Dylan was concerned, we all admired him, which is why we so affectionately but constantly took the rise out of him, stuck in his ways and reliably mistaking a techno record for the noise of the fax machine for comic effect.

So, this song reminds me of working at Q, and working with the legendary John Bauldie, who was cruelly killed in a helicopter crash in 1996, which was a bad day at the office for all of us. It’s only right that a Dylan tune should help us remember, and remember fondly.

It’s a lovely, lilting lament from a spurned lover to another (“They say that you’re planning to put me down … they say that you’ve been seen with some other man”), less than three minutes long but lifted by an enthusiastic drum part from Kenneth Buttrey, twinkling with all those guitars, enhanced with a bit of honky tonk piano and made airborne by Dylan’s almost cheekily accessible vocal. He doesn’t know it, but he’s prefiguring the life’s work of David Gedge, with his imagination running paranoid riot (“I know that some other man is holding you tight/It hurts me all over/It doesn’t seem right”).

Why have I illustrated above with the back sleeve of the CD of Nashville Skyline? Because I’m pretty sure the inner booklet had been lost in the ravages of office life and the CD sat in a coverless jewel case. I recognise the back more than the front as a result. It’s such quirks that make our lifelong relationship with music more vivid.

There will be another song I associate with Dylan and John Bauldie in The 143, recorded by another artist. Wait and see what it is.