Tom Waits was an early signing to David Geffen’s first label, Asylum, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. For his debut album, Closing Time, they paired him with producer Jerry Yester, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Yester, it’s said, emphasised the folk and country elements of his music at the expense of the jazz (he has been accused of doing the same thing to Tim Buckley, with the story being that Buckley made Happy Sad the record it is over Yester’s objections). Closing Time was, then, a pretty pallid singer-songwriter record of the sort that were ten a penny in the early seventies, only a couple of songs – notably Grapefruit Moon – standing out as a cut above.
Waits’s second album The Heart of Saturday Night, recorded and produced by jazz veteran Bones Howe, was the breakthrough, the first recognisable Tom Waits album – the late-night feel, the beatnik persona, the double bass and muted trumpet, the beat poetry, and – crucially – the sly sense of humour all in place. A very strong album that still provides material for modern jazz singers (that said, I don’t need to hear another version of the title track, thanks very much), Saturday Night remains highly rated but was arguably eclipsed by Small Change, his fourth album from two years later.
His voice now more gravelly than ever (Louis Armstrong with laryngitis), Waits recorded the whole album live to 2-track tape, no overdubs – the old-fashioned way. Waits’s whole mission, it seemed, was to be in a 1940s movie, a small-time loser who coulda been a contender, complete with hat, trenchcoat, battered suit and bottle of whiskey. The problem was that although it marked him out from his Canyon Cowboy contemporaries, even in 1976 that persona was more than a little clichéd. Certainly it was leading him into a creative cul-de-sac. He lived the part so completely that he was dangerously close to coming apart: drinking too much, sleeping too little and constantly finding himself in places he shouldn’t have been with people it would have been wiser to avoid.
His songs seemed to know more about the dangers of alcoholism than he did, and it wasn’t until a year or so after he wrote Bad Liver and a Broken Heart and The Piano Has Been Drinking that he got himself clean and sober. At that point he started to move away from the extremes of that beatnik persona, spending a few years in an artistic holding pattern before re-emerging in a New York on a new label and with a new character – the disconcerting carny complete with junkyard orchestra – and eventually his second great masterwork, Rain Dogs.
Yes, Rain Dogs. Swordfishtrombones may have been his first album in his new style, but Rain Dogs is the better one, taking all the ideas suggested by Swordfish and developing them, taking them to the obvious conclusion. Swordfish tracks including Underground, Shore Leave and the title song make it clear that a suffering marimba is going to be a key part of Waits’s new sound world, but it’s Clap Hands from Rain Dogs that’s Waits’s marimba masterwork.
The arrangement is a simple one: Waits on acoustic guitar, Marc Ribot on electric lead, Tony Garnier on double bass and Michael Blair, Stephen Hodges and Bobby Previte on marimbas and various drums and percussion. Percussion instruments both found and exotic were the crucial instruments in Waits’s world in the 1980s, and few instruments are given traditional r contemporary treatments (the overtly 1980s-sounding electric guitars on Downtown Train come are shocking in their conventionality in the context of Rain Dogs – much as I like the song, I’m not sure it belongs on the album).
Lyrically, too, Clap Hands employs a simple trick. It takes the chanted nursery-rhyme vocal rhythm (and some of the lines verbatim) of The Clapping Song and refracts them through Waits’s surrealist sensibility, always resolving on the song’s title:
Sane, sane, they’re all insane
The fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame
A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame
Hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain
Clap hands, clap hands
Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime
All the way to Baltimore and runnin’ out of time
Salvation Army seemed to wind up in the hole
They all went to heaven in a little row boat
Clap hands, clap hands
If you find yourself one day in a waking nightmare world where nothing makes sense and see some children out on the street corner skipping rope, Clap Hands is the song they’ll be singing. It’s a crucial text in Tom Waits’s post-1970s work. If you respond to this – if you like the percussion, the skronky guitars and the black humour – Waits will likely be a big deal for you.