December 4, 2020

Tom Waits And Theology

Today is Thanksgiving, which means tomorrow is the greatest of all consumeristic holidays, Black Friday. It’s such a great day to some that they can’t wait to celebrate. Your neighbors and friends will be out in force starting at midnight to get great deals on stuff they really don’t need, like toaster ovens, foot massagers and Hot Wheels sets. Well, ok, maybe they really do need the Hot Wheels. But most of the stuff they will shove and cuss and fight over to save a few bucks are things they wouldn’t give a second glance to in, say, April. We here at the iMonastery want to help save you time, frustration and just possibly a black eye or two with some gift suggestions you can buy from the comfort of your own Barcalounger. We’ll be sharing ideas throughout the day as you fade in and out of your tryptophan coma, so check back often. As always, if you click on the links provided, iMonk will receive a percentage of what you purchase.  Now, as the doors open, file in quietly and in order like good iMonks.

The Gospel Singer You Would Never Let Into Your Church

This is the first year in a long time I won’t be making my traditional Thanksgiving dish—cranberry and orange relish. It really is very good, but very few people like it. And that’s fine with me, because there is more left for me. Most would rather go for that gloppy stuff that comes out of a can (and still resembles the can) than a relish of fresh cranberries, naval oranges and a bit of sugar. The real stuff is too much for them.

Tom Waits is the real thing. And he is definitely not for everyone. Most prefer their music out of a can, gloppy and sugary. This goes for pop, country, “smooth” jazz or, yes, even Christian music. So when they encounter someone like Tom Waits, the reality is so jarring it makes most run back to, I don’t know, Rascal Flatts or Fleetwood Mac or Mercy Me. Something that really doesn’t make the listener face real life. Something that tastes almost, but not quite, totally unlike real cranberries.

Waits’ voice was described by music critic Daniel Durchholz as “sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” I’ve described him as sounding like he swallowed an angry cat that is now clawing its way out of Waits’ throat. Tony Bennent he ain’t. But that’s what makes him so real. He records songs exactly the way he wants to. He makes instruments from things he finds in junkyards and records on old tape recorders that really should be in junkyards. On his latest album he sings a duet with Keith Richards. Waits’ voice is so raw he actually makes Keef sound good.

Oh, but he is real.

Waits sings about life as he sees it. His world is not pretty or safe. He doesn’t pull punches. Why use a nice word when three profanities will do the job so much better? But he is not just whining for whining’s sake. Right when you think things can’t any worse, God comes breaking through in his lyrics. Ben Myers explains it like this on his blog “Faith and Theology.”

In such songs, God bursts onto the stage not as a benevolent projection of our own wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of deity. God appears not as a supreme being who calmly “completes” and “perfects” nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic newness of grace. Divine grace, for Waits, is thus a kind of unnatural incursion, a perversity, a disruption of the way things are. Grace interrupts, it shatters and strips things bare to the bone. And so Waits portrays grace in a way that is uncompromisingly – often shockingly – menacing and grotesque.

Tom Waits to me is the musical version of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor’s novels and short stories were filled with weird, over-the-top, grotesque characters with whom God interacted in ways that make the reader grimace and say, “Oh, God could never be like that.” When asked why she made her characters into larger-than-life monsters, O’Connor said, “When the world is deaf, you have to shout to get its attention.” Waits has been shouting since the 1970s. Has he gotten your attention?

If you want a sampling of Tom Waits, I recommend three albums: Rain Dogs, Mule Variations, and his latest, Bad As Me.

Here is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite groups, Over the Rhine. It will mean a lot more to you after listening to Tom Waits for a while. Enjoy.

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  1. Jessica Marie says

    I’m going through a total Tom-loving phase right now. Thanks for this.

  2. I understand that he’s Big In Japan.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jeff. I LOVE Tom Waits. I’m closer to Christ because of Tom Waits.

    • How so, Batman?

      • I can’t wait for Batman’s answer, Jeff, but I think I know what he’s talking about. It’s something like what you said about Tom Waits being the musical version of Flannery O’Connor. His music, and her stories, tell about life in-the-rough, ripe and begging for a dose of grace.

        I had a similar discovery several years ago when Johnny Cash died and our local community radio station played his music pretty steadily for a couple of days. It irritated some people, especially the die-hard non-country fans and a few, uh, misinformed but well-intentioned people who took too seriously some of Cash’s violent lyrics. (“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Or, “If I hadn’t have shot poor Delia I’d have had her for my wife; Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone.”)

        I was reading through Flannery O’Connor’s stories at the time Johnny Cash died and I made the same connection then that you’re claiming about Tom Waits: that it’s all about grace. We are a people full of sin and self-induced tragedy; let’s not ignore that but tell the story about it like O’Connor, Cash and Waits do. And pray for God’s grace to deliver us.

        Billy Graham, I am told, even counseled Cash to keep on singing his stuff, no matter what his well-meaning critics said. It takes all kinds of media to lead people to the Lord.

        By the way, I’m not much of a country fan either, but I do love Johnny Cash. And I really love Tom Waits.

        Side note concerning grace: yesterday I found my long-lost copy of Capon’s Between Noon and Three and I feel like that woman who swept her house to find the lost coin. Great rejoicing upon the discovery, and having family home for the weekend and great food don’t hurt none either.

      • I remember when I first heard Tom Waits. I had never heard of him. One of my dad’s work friends got two tickets to a Waits concert in Tulsa. My dad couldn’t go, and I could. So, my first exposure to Waits was a live concert.

        In high school, I listened to mostly Christian music. At the time, I was going to a very conservative Christian college. Needless to say, I was a little freaked out by Waits’ voice, performance, and lyrical content. Fortunately, God had been pushing me past a lot of my narrow-mindedness, and I was slowly learning how to appreciate art that wasn’t blatantly Christian. Simultaneously, Waits weirded me out and intrigued me.

        After the concert, I mostly listened to Tom’s music on youtube. Eventually, I bought his Orphans album. By this time I had fallen in love with not only this guy’s songs, but his voice. The first time I heard the song “Never Let Go,” it knocked me out. “You can send me to hell/ But I’ll never let go of your hand.” I’m not completely sure what Tom’s intended meaning is, but I like to think he was maybe talking about Christ here. We can put him on a cross, we can send him to hell, but he’ll never let go of us.

        Another song about the relentless grace of God is “Down There By the Train.” Tom paints this picture of grace that’s so beautiful and offensive: “There’s no eye for an eye/ There’s no tooth for a tooth/ I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth”

        So at a time when I was feeling like God couldn’t possibly love me, God sent Tom Waits to tell me that He did.

        • You’d love the Small Change album. Best description of alcoholism I’ve ever heard in “The Piano has been Drinking (Not Me)”.

          Back to Flannery O’Connor: Her character The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” does something like what you’re describing. Makes sense of the gospel, even though he’s killing off the hostages.

          • Thanks, Ted! I’ll definitely check it out. I’ve heard “The Piano has been Drinking (Not Me),” but I haven’t heard the rest of the album. Sounds like I’m gonna be reading some Flannery O’Connor as well. I’ve heard so many wonderful things, but haven’t had a chance to read her yet. Is “A Good Man is Hard to Find” a good one to start with?

          • Yes, “A Good Man…” is probably the best place to start. It’s one of the few “perfect” stories I’ve ever read, right up there with Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” although very different. A Good Man is comical, lively, full of family tension and normal life right up until things start to go very wrong. Even the end, macabre as it is, has a comical twist. And the gospel is proclaimed from the least likely source. She has other stories that are equal in quality, perhaps even better, but I keep going back to this one.

  4. And he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year, too!

    True story: I was in a fantasy baseball league for one year called the “Sonoma Organizational League” (SOL) as the commissioner lived in Sonoma County, CA. Trying to think up a name for my team, I did a little research and found out that Waits lived there, just up the road from the commish as it turned out, near the town of Sebastopol.

    My team ended up the Sebastopol Rain Dogs. And, just like a character in a Tom Waits song, they ended up a colossal disappointment and finished with a losing record. But I still imagine the crowds in the stands singing along to the team’s song after another loss — “I am a RAIN … DOG … TOOOOOO!”

    (I know, it’s silly. But it’s MY silly, darn it!)

  5. I use Pandora at work. In one of my stations, Pandora plays Tom Waits’ “Little Man”, a very interesting song and meaningful to me because that’s what my little grandson is called by his parents. I had never heard Tom Waits before, so I’ll give a closer listen. Thanks for the recommendations.

    Love Over the Rhine’s “Long Surrender.”

  6. Thanks for introducing me to Tom Waits. I have occasionally heard his name mentioned on the radio but first heard his music via iMonk.

  7. ” Most would rather go for that gloppy stuff that comes out of a can (and still resembles the can) than a relish of fresh cranberries, naval oranges and a bit of sugar. The real stuff is too much for them.”

    Wow. That is a priceless illustration. It speaks volumes about our attraction to mediocrity. “Great Divorce” in a nutshell.

    Your cranberries sound wonderful. Do you also make chutney?

  8. What’s this? Not only Arlo Guthrie for a Thanksgiving tradition, but Tom Waits as well?

    Ahh… Thank you. Pass the cranberry-orange relish, please.

  9. God’s away on business…

    • I heard an interview where Tom Waits talked about this song. He said, “Perhaps he’s away indefinitely. Perhaps he was never here. There are two different schools of thought on that I guess…it’s one of those things you say in order to explain the way that you feel in metaphor, I guess. It feels sometimes in the world that God is away on business, and he’s not coming back.”

      I appreciate his honesty. “God’s away on business” is such a great way to explain the feeling we all of us have at least some of the time.