"I'm like a fucking race horse."
--Tom Waits, Jacksonville, July 1, 2008
Tom Waits' tours are fairly infrequent, so when I heard he was headed to Jacksonville two hours away from my house, I splurged. Jacksonville? Why Jacksonville? It's not really the red dirt, bluesy part of the south Waits wanted to see. Jacksonville is South Beach's conservative opposite, militarized vanilla beach Florida, which tolerates the small, local counterculture because it's essentially irrelevant. Jacksonville is by some definitions lovely, but it's not, well, cool. When, early in the concert, Waits mused about why he'd never been to this attractive city beside a sparkling river and the Atlantic Ocean, he said his friends had always told him, "You're not old enough." I don't know whether he's finally old enough now or if the prospect of hauling the tour bus and three semis ten hours south and back north was too much for his pocketbook or his carbon footprint, but he arrived with a copious supply of merchandise--including vinyls, a chapbook in which he interviews himself, and t-shirts with pictures of oil stains he thought were cool--as well as a sweet stage set that could evoke alley-cat twilight austerity, late-night honkytonk, or red-devil cartoon hell.
Tom Waits in his undersized bowler gangled out to the round center platform as though he were under the influence of some hobo marionette and lit into "Lucinda"/"Ain't Going Down to the Well No More" and quickly into "Down in the Hole" to an adoring audience of sophisticates of all ages (along with a few bellowing idiots). We were clearly in for a hell of a ride. During "Chocolate Jesus" (I believe), he stopped mid-song to admonish the audience, albeit congenially, for clapping out of time. They hadn't encouraged audience clapping, so I think he was a bit pissed, though he turned the awkwardness into a humorous moment. He's serious about his oeuvre, and this audience "interference," enthusiastic as it is, can ruin a song. (This may have been the reason "Clap Hands," one of my favorites from Raindogs, didn't make the cut for any of the shows. The Eyeball Kid has set lists for every show plus a compilation for all the shows, including Jacksonville [I swear I heard "Jockey Full of Bourbon" though, which isn't listed for J'ville], so I won't belabor the entire list.) There wasn't a sour note, from the stage at least, and the band was incredibly tight and the timing and interplay were perfect. It was one of the most polished shows I've ever seen, musical "theatre" of the best sort, as if Broadway had bled somehow into the old Bowery.
The show both peaked and nadired for me in the middle of an arresting extended performance of "Rain Dogs"/"Russian Dance." Waits' performance was violent. The moment seemed Brechtian, confrontational, perfect, eviscerating what can come off sometimes, if one isn't listening closely enough to Waits' superb writing, as a kind of sentimental nostalgia for hard times. His gyrating, barking performance annihilated any possible sentimentality. But as I looked around, I sensed no one seemed to be getting this. Most were too busy being fans to feel his indictment of all of us, our asses sitting in the hundred dollar seats of this lovely theater on the river, six dollar beers bubbling away in comfortable, pudgy guts. No recession here, mind you, but "Rain Dogs" should have awakened everyone to what people go to shows to forget, all this American consumptive excess that leaves so many out in the cold, hungry and bemused and sodden, while so many inside listened to songs about those people, then got in their SUV's and drove away, pop-culturally sated. Perhaps I'm projecting my own guilt, my own excess here, sitting there with all my Waits stuff, taking it too seriously, but it unnerved me.
The epigraph above came from a moment that added to this feeling. Someone screamed out that he wanted Waits' sperm to make a baby. Tom stopped, and said, "Wait a minute. We just might be able to arrange that. You'll have to talk to my manager. But I must warn you, I'm very expensive. I'm like a fucking racehorse." Then he laughed like a carny knowing you're going to piss your jeans on this ride. This and some comments he made about show business--noting at one point that Sarah Bernhardt's amputated leg on display at a circus was earning more than the actress herself, who was performing "across the street"--suggested his contempt for this consumerist attitude, this objectification of people, and his understanding of the irony of his own position as he enriches himself and his family singing, even iconically, songs about the downtrodden I believe he truly cares about, knows. I think he wanted this contempt to come through, not vitriolically (I think of Jello Biafra cursing the mosh pit "jocks" in Fresno, 1985), but through the power of the music and the words. Waits was polite and played along, a trickster minstrel, hoping maybe someone will get it all after the beer and white wine wear off. I hope so, too.
As if to emphasize this theme, he stepped away from center stage to sit at the piano, stage right, while all the musicians but Seth Ford-Young on bass left the stage. While idiots yelled for their favorites, he ignored them, and settled into "On the Nickle" to continue a theme, slowly and beautifully. Counterpoint. Do you get it now? It was truly a high point in an extraordinary show. The piano solo moved through "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work" and "Invitation to the Blues" and "Lost in the Harbour" wonderfully, creating the emotional heart of the show.
Continuing his theme of exile, the band returned, and a single, flickering bulb descended to "accompany" him on the poem "Circus." Then, like a fireworks show, a grand finale in which he crowed and stomped and sagged elastically through "Hoist that rag," "Lie to Me," "Anywhere I Lay My Head," "Singapore," "Cold, Cold Ground," and "Make it Rain." They left the stage and the audience wanting more.
After much applause, they came out to finish, slightly anticlimactically after all the heavy pyrotechnics, with "House where Nobody Lives," and then they left. And then I got in my car and listened to Frank's Wild Years all the way home, because he didn't play my favorite from that album, and I am, after all, innocent when I dream, and I needed to hear that after all the indulgence in my extravagant solitude.