How Tom Waits saved my life.

‘Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them.’ – Tom Waits.

Self Portrait...Photograph by Tom Waits.

Self Portrait…Photograph by Tom Waits.

My daughter was 5 when she first heard Tom Waits. I played Come On Up To The House while she was in the bath. I hung a speaker on the bathroom wall and would play her random songs while she sloshed about in the water.

Halfway through the song, I heard her calling, “Dad?”

“Yes?”

Is that The Grinch singing?

“No, it’s a guy called Tom.”

Oh. Can we go to his house?”

“Well, we could ask him but he doesn’t know us. Why do you want to go?”

It sounds nice there.”

Mule Variations by Tom Waits

Mule Variations by Tom Waits

In my estimation, Tom Waits is up there with Dylan, Cohen and Joni Mitchell on the writer’s podium. In the song-writing Olympics – he gets gold. His songs, his stories, are cinematic in scope, with the zoom of acute detail, populated with flawed and beautiful characters.

I didn’t take to his stuff immediately, though. Like anchovies, Tom Waits’ voice took me a while to appreciate.

When I first heard him, at 18 or 19, I was a rampant and narrow-minded Dylan obsessive and pretty dismissive of anything else. Fortunately, my mate, James, persevered and played me Swordfishtrombones, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, the hilarious Nighthawks At The Diner and Blue Valentine.

It was the latter that finally broke my resistance. It was so brilliantly written.

Thirty five years later, Blue Valentineis in my top ten all-time classic list. It is a stunning collection of songs – a drunken homage to Romeo & Juliet – and the title track has one of my favourite guitar solos. A lesson in economy.

The classic Blue Valentine album.

The classic Blue Valentine album.

I grew up with a strong Irish side and find old Irish folk songs as natural and comforting as nursery rhymes – and I hear them in Tom Waits’ music.  They have great melodies and a very human sentimentality that is deeply appealing to me. Waits’ characters are portrayed and parodied with absolute precision and empathy. He appears to understand the people he sings about.

He may even be some of them.

I have never met Tom Waits, but if I did, I would shake his hand and thank him. I think one of his songs saved my life.

Get behind the mule.

Get behind the mule.

I was having a hard time of life, and I listened to his album, Mule Variations, a lot. I particularly liked ‘What’s He Building In There?’ and ‘House Where Nobody Lives’ but I always skipped Come On Up To The House. I simply couldn’t bear it.

The song is an absolute diamond classic, but at the time, my addiction to alcohol and opiates was at its deepest and darkest and it physically hurt me to hear it. It was like opening the drapes on a vampire. The light would make me flinch, cover my ears and run off to hide in the darkness.

In the summer of 2003, I had lost another job, my first wife had (wisely and bravely) left me and I was being evicted from my house because I spent all the money I earned on booze and drugs.

I also had a great deal of bitterness because I hadn’t ‘made it’ as a musician. I hadn’t become the superstar I thought I deserved to be and it was everyone else’s fault.

On the morning of August 9th 2003, I was drunk by 8.30, which, sadly, was nothing new. I spent the afternoon punching all the framed photographs of my wife and me. My hands were cut from the glass and bleeding profusely. I used my blood to write obscenities about my wife on most of the walls and was passed out by early evening.

When I awoke, I bought more alcohol, locked the doors, closed the blinds and lay on the floor, forcing the drink down, smoking and retching. After two beers, I felt able to stand up and phoned my wife, demanding she come back, incredulous that she could leave me, but she said she “couldn’t take it anymore” and hung up.

I had no idea what she meant. I knew I drank a bit too much but, hell, I knew people who were much worse. I hadn’t beat her up and I was nice to her mother. I assumed she left me for someone with more money.

Enraged, I hurled all her treasured pot plants against the wall, screaming abuse as each one smashed and covered the white couch in soil, stones and broken pottery.

Apparently, I called my wife 57 times and left 8 threatening and abusive messages, though I have no recollection of this.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the horrific realisation that I only had one can of beer to get me through the night. And all the shops were closed. I took 4 codeine based painkillers and searched the house for anything that might have alcohol content. All I found was a bottle of cough medicine which I poured into the beer. I drank the mixture as fast as I could, crying and bewildered. I didn’t understand why I was in this situation.

I vomited and fell down, shivering and sweating under a blanket, terrified.

I put my headphones on and pressed play on the CD player. It was Tom Waits singing ‘Come On Up To The House‘.

Photo by Anton Corbijn. .

Photo by Anton Corbijn.
.

For the first time, I listened to the words.

Well the moon is broken

And the sky is cracked

Come on up to the house

The only things that you can see

Is all that you lack

Come on up to the house

All your cryin don’t do no good

Come on up to the house

Come down off the cross

We can use the wood

Come on up to the house

(Chorus)

Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house

The world is not my home

I’m just a passin thru

Come on up to the house

There’s no light in the tunnel

No irons in the fire

Come on up to the house

And your singin lead soprano

In a junkman’s choir

You gotta come on up to the house

Does life seem nasty, brutish and short

Come on up to the house

The seas are stormy

And you can’t find no port

Come on up to the house

By the time Charlie Musselwhite came in with the best harp solo I had ever heard, I felt broken, sober and hopeful. I can’t say exactly what happened, but I think I had a moment of clarity, a vision perhaps, and knew everything was going to be okay. This song that I had refused to listen to, suddenly acted as a beacon of hope:

There’s nothin in the world

That you can do

You gotta come on up to the house

And you been whipped by the forces

That are inside you

Come on up to the house

Well you’re high on top

Of your mountain of woe

Come on up to the house

Well you know you should surrender

But you can’t let go

You gotta come on up to the house

Instinctively, it made sense to me, even though I had no conscious idea what he was on about. Alcohol had, 25 years before, been my God, my best friend and now it was killing me. The song gave me courage.

I lay awake all night and listened to it many times. I hung onto it like a drowning man to a lifeboat.

In the morning, compelled by blind desperation, I called Alcoholics Anonymous. That night, I went to a meeting, sober.

I have not had a drink since that day, almost 11 years ago.

Tom Waits with umbrella. From Mule Variations LP cover.

Tom Waits with umbrella. From Mule Variations LP cover.

I have subsequently read about Tom Waits’ own trouble with alcohol and his sobriety:

Oh, you know, it was tough. I went to AA. I’m in the programme. I’m clean and sober. But, it was a struggle.’

I often wonder if he wrote the song sober, with ‘drunks’ in mind. It doesn’t matter – it had an effect on me, and I am very glad he wrote it and that I heard it when I did.

I don’t listen to it very often. Not because I am afraid of it, but because it is quite a special song for me and I find it very moving.

Now, I really have no idea about God. I have a vague but strong sense of a power much greater than me. When I manage to tap into that power, I think it is God, but that’s as much as I can fathom. Fortunately, I have learned that I don’t need to know, I just need to believe.

I have driven myself crazy, looking for some knowable, definite version of God – in churches, Bibles, ideologies – but have never found it there.

When I play or hear music, though, I quite often feel I am in the presence of something more than the sounds. That doesn’t mean that I think musicians are gods – far from it – but I am certain that God is in music.

It’s hardly a new idea, I know, but it was a vital discovery for me.

In Medieval times, for example, students started in higher education by learning  grammar, logic and rhetoric.  They proceeded then to  mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music.  

Music theory itself was considered a Christian study, appealing to other Christian truths as analogies or premises, and in turn was considered one of only seven foundational studies prerequisite to doctoral training in theology, medicine, philosophy, or law.

I can’t read a note of music, but I can play, compose and consider myself minorly musical, and I listen to it every single day.

I perceive no difference between Bach, Bonnie Prince Billy and Blind Willie McTell. To me, God is working through the lot of them.

One listen to Red House by Hendrix or Albert King’s I Believe To My Soul from Blues At Midnight…and I know something more than music is occurring.

Watch Bob Dylan performing What Can I Do For You? from 1980 at Massey Hall, or listen to Andres Segovia or Stevie Ray Vaughan. I have seen Spanish woodcutters raging the shit out of ancient flamenco or Lee Tyler Post create blessed magic in a hot New Jersey night…I could go on for hours.

I think that sometimes a divine spirit is harnessed through the human soul and body and flows through music. It is sacred. I don’t mean a stifled, restricted, denominational or religious sacred – I mean a joyous, sexy and soul-uplifting kind of sacred.

I believe music saved my life.

Seems like a steady guy.

Seems like a steady guy.

Tom Waits singing Come On Up To The House is on my 8 year old daughter’s favourite playlist, between One Direction and Miley Cyrus. She loves it.

I pray every day to my vague idea of a musical God and I pray with gratitude. For my life, my sobriety and music.

And for my little girl, who has never had to see me drunk.

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9 responses to “How Tom Waits saved my life.

  1. Once again…several times while reading this ……I have out loud said….”AWW…..ohhhhhhhhhhh”….. …….Thank for sharing your soul Prince. …My Gawd is in the smile of my children and the laughter that follows…………Tom Waits has always been one of those TOP singer/musicians for ME too………..Now I have to dig out a few of his old albums and sit back and be melancholy and cry a little. I’m a big girl now…I can do that……………. :>}

  2. Very good! This is so strange for me! Many of his oengs helped me to find recovery to. Now I am in my 13th year, and I love Tom waits music and lyrics. Today I come back to the house some days every week. Thank You for your words.

  3. Wow, that was a very moving piece. I can very much relate to your story, although I never experienced a scene as bad as the one you describe. Personally I don`t know what pulled me out of drinking heavily. It was a gradual process. AA didn`t do shit for me, and all that Higher power bullshit got on my nerves. I`m not an alcoholic like the typical AA member so maybe that is why I can`t relate to their scene. But it all culminated in a drunk driving arrest,so….

    Now let me talk about music, the most interesting part of you article. Music that I love has an AMAZING uplifting effect on me. I have endless boundless praise for artists in general, and most musicians in particular. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. Unfortunately I can`t listen to much music because of a rare hearing disorder called hyperacusis, a hypersensitivity to sounds (I drank much because of the sometime agony of this disorder). But I can listen a bit, and when I do, the sounds and the melody and the lyrics stay in my soul for hours and sustain my spirit.Because if I don`t sustain that spirit, I can sink and then alcohol use looms.Fortunately if that happens , I can have a beer or two, and NOT go off on a binge. “Real” alcoholics, it seems can`t take any alcohol, so that`s much rougher.But still I wanna keep away from all drugs and alcohol, despite how boring it can get for me without those artificial highs.

    I got onto this blog because I have been reading about Tom Waits. I love reading about artists. I remember 35-40 years ago listening to him often with a friend, but he never really caught on with me. Over the years I would seem him in films, and it seems he would often be typecast as a drunk, or homeless. I thought that was a bit funny, but as he says in an interview “there ain`t nothing funny being a drunk” (or homeless). Somehow I was not surprised to read that he has been sober for about 25 years, and that he had sunk pretty low.Not only him, Ringo Starr too, I just read ! ( I LOVE Ringo! Who doesn`t !?)

    Well, that`s it. Peace and love to all.

    Marco

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