Online Edition: Winter 2005/2006

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Innocent When You Dream

The Tom Waits Reader

edited by Mac Montandon

Thunder Mouth Press ($16.95)

by N. N. Hooker

Image is a complicated business, particularly when selling authenticity. "Part of my character and personality and image that I have cultivated is that I do not endorse products." Waits successfully sued Frito-Lay for an unauthorized imitation. "I hate it when I hear songs that I already have a connection with, used in a way that's humiliating." Yet, Waits enjoys "hearing things incorrectly." Where is the divide between corrupt commercial culture and authentic street sounds? Waits isn't one to examine such situational ironies. His romance with "outcasts" persists as an imagining of the past as more pure.

Charmingly, Waits never considers his work or the work of those he admires as "product." Such innocence after 375 pages feels less like romantic resistance than aesthetic bad faith—the dreamy innocence might benefit from some real guilt. Waits has always been a post-modern collagist: a second generation Beat singing tin-pan alley to post-punk hepsters. (Waits never was a satirist, however—he believed his myths). Waits has yet to produce anything like Bukowski's Women—a deconstruction of his own myths. He drank. He looked the fuck-up, but his career has been charmed and includes an Oscar nomination. Not that any of this success matters, except that Waits's life and music were always collapsed into the "real" thing. "I got a personality an audience likes. I'm the guy they knew ... who never really amounted to much ... good for a few laughs ... a victim. But I don't mind the image." Bonnie Raitt is less circumspect in the same 1969 (!) Newsweek (!) article: "He's able to make all the double knits both tragic and romantic at the same time."

Surveying his life in print, Waits's convincing "surrealist mix n' match" (Luc Sante) persists. Rolling Stone tries a resurrection storyline, but Waits's death, like the throat cancer rumor, was groundless. A sober, smoke-free family man (why is that particular generation so all or nothing?), Waits is also the rare individual who grows more "out there." The incessant mutation of genre has given way to a more organic music—less pastiche. The cleverness has more risk. He may never have the irruptive genius of Captain Beefheart, but as this book reminds us, his wonderful voice from the corners of America has great breadth and poetic power.


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