List ‘Em Carefully (Hall of Fame Edition): The Essential Tom Waits

First, congratulations to Alice Cooper Band, Neil Diamond, Jac Holzman, Dr. John, Darlene Love, Art Rupe, and Leon Russell, all recently announced 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. But this list ain’t about them. CoS prides itself on not playing favorites when it comes to our coverage, but occasionally (once in a “Grapefruit Moon”, you might say) we succumb to temptation (throat-scraping falsetto and all) and let our inner fanboys and fangirls run the e-presses.

Call this list a love letter to Tom Waits. Call it a Christmas card. Call it whatever.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself stirs mixed sentiments. As a museum, it’s well worth the visit. But the idea of inducting artists (not unlike awarding Grammys) has always been met with an ambivalent response. Music lovers, snobbish as we can be, generally dislike this sort of final verdict when it comes to our music. We’re eager to praise a great live performance and even more willing to lambaste an album that disappoints, but we’re far more hesitant to anoint a band or artist to some higher echelon, which, at least in some sense, downgrades other “lesser” artists whose music matters just as much to us and often more. Part of the problem stems from a lack of agreeable, measurable criteria. The Baseball Hall of Fame can always point to home runs and hits. What numbers can the Rock and Roll HOF crunch? Inductions based on units shifted or Billboard #1 hits? No, we don’t like that either. (And if, like Cooperstown, the Rock and Roll HOF was all about hits, Tom Waits couldn’t land a job in the museum gift shop, much less get enshrined.) What’s our deal? Maybe we fear some ulterior motive or creeping commercialism—some tampering with or cheapening of our music. Perhaps, we simply don’t agree with or trust the taste of the selection committee.

Waits maybe said it best upon hearing that he had been voted in: “I am still recovering from the news. I never really cared about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…but now I am surprised to discover how much I DO care.”

And to be honest, it’s only when artists like Waits get in that we find ourselves caring—when we get the feeling that an outsider has crashed the party.

But enough of that. On to the list. How did we come up with it? We pinned the name of a Tom Waits song to each country on a globe, spun it, stuck out our index fingers, and played that game we used to as kids, asking, “Where am I going on vacation?” Not really, of course, but it’s probably no worse a methodology given the circumstances. Condensing a career of nearly 40 years and 20-plus records down to 15 songs is a daunting task in itself, and all we love about Waits makes it all the more difficult. Even while recording and touring under the umbrella of mainstream record labels, Waits has always been an outsider artist, equal parts beat poet, jazzman, score/play composer, vaudevillian, pot and pan banger, exhaust manifold, crazy uncle, and walking Ripley’s Believe It or Not! of oddball facts and stories. There has been no real chart-topper and almost zero radio play, though Waits does lay claim to being rather large in Japan—“big,” actually. The result is an eclectic discography that everyone comes to in a slightly different way and a top ten list that feels remarkably fluid; come back next week and things might look completely different. But then again, who has ever been able to pin down Tom Waits?

Enough. Let the gushing commence.


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