I don’t know what it is, but some Peter Lalor-descended rebel in me pipes up whenever critic X remarks, “Of course, some flaws, but who can listen to this song without tears?” I always respond, “Pfft. Old fruit. Me, you blouse.”
So when Barney Hoskyns, in his Tom Waits biography Lowside of the Road, writes “Call me sentimental, but I cannot get to the end of the song without crying”, I think, “Humph – what song? Kentucky Avenue, you say? Alright, I confess I don’t know it, but I’ll give it an unbiased listen, you weakling.”
So I did, and here’s what happened:
“Eddie Grace’s Buick got four bullet holes in the side
Charlie DeLisle sittin’ at the top of an avocado tree
Mrs Storm’ll stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn
I got a half pack of Lucky Strikes, man, come along with me …” Yes, good. Specific imagery, not hackneyed, not sentimental. Quite well done.
“Let’s fill our pockets with macadamia nuts …” Ah, the slightly later husky Tom Waits has appeared. There are those who cannot listen to this Tom Waits, but I am a clinical observer of the songwriting craft, and no lack of mellifluousness deters me.
“… Let me tie you up with kite string
and I’ll show you the scabs on my knee …” This is going well, this is childhood remembered accurately, not as it’s depicted in movies and on TV. I wonder whom the apostrophised companion is ...
” … I’ll get a dollar from my mama’s purse
and buy that skull and crossbones ring
and you can wear it around your neck
on an old piece of string … ” This lack of sentimentality! So unlike the Americans. Very good.
” … Take the spokes from your wheelchair
and a magpie’s wings
and tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad
and cut the braces off your legs
and we’ll bury them tonight in the cornfield … ” Right, so the companion is … Oh, crap. Dammit.
“Put a church key in your pocket
we’ll hop that freight train in the hall
and we’ll slide all the way down the drain
to New Orleans in the fall.” Shutup, it’s hayfever, that’s all it is. Now go away.