“What’s he building in there?”
That’s the nonmusical question posed by the creepiest track of Tom Waits’ latest record, Mule Variations –a spoken-word piece about neighborly paranoia backed by spare percussion and sound effects.
“Now what’s that sound from under the door?” Mr. Waits wonders. “He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor … and I swear to God I heard someone moaning low …”
Strolling along Broadway this past weekend, you might have been similarly unsettled by the clanking, twanging sounds emanating from the Beacon Theater, where Mr. Waits played four sold-out shows. And if you happened to walk in during the cacophonous “Eyeball Kid,” about a freak-show performer who is no more than an eyeball, you would have seen this: Mr. Waits, wearing a rumpled, dusty suit and a hat covered with mirror shards, whacking a huge suspended iron circle with a heavy hammer, releasing both musical notes and beauteous rings of stage dust. Then he grasped his hat and rotated slowly in a spotlight, sending mirror-ball zigzags all over the theater’s baroque interior.
It was just one of countless moments in the show when Mr. Waits took something incredibly simple and produced something ingenious and mesmerizing. It’s a crime that he hasn’t toured in a dozen years; he was born to be on stage. He combines a haunting melodiousness with a B.A.M.-savvy visual presentation and vaudevillian comic timing–and, most uniquely in this jaded age, genuine sentiment. Who else could get away with singing an original number called “Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon” without it seeming like an affectation?
The audience belonged to Mr. Waits from the moment he walked in, croaking into a megaphone, spewing glitter from his jacket pocket, then taking the stage to dance like a Frankenstein puppet possessed by the ghosts of Louis Armstrong and Buster Keaton. For the rest of the night, he alternated between a loose-limbed hobo version of Dean Martin wrestling with the microphone and a grizzled piano balladeer, dipping into an amalgam of American styles from the entire century.
His band–guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Larry Taylor, drummer Andrew Borger and keyboard player Danny McGough–followed every turn down every alley. He drew on songs from not only the handful of albums he’d released during his absence, but also his early bohemian work (like “Invitation to the Blues” and “The Heart of Saturday Night”) and his middle-period trilogy of Swordfishtrombones , Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years , on which he first explored offbeat instrumentation and less prettified singing.
His set list apparently varied greatly from night to night–as did his sly ways of saying No to every song title called out as a request. “‘Volare’? That’s in the program,” he said at one point. “‘Summer Wind’? That’s in the program. Didn’t you get your program?”
Mr. Waits’ longest verbal aside was about his son asking him for $90 to buy a bottle of cologne. He recounted that when he pretended he didn’t hear right–”You want to fly to Cologne?”–his son “looked at me like I was doing card tricks for a dog.” That’s the kind of succinct, loopily brilliant imagery that peppers every Tom Waits song. Mr. Waits went on to say that back when he was a kid, “we used to make our own cologne”–and described a hilarious recipe that included Oil of Olay and Tabasco sauce, two ingredients that also describe Mr. Waits’ sound.
It’s a sign of Mr. Waits’ power that he was able to enlist a sophisto New York crowd–which on Saturday night, it should be noted, included Elvis Costello, Jon Bongiovi, Liam Neeson, Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Lorraine Bracco, Aidan Quinn and Carol Kane–to sing along with the wholly uncynical “Innocent When You Dream.”
Indeed, for all his attempts to mask his romanticism with a scabrous vocal delivery, dry wit and dissonant arrangements, Mr. Waits remains at heart a seeker of beauty. “I’ll Shoot the Moon” sounded like a cover of a Rudy Vallee song, and “The Briar and the Rose” like a church hymn, but both are from his 1993 collaboration with William Burroughs and Robert Wilson, The Black Rider .
His songs are also timeless in the forward-looking sense: “In the Colosseum,” an ominous march from 1992’s Bone Machine , includes the line “As the senators decapitate/ the presidential whore” years before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky.
Saturday’s encores included his “Jersey Girl” (making Mr. Bongiovi and his drummer Tico Torres visibly happy) and, from Mule Variations , the beautiful, sweet “Take It With Me,” which showed that, at 50, Mr. Waits is still at the top of his songwriting powers. “In a land there’s a town, and in that town there’s a house, and in that house there’s a woman, and in that woman there’s a heart that I love–I’m gonna take it with me when I go.” It’s a song everyone should have played at their funeral.