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What’s In A Voice: Why I Believe Tom Waits

One of the things I love about being a part of the Rabbit Room is the permission it gives me to be a little self-indulgent. I can talk about the real stuff that moves me or tickles my mind that I don’t really feel like I can talk about anywhere else. I only hope that it’s useful to at least some who take the time to read and that, like me, they find an unexpected treasure that helps bring clarity in a world of numbing chaos. I don’t take your time or trust for granted!

So in the spirit of a little self-indulgence, I want to talk about my new Tom Waits record.

For those unfamiliar with him, Waits is an artist/composer/actor whose trademark gravelly voice was described by one critic as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.” If you’ve not heard of him, you’ve most likely heard others cover his songs (“Downtown Train “ sung by Rod Stewart, “Jersey Girl” sung by Springsteen, etc.) I’m planning on writing about Tom Waits’ music in a later post, but for right now I just want to focus on his voice.

My parents recently got me Tom Waits’s newest record entitled Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. It’s a three disc set of his songs that didn’t fit on any of his other records, which is really saying something considering how quirky and out of left field Waits’ records are. Working my way through the set, I got a big grin when I got to track 3 on the second disc. The song was called “The Long Way Home”, but it wasn’t the first time that I’d heard it.

I first heard “The Long Way Home” sung by Norah Jones and loved it as one of the better tracks on her “Feels Like Home” record (now you know. I listen to Norah Jones). It hit me as a sweet little song about taking a long walk home in order to spend more time with her walking companion. That’s just how it always hit me. But hearing Tom Waits sing it was a revelation. It was like hearing it for the first time and the lyric took on a whole new personality when growled by the world-weary voice of Tom Waits.

It turns out that Tom wrote the song and that it’s about the kind of person who no matter how much he tries, he’s more or less fated to have to learn things the hard way, to always have to take the long way home. At least that’s the way the song hits me when Tom sings it. I listened to both versions back to back and the lyrics are the same, but I never really heard them when Norah was singing.

And that’s just the trouble with a sweet voice like Norah’s – you’re likely to miss the point. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a great artist with a lovely and interesting voice. But a great voice isn’t always what’s best to sell a great song. In some cases, it might even be a detriment.

In an interview on the Stop Making Sense DVD by the Talking Heads, David Byrne says that the better a person’s voice, the harder it is to believe them. I thought of the difference between artists like Celine Dion, Josh Groban, and Michael Buble in contrast to Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and of course Tom Waits and decided that maybe Byrne is on to something here.

I hope AP doesn’t mind me using him as an example, but he and I have talked a number of times about music critics who have dogged him for his voice. But to me, Andrew’s voice is perfect. I love it for what it is and I think it’s beautiful, believable, and sincere. It has a gentle sweetness to it. I love that voice because it’s the one that has consistently brought the heart of God to me. The same is true of Rich Mullins and Mark Heard. For different though similar reasons, it’s why I’m drawn to the voices of Daniel Lanois, Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens, and most of the artists I love.  It’s the imperfections that make these voices so compelling.

Norah’s version of “The Long Way Home” is really good, but I believe Tom Wait’s version. Norah’s is pretty, but Tom’s broke my heart and made me present to my own life and the way that I seem wired to always have to learn the hard way. That gritty, rasping voice of his moves me to tears almost every time he employs it in the service of a sad and hopeful song. If I might be so bold to use the word, I would say that it’s the ugliness of Wait’s voice that makes the song’s beauty more convincing.

And increasingly I find it’s this very thing I look for in books, movies, music, or any other kind of storied art. Take Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Road, for instance. It’s one of the bleakest and most brutal books I’ve ever read, and yet it’s exactly this that makes the tenderness and hope of it so believable. The older I get the more I appreciate contrast: hope shines brighter set against the darkness of despair (The Road, The Lord Of The Rings); tenderness makes more sense to me in the context of brutality (as in the film Life Is Beautiful); the more I see the virtue in a good Tom Waits song.

I think the application (if I can be so self-indulgent as to propose one) is that it’s not the best, strongest, or most beautiful parts of who we are that are most compelling or even useful in the employment of God’s Kingdom. It’s our frailties, brokenness, and even the ugliness of our deepest secrets and struggles that will make the hope we proclaim believable. It’s this that puts God’s grace on display and shows the world what the work of Grace really looks like in a real person’s life.

Sometimes, this very thing might even happen in something as unlikely as a Tom Waits song.

(If you’re interested, you can listen to the two different versions in iTunes by clicking here for the Tom Waits version and here for the Norah Jones version.)


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