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Tom Waits’ work started with a moon.

His very first song on his very first album is “Grapefruit Moon.” In the song, the title image, along with “one star,” is “shining, shining down on me.” It’s a lovesick ballad played slow on the piano. A pining song that’s that close to cliché. It teeters on the edge, almost sappy, almost silly, a song built around that lunar fruit that almost drips with saccharine.

It’s the first moon in a career of moons, and like a first crush, it’s clumsy and, in retrospect, maybe a little bit embarrassing. He wasn’t done, though. Waits has a thing for moons, and has been working on lyrical variations of this one metaphor for gong on 40 years.

Waits tops most lists of great living songwriters today. On March 14, he’s being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When critics talk about him, they talk about his voice and his use of odd instruments, his wide range and experimentation, his cult following and how he’s a musicians’ musician. They talk about his junkyard, Salvation Army aesthetic and his originality and theatrically and how his wife is the not-so-secret force behind his artistic originality.

And they talk about his 38-year career of lyrical genius.

In his long career, Waits has returned regularly to this image of the moon. It is, in many ways, central in Waits’ work. There are other common images and tropes across his corpus — Waits likes rain, and names of towns, people’s names and food to eat — but to me it’s the moons that stand out. Everything there is to say about Tom Waits’ work can be said about his metaphors for the moon.

There are 93 moons in Waits’ songs, according to the Tom Waits Library. 93 moons — it’s a lot of commitment to one image. A lot of work on one turn of phrase. Surveying them reveals a lot about his work, and also shows how one man has grown, artistically, writting this one metaphor and hanging in the skies of his songs again and again, but doing it better, as he gets older, and making it more interesting as he improves as an artist.

In his first album, 1973s’ “Closing Time,” the moon is pretty much the hackneyed, romantic rock in the sky it has been for bad poets for forever. Except that Waits really wants to describe the moon with a fruit metaphor. It’s almost like he went shopping with the moon on his mind. There’s the grapefruit moon and a bananna moon, both of which are shining in the sky. Then there’s the third moon, towards the end of the album, which the narrator sees the morning after a long night of pining for a lost love. It hangs there, in “Rosie,” “all up, full and big” along with “Apricot tips in an indigo sky.”

It’s not a bad line, but it does feel more than a little bit belabored.

Waits was in his James Taylor phase. Overly romantic, a sap singing ballads and mooning over girls named Martha or Melanie Jane. He croons lines such as:

And it’s you, and it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
Shoo-be-doo, ba-ba-da

.
And:

Lonely, lonely, lonely,
Lonely eyes, lonely face
Lonely, lonely in your place.

His moons, at first, are really not that sophisticated, not that complicated, not that lyrically interesting. Moons equal mooning, is about the whole of it.

Waits was interested, in those early years, in the work and the lifestyle of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski — down and out and bumming among the tramps, romanticizing winos, saying the city was jazz and the night, music. As is common with over-earnest young men trying to imitate the Beats, though, sometimes he sounded a little too much like John Denver. The Beat idea in these early works is both the limitation, and the inspiration Waits needed to imitate to push himself, artistically.

As he went on, in the next couple of albums, he tried to get away from that balladeer style, and went more into a full-out jazz-bum routine. When Rolling Stone wrote about Waits for the first time in ’75, they described him as he did his Kerouac act: “Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker.” He created a musical world, Rolling Stone noted, of “muscatel moons and naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.”

His lyrics could be interesting, in this period. Could be creative. But there was also a lot of it that was too much an act. Too much trying too hard. And that shows in his moons. They’re all just not-quite clichés. Overstrained. Overwrought. Worked at too hard. They’re too close to the expected, and sound a bit like parodies of what a Beat on the street in night of Jazz might say.

“I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon,” he sang in his second album, “The Heart of Saturday Night.”

The next year, in his next album, he comes to that image again in his song, “Better Off Without a Wife.” It’s an ode to “bachelorhoodism,” Waits said. He preformed the piece in ’75 with cigarette lit and a cloth cap cocked to the side, a growl in a voice that wasn’t there a few years before. He sang:

I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howlin’ at the moon
Goin’ out when I want to,
And comin’ home when I please.

His moon metaphors, in the early years, are just about atmosphere. There’s not a lot of craft to them, but Waits isn’t done yet, and the idea of this turn of phrase is lodged in his aesthetic craw, and he keeps working at it. Even before he grows out of this phase of romanticized drunks and Beat imitations, Waits starts to show some of the lyrical creativity he’s known for now.

Still working with the edible metaphors for moon, he gets past the fruit connection and creates something interesting in “Nighthawk Postcards,” a jazzy, spoken-word piece. He offers up “a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon / Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.” It’s overworked, this metaphor, but it’s also more interesting.

He goes on in the song (an “inebriated stroll”) to expand the metaphor in a deliciously weird ways. He sings: “I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m standing underneath a buttery moon / that’s all melted off to one side.”

He’s not done, either. In that one, extended riff, Waits works in two more moons. One is “a moon holdin’ water,” and the other is, “a Dracula moon in a black disguise.” In some preformances, too, Waits switched out his one edible metaphor for another lunar allusion, saying he’s “underneath kind of a stray dog moon in a tenderloin sky.”

He kept on that Beat imitation shtick for a while after that, perfecting it, but never breaking new ground. He was afraid, he later said, to push himself to do something more. Afraid to experiment and grow and change. It had worked in the past, so why not do it some more?

There’s a “bloodshot moon” and “now the moon’s risin’, ain’t no time to lose / Time to get down to drinkin’, tell the band to play the blues.” And that’s about as good as it gets, with those early Waits moons.

Waits is artistically aware enough, though, to know he can’t really just repeat his maudlin songs. He can’t recycle sappy moons that stand in for the emotional state of the narrator-bum. He doesn’t seem to know where else to go, with his moons, but he knows he can’t keep them coming like they have been. So he starts messing with them.

In “Small Change,” in ’76, which is really the pinnacle of this period of Waits’ career, where his work feels like it’s more than an imitation and he’s made the style his own, there are two more moons. Both of these though, show some awareness of what his moons have been doing in his songs. There’s a consciousness that he’s going to need to develop, and to do something more.

In “Tom Truabert’s Blues,” one of his best-known songs, Waits starts out by noting, “it ain’t what the moon did,” dismissing it’s influence, it’s romantic power.

That, he later told a journalist, was the first song he wrote where he felt he was “completely confident in the craft” of songwriting.

The other moon on the album is Waits first attempt to take this image that he keeps coming back to, and turn it upside down. Certainly a lot of artists, a lot of poets, have found themselves repeating lines and reusing images, and, wanting to grow, they make themselves a rule, like “no more moons.”

Waits does something different.

He doesn’t abandon the image, but starts to try to use it in another way. To not just use it and reuse it but, instead, subvert it. He keeps the image, but refutes and refuses the sap, the romantic cliche, committing himself to try something else.

“No, the moon ain’t romantic,” he sings, “it’s intimidating as hell.”

 

Waits frustration with the moon metaphors is maybe starting to show, at this point. There’s a frustration and an unhappiness with these hackneyed moons. Simple sappiness that’s “so maudlin it seems.” In ’77, Waits has a song where a woman drops her drawers and gives “the finger to the moon,” an act of aggression that doesn’t seem far from the artist’s own feelings of frustration at the limitations of his artistic power.

Waits is moonless, after that. The lunar metaphors wane out of his work.

For two albums, three, then four, there’s no moon. For three years, four, then five, the man doesn’t sing a single shining moon in the sky. He just avoids the metaphor altogether.

Then he meets his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They fell in love. She said yes. She had wanted to be a nun but he “saved her from the Lord.” She saved him from himself. And from his artistic stagnation.

She got him sober and got him to listen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart, Bertol Brecht and Georg Büchner. It was a revolution for his music. Radicalizing to his art. By ’83, Waits was experimenting, and pushing himself. He had the confidence to bust up his routines and his easy tropes. He had a newfound willingness to make music that was really original, take the risk to do something interesting, which is also the risk of failing horribly.

Waits said of his wife, she “pulverises me so that I don’t just write the same song over and over again.” He said, “A good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller … She’s much more adventurous than I am. She’s always trying to disrupt the whole thing and take it apart and put it back together with its tail in the wrong place.”

This is evident in what happens to Tom Waits’ moons: they’re not just subverted, after he marries Brennan, they’re perverted. They’re twisted, reshaped, made weird, reworked and hung hodge-podge in the sky.

In the first album after his marriage, “Swordfishtrombones,” Waits opens with a moon that isn’t even a moon, but just an empty spot in a scary sky.

“I plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six,” Waits sings, the music a rattle and chug and scream, now, his voice now a distinctive gargling bark. “And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky.”

 

By his next album, “Rain Dogs,” Waits was able to come back around to his moon metaphors with a deftness and originality only hinted at in his early work. He returns, in ’85 album, to his edible metaphors, but now he does it backwards. Instead of there being a bit of good-looking fruit hanging ripe in the sky, now it’s the moon that does the eating. In “9th and Hennepin,” “the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.” It’s a startling image and a very different world.

Now, in the sky of Waits’ songs, even normal-appearing moons that might, in the past, have been purely romantic, are quickly shown to be different and downright abnormal.

“Outside another yellow moon,” starts one song on that album, with a line that seems like it connects directly back to the grapefruit allusion of 12 years before. Another one. A yellow one. Kind of like a bit of fruit. Except that now, newly experimental, he takes it apart, and does the moon differently.

“Another yellow moon,” Waits sings. “Has punched a hole in the nighttime.”

In his recent works, Waits has built whole weird worlds in his song. His imagination is gothic and grotesque, cousin to Flannery O’Conner and Cormac McCarthy, nephew to Irving Washington and Charles Brockdon Brown and the original, twisted versions of Brothers Grimm. He stages worlds of weirdness and evil, where

a man with missing fingers
plays a strange guitar
And the German dwarf
dances with the butcher’s son

as he sings in the first song on “Bone Machine” in ’92, giving the critics the character they always talk about when they talk about Tom Waits’ song.

In this world, where men are alienated by the ground on which they stand, he repeatedly comes back to images of abnormal moons, repeating the idea often enough that this image, by itself, seems to express the world Waits wants to express. He taps into the American gothic idea, where it’s not the strange things that frighten us, but the things that seemed normal.

“The moon is a cold chiseled dagger,” in “Black Wings,” in ’92, “And it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone.” In “Earth Died Screaming,” the same year,

There was thunder, there was lightning, then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky, it rained mackerel, it rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come, and here’s mud in your big red eye
And the poker’s in the fire and the locusts take the sky

In ’93, in the song “November,” there’s “a moon that’s the color of bone.” In ’99, on Mule Variations, “the moon is broken and the sky is cracked.” In ’02, on Blood Money, there’s a “Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood,” and in ’04, “The moon climbed up an empty sky,” in the song, “How’s it Going to End.”

Instead of overworking the orevewrought romantic moon, Waits plays with phrases that evoke terribleness and apocalypse. He’s working, to be sure, on one idea, but each of these is rendered simply. There’s a deftness and originality that’s really remarkable. These are moons one will remember.

This continues in his most recent album, Orphans. Waits puts freakish moons in freakish skies to preside over the world that it us. The moons have twisted faces — there’s something wrong with them — and he crafts moons which, by themselves, contain the contortedness of these songs.

He sings, for example, in “Jayne’s Blue Wish,” which is set to a lullaby tune:

The sky holds all our wishes
The dish ran away with the spoon
Chimney smoke ties the roofs to the sky
There’s a hole over head
but it’s only the moon.

He returns again, too, to the food allusions, but here, now, after years of working at this metaphor, Waits can turn this phrase without appearing to try at all, slipping the moon into the song, into the sky, and in a way that feels fresh and creative, and evocative without being overworked. In “Bottom of the World,” he sings:

Blackjack Ruby and Nimrod Cain
The moon’s the color of a coffee stain
Jesse Frank and Birdy Joe Hoaks
But who is the king of all these folks?
And I’m lost, and I’m lost
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
I’m handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar
I’m lost at the bottom of the world

That might be my favorite of all his moons, since it’s such a simple way to put it, and seems so effortless, yet captures, too, the lunar shape and slightly sickly color, while, at the same time, rendering a mood. The moon is the color of a coffee stain, but one wouldn’t have seen it that way without Waits’ song.

I really like Waits’ horrible moons. Each one is different, twisted a new way, and interesting. What’s more impressive, though, is that, while Waits has worked with this one type of lunar metaphor from ’83s’ Swordfishtrombones to ’06s’ Orphans, he hasn’t he hasn’t simply been satisfied with it. It could have been the case that Waits just inverted the romantic use of the moon, made it horrible, and then did that to death, and nothing more.

But, with all this experimentation and twisting of the moon, Waits finds a freedom to sometimes just let the moon be the moon. That might actually be harder, artistically. To let well enough alone. To be subtle. To know when enough is enough.

Waits’ later work has plenty of moons that aren’t anything but moons. Starting with Mule Variations, he has these moons that are liberated from metaphors. On “The Low Side of the Road,” “The moon is red and you’re dancin’ real slow.” In Real Gone, which came out in ’04, the narrator “stood by the window until the moon came up.” And it just comes up. That’s all it does. In “The World Keeps Turning,” Waits has a totally literal moon that is “gold and silvery” “in the meadow” as “the world keeps turning,” and he has, in Blood Money, in ’02, a song where the “moon is yellow silver / On the things that summer brings,” implying, maybe, that it’s the moon that’s drunk, where, the first time he had the moon this color, it was the singer who, in a belabored metaphor, was “Drunk on the Moon” of this color.

Were this all that Waits did with his moons, he would well deserve his place atop the list of contemporary lyricists. Waits goes further though. He retakes the romantic moons of his youth, and works them back into the music. In “Night on Earth,” in ’92, Waits sings,

“When I was a boy, the moon was pearl
The sun a yellow gold.
When I was a man, the wind blew cold
The hills were upside down.

He reuses the sappy moons but, now, puts them in the context of the experience of characters in the song. Now, instead of just buying wholeheartedly into the idea of the romantic, the moons are used to show an entire experience, and he does it in a way that re-inscribes his developmental arc, from crooner’s moon to apocalyptic ones, back into the image of the moon. In “Big in Japan,” a song of crazed braggadocio, the singer shouts “I got the moon, I got the cheese / I got the whole damn nation on their knees.” The moon acts as this representation of “it all,” the “it all” that everyone wants, and risks everything for, but can’t ever quite get. In “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” from Black Rider, the phrase is used as a promise of everything. A promise against odds. A promise to fulfill every promise. It’s undercut, though, the other promises in the song:

I’ll shoot the moon right out of the sky
For you baby
I’ll be the flowers after you’re dead
For you baby

In “Green Grass,” on ’04s’ Real Gone, the narrator describes the moon as “on the rise,” but, since it’s sung from the point of view of the dead and buried, he goes on to beg, “Don’t say goodbye to me / Describe the sky to me,” making the moon at once just simple, just the moon, and, at the same time, something romantic, something to reach for and long for and pine over, and, wrapped up in that, and the distance between the one thing and the other, horrible too.

Maybe my favorite example of this last twist of the moon, where Waits works the metaphor both ways, romantic and horrible, is in the song “Dead and Lovely”:

She was a middle class girl
She was in over her head
She thought she would
stand up in the deep end

He had a bullet proof smile
He had money to burn
She thought she had the moon
in her pocket

But now she’s dead
She’s so dead
Forever dead and lovely now

I don’t know of a better way to put that: “she thought she had the moon in her pocket.” It’s heartbreaking, and sweet and sad. It’s also immediately memorable, and recognizable, so familiar and yet so new, too. It is a master touch, a perfect use of a metaphor moon, and shows how Waits has, for almost 40 years now, been working on these phrases. He puts so much into the idea of the moon. He says so much, with the moons he hangs in the skies of his songs.

There are 93 moons in his body of songs. Shining and falling and cracking. Aching and breaking and just there. Out of reach. In pockets. Tantalizing and drawing out obsessions, insanities, and expressions of the emotions that make up frail, frail humanity. Tom Waits has many, many moons.

The last one, the 93rd moon in his 38 years of work so far, is borrowed. It’s not his, originally, but one he found and repurposed and made his own. He takes it from Georg Büchner, the 19th century German writer. It comes on the third part of Waits’ latest album, Orphans, a spoken word piece about a small child, called, “Children’s Story.”

Once upon a time there was a poor child,
with no father and no mother
And everything was dead
And no one was left in the whole world
Everything was dead

And the child went on search, day and night
And since nobody was left on the earth,
he wanted to go up into the heavens
And the moon was looking at him so friendly
And when he finally got to the moon,
the moon was a piece of rotten wood

Isn’t this, though – this horrible little story that’s pretty much the worst bedtime story imaginable – also the story of growing up? The question isn’t what the moon is made of, but, as Waits found, I think, what one does with the material of the moon. Of course it’s rotten wood. Or green cheese. Or sappy and overly romantic metaphors. But can you make art with it? Can you make art with the rotten moon?

We have Waits’ answer.

Special thanks to Dorota Majzer for letting us use her wonderful photography! Find her Flickr here.

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Daniel Silliman is currently writing about the biggest Bigfoot hoax of the last 100 years. He is an American Studies graduate student at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where he also teaches English grammar and academic writing. The nephew of Language poet Ron Silliman, he has a background in philosophy, worked as a crime reporter for several years, and blogs at www.danielsilliman.blogspot.com

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