For Waits to “see the music” he has worked with machines and instruments that not only include your standard strings, horns, reeds, drums and keyboards, but also strange and innovative things that make the kind of noise he’s looking for, among them cash registers, marimbas, metal Anglungs, bagpipes, the bowed saw, brake drums, accordions, dragging chairs screeching across the floor, pump organs, Stroh violins, Mellotrons, Optigans (which plays pre-recorded sounds), police bullhorns, train airhorns, 2x4s for hitting sides of lockers, freedom bells, metal clangs, slit drums, parade drums, glockenspiels, an old Singer sewing machine, a washer set on spin cycle, calliopes, glass harmonicas, kazoos, and bass boo-bams.
“There’s something in the fact of a studio with instruments you’ve spent thousands of dollars renting,” he says, “to walk over to the bathroom and the sound of the lid coming down on the toilet is more appealing than that $7,000 bass drum. And you use it.”
And use it he does, something different and exotic on all the albums since 1983’s Swordfishtrombone, the first album he produced after marrying Kathleen in 1980. “There’s a lot of orchestral guys who rarely get an opportunity to abandon their history on the instrument and just play free,” Waits acknowledges. “Most of the songs I write are very simple. They’re three-legged chairs. You provide just enough for them to be able to stand up. Sometimes I break everything I’ve found. It’s like you give a kid a toy and he plays with the wrapping. I do that now.”
It’s his voice, of course, that sets him apart and distinguishes him from any other singer. Some have tried to place him between the relatively obscure Captain Beefheart and the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, but Waits does things with his voice that neither of them did. He can growl like a pitbull in attack mode or notch it up to a whisper like one of God’s angels telling it like it is from beyond this world. His voice can make Bob Dylan sound honeyed. It’s the sound of a huckster and a hipster, a debauched saloon patron and a melody driven crooner under a Frank Sinatra influence.
Writers have always had a field day trying to describe the different ways Waits sings. The New Yorker called his voice, “a scabrous rasp.” The Los Angeles Times compared it to “a cross between mellifluous baritone and heavy-equipment breakdown.” Spin magazine wrote, it’s “a voice that could guide ships through dense fog.” The Dallas Observer heard “a voice found at the bottom of an ashtray.” The Village Voice thought, “his patented gravel throat that ought to be a handicap but he can shout and moan and leer with it [as well as] croon and trill and sigh.” A young girl from the Midwest made him smile when she told him his voice reminded her of a cherry bomb and a clown. Musician magazine felt, “He’ll never have Whitney Houston’s pipes, but he’s the better singer.” And Gene Santora in The Nation summed Waits’ voice up this way: “He uses it to ruminate and yelp and scream and croon and plead and threaten. It can be a blunt, heavy instrument, but he wields it with incongruous dexterity—even, at times, lightness. His clashing vocal overtones can surround a note the way a clot forms around a gash.”
In the end, Waits puts it most simply: “My voice is still a barking dog at best.”
His early songs on albums like Closing Time, The Heart of Saturday Night,Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine, and Heartattack and Vine deal with hookers, thieves, crackpots, drifters, drunks, used car lots, and hotel shootouts. An automobile buff, he sings about old cars and trucks (“I’m riding with Lady Luck,/freeway cars and trucks”), driving on freeways (“Fast flying, freeway driving/ Always makes me sing”), and taking buses (“There’s a Continental Trailways leaving/local bus tonight.” “A Greyhound bus’ll/take the one that got away.” “I won’t make a fuss, I’ll take a Greyhound bus/ carry me away from here”).
As Spin noted, “He sings songs that are poetic, hilarious, scary, touching, hallucinatory, and fine.” He combines country and western with rhythm and blues, French chanteuse with New Orleans jazz, chain gang prison songs with sea chanteys. His songs range from crazed rants and dream sequences to paranoid vignettes and heartbreaking loss. In Franks Wild Years, he opens with: “Frank settled down in the Valley and hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead.”
In “Heartattack and Vine” he sings of the devil in a line that’s made it into quotation books: “There ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.”
He references God and the devil much more after his Asylum years are over. The devil makes an appearance in “Down, Down, Down” from Swordfishtrombones: “He went down down down and the devil jumped on his head.” Further down, he sleeps in the devil’s bed. And finally, the devil says to him, “Where you been?” The devil appears in Franks Wild Years, The Black Rider, Bone Machine, Blood Money, and Alice.
In “Day After Tomorrow” from Real Gone, he sings about what it’s like being a soldier having to fight an enemy: “You can’t deny, the other side/Don’t want to die anymore/Then we do, what I’m/Trying to say is don’t they pray/To the same God that we do?/And tell me, how does God/Choose, whose prayers does he/Refuse?”
In “Georgia Lee,” about a young girl killed in a field, on Mule Variations, he asks, “Why wasn’t God watching? Why wasn’t God Listening? Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”
On Blood Money, one song is called “God’s Away on Business.” So, “If you’re looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch/You’re out of luck.”
“With the God stuff,” Waits has said, “I don’t know what’s out there any more than anyone else. I don’t know if I’m on a conveyor belt or if I’m on the tongue of a very angry animal about to be snapped back into his mouth.”
No wonder director Francis Coppola called him “the prince of melancholy.”
“I love reference books, dictionaries of slang, the Dictionary of Superstition, Phrase and Fable, things that help me find words that have a musicality to them,” Waits has said. “I love prison slang and street idioms.”