Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a paper that was originally presented as part of Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music. This biennial conference brings together musicians, critics, journalists, artists, and listeners to discuss and celebrate popular music—hoping to bridge the gap between the church and popular art. The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.
Apart from the many ways Tom Waits is a spiritually-steeped artist—his lyrics brimming with religious and biblical references, his reveling in ritualistic forms (re-forming or productively deforming them), and his posturing as a post-modern, post-religious and post-secular prophet—apart from and underneath and before all of that…there is a voice.
Hearing it for the first time is like getting slapped with a large, raw steak. The overwhelming–even punishing–quality of the voice itself poses the first challenge. It is incredible, in the purest sense of the word. It surpasses any reasonable expectation of what a human singing voice should sound like.
My ten year-old daughter’s reaction: “Oh Dad… not that guy again… I mean, I like the music, but his singing is just so… awful.” David Dark tells me his son waxed a bit more poetic: “He sounds like he’s already dead.” Or, consider the critic Daniel Durchholz: “[Waits’ voice sounds] 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.”
But therein lies its mysterious power. Like a car crash, the repulsion/attraction dynamic of it has long intrigued me, but that’s a weak analogy, as I’ve always sensed something more than spectacle and morbid curiosity at work in Waits’ voice. Aesthetically, perceptually, and theologically, this voice uniquely matters.
Scars and Sound
I think my daughter’s primary obstacles with Waits are two-fold: she hasn’t listened enough to see the nuances of what he is doing, and she hasn’t stumbled, regretted, or suffered enough. As for Waits’ sufferings, it seems his crosses have been largely of his own making, and he’s sometimes seemed a little too eager to hang on them. But, what redeems so many of those self-inflicted wounds is a brute honesty about how they came about.
A large part of the early albums were about wine, women, song, and a great deal of loneliness. With each successive recording his sound got rougher by his own choice. One only need contrast two early numbers: the lovely ballad “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (from the album Closing Time, 1973) which tells the story of a near romantic miss in a bar, with the “old shirt stained with blood and whiskey” referenced in “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” just three years later (from Small Change, 1976). In the latter song, the lament “I’ve lost my St. Christopher, now that I’ve kissed her, and the one-armed bandit knows….” You can see the shift toward consequence in the lyrics, but it’s really more important to hear, and engage, the damage in the voice itself. The man is desperately shoving wind through his shredded vocal folds, and they seem reluctant to move, like old, tattered, velvet curtains. The subsequent resonance is unearthly: shaking the bones, searing the viscera, embodying relentless tensions and a tortured history. Enormous symbolic and experiential freight gets hauled into the musical equation in a way that absolutely commands our attention, or forces us to turn away. There is something desperate, and prophetic, in that. You can scorn the scar in the sound, but you cannot ignore it.
So, while he certainly romanticized the alcohol-soaked, vagabond musician image in those early years, he was generally truthful about where it could so often leave you. As he grew older, Waits typically leapfrogged the description of the party to the bitter, desolate after-party. The lyrics—in their themes, stories, and tone—continued to evolve, less concerned with late Friday nights as with the myriad hopes, disappointments, injustices, and indignities (many self-inflicted), of the everyday grind. Ballads of wanderers, real and mythic, mark his stories. He balances prophetic tirades against the abuse of power, hypocrisy, and injustice with humble refrains of confession, weakness, and regret. Between the dark clouds and cold irony, you might find a hymn to beauty, hope, forgiveness. His songs are about us for the most part, but references to God, angels, prophets, saints, apostles, martyrs, demons and devils all hang around, like a low deep fog of witness.
Voice and Grain
Voices are no ordinary sound. They are at once, and always, cultural, biological, semiotic, communicative, and relational phenomena. They demand responses from us that other sounds in the world do not, and their complexities give them an allusive quality of significance distinct from the words they deliver. It was this dimension that the critic Roland Barthes was chasing in his essay “The Grain of the Voice.” Therein, he criticizes the famous tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as being part of the “pheno-text” tradition, where the voice is fully in submission to communication, aspiring to express something of the soul (leaving the body behind), and this annoys him. He contrasts this romantic aesthetic with the “geno-text,” to be found in other singers who don’t elide the trappings of the body:
It is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that signifiance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance. With FD [Fischer-Dieskau], I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.
Well, as specious as Barthes’ understanding of singing technique may be, Tom fits the bill. All that fleshy stuff rattles loudly in Waits, to the point of almost extreme theatricality. Likewise, pitch, duration, intensity/dynamics, timbre—all the stuff of sound—become his playthings, as he willfully abandons anything like “perfection.” He will bend a note or sing off-key, refuse to tune his piano, beat his body into submission and drag his vocal chords through all manner of manipulation to maximize expressivity. He truly is a performance artist this way, trafficking in hyper-affectivity.
Sound as Meaningful
According to the philosopher of sound, Donald Ihde, the story of Enlightenment philosophy is to stress “visualism” as the dominant sensory paradigm, as it suits itself to the sort of “objectivity” and “truth” (i.e., seeing is believing) that Enlightenment thinkers held to be central to their project. The quest to make everything subservient to human reason led to the questioning of all sensory experience, forever placing the “real” in an inaccessible realm, as Democritus presaged it long ago. Ihde argues that the world, in the wake of visualism (that distancing sense, encouraging “objectivism,” autonomy, control and possessiveness), has been “de-vocalized.” Visualism has reduced our relation with the world to subject – object, rather than the natural communion that sound encouraged for so many millennia, when oral cultures were the norm.
Waits, we might argue, through the pronounced quality of his voice, re-vocalizes the world by force. He grabs us by the lapels, and grounds us back into the earth. This is due, in no small part, to the power of sound as meaning, in itself. Again, Ihde argues:
The philosopher, concerned with comprehensiveness, must eventually call for attention to the word as soundful…[A]nd the philosopher, concerned with the roots of reflection in human experience, must eventually also listen to the sounds as meaningful.
What he means is that the sound itself should not be undervalued in the meaning equation. We should not treat sound as merely an “envelope” in which the meaning (the words) is delivered. Sound is a tool, but not merely a tool. Words are meaningful, but not the only meaning. Together, with meaningful sound, they create an aggregate meaning, often complex and rich.
Ihde agrees with the great communication theorist Walter Ong that sound is naturally internal, immersive, and communal. By virtue of the way we experience it, sound is deeply personal because resonates within our bodies (as opposed to the “distanced” sense of sight), though it nearly always necessitates a source of sound outside ourselves.
So, in the typical constitution of our sense of self, and others in relation to us, sound is critical. But beyond the relational dimension, sound also fundamentally defines our world in ways we don’t always recognize. For instance, sound gives us a sense of surfaces (think of the sound of chalk on a chalkboard). It also reveals the “invisible,” through appeal to our imaginative capacities: think of children guessing their birthday presents by shaking boxes and attentively listening. Through sounds…
…the melon reveals its ripeness; the ice its thinness; the cup its half-full contents; the water reservoir, though enclosed, reveals exactly the level of the water inside in the sounding of interiors…. We hear hollows and solids as the interior spatiality of things. We hear the penetration of sound into the very depths of things, and we hear again the wisdom of Heraclitus, ‘The hidden harmony is better than the obvious.’
The term “auscultation” refers to the listening of the inner workings of the throat, heart, and lungs via stethoscope, to identify illness. A more radical instrument is the anechoic chamber, an acoustically manipulated room where noise is almost completely absent. Here, the normally hidden noises of our body – the rasp of the breath, the “buzzing of our nervous system, the interrupted heartbeat”–are made loud. Given the tremors and impediments of the body, so prominent in Waits’ sound, we might see Waits functioning as a type of auscultation, an anechoic chamber wherein we hear the materiality of the human frame, in concert or at war with the breath.
In this light, one of my favorite Waits quotes reveals a deeper meaning: “Ya know, songs are just really interesting things to be doing with the air….”
The creative power of the Hebrew God is word, which is spoken forth as power: from word comes the world. And although God may hide himself from the eyes, he reveals himself in word, which is also event in spite of the invisibility of his being. Human life, too, as the word-breath that unites the human with others and the gods is a life in sound. But if the world is devocalized, then what becomes of listening? Such has been a theological question that has also pervaded our culture.
The Hebrew word for spirit, Ruach, is also the word for breath. If the spirit is breath, Waits is, very often, the death rattle, the last gasp as the body begins to collapse in on the breath. And yet–by sheer will–Waits forces it out, defiantly. In this way, he is like a warrior for messy, authentic life; for real, bodily experience in the world, amid many forces that would package and commodify it, simulate and sell it online.
He also functions in the prophetic mode, like Ezekiel wasting away on his side in the middle of square, hollering, out of his enormous discomfort, how everyone ought to turn around before it’s too late. Waits gives us the whole body, and the fragility of Being, by accentuating and foregrounding the grain of the sound, and it is by sound that he asserts material Being in an age tempted to skip the body altogether.
Just like we can rattle a box to comprehend the dimensions of the “invisible” object inside, so Waits gives us himself, but, in a mimetic/mirroring fashion, he also gives us ourselves in a type of material communion. There is nothing ethereal about this. Waits strong-arms his guts to the surface. Through listening, we absorb those sounds, and achieve a type of material recognizance of the forces (and impediments) at work in making them.
This honesty, prophetic truth, and communion in struggle make his moments of sentiment, reflection, hope and beauty all the more potent when they do appear. For me, Waits is primarily about beauty, a type of ironic, diamond-in-the-rough treasure revealed. When he sings “Ever Since I put your Picture in a Frame,” we hear his scratchy growl in counterpoint with the sweetness of the melody and the lyrical sentiment, creating an endearing portrait of a man in need of reform, who may have found redemption in love:
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Sun come up it was blue and gold
Ever since I put your picture
In a frame.
I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
I come calling in my Sunday best
Every since I put your picture
In a frame
And here, at the best moment of the song (the bridge), he desperately strains upward with all that he has and soars:
I’m gonna love you ‘til the wheels come off.
His voice is pressed and foundering, his pitch is messy, his breath support dying away—his wings are mangled, but, by God, he’s flying—and I really can’t imagine it any other way. Something like a miracle occurs there…materiality and ethereality mingle, like earth and heaven. This is the language, and the sound, of the imperfect vital machine: the human body pushed to the brink, to the edge of the world, existence, the body’s limit, for love, only to arrive at a most improbable grace.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic
For those who dare to set foot on the road of faith, all this talk of materiality, weakness, and the bodily locus of so many meanings points to the Incarnation, the uniquely Christian idea that the Divine Word has taken vulnerable flesh. It also embodies within it, historically, metaphorically, semiotically, the notion that Christ humbled himself; that there was nothing in his appearance to draw us to him. His life was hard, his death was harder, and he was brimming with sympathy for the downcast, the forgotten, the castaway. He came to commiserate, yes, but also to save.
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
(Isaiah 53:2, 11)
“The incarnation changes everything,” wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty, an agnostic and pre-eminent philosopher who unexpectedly found himself arguing for the relevance of Christian thought. In the politically charged climate of 1950s Paris, he served as a great champion of the human body as a perceptual agent, and the locus of human meaning. As his own Marxist confidence waned and his rift with Jean-Paul Sartre widened, he saw the Incarnation in a new light: a doctrine of great power, on numerous levels, culminating in the political essay “Faith and Good Faith.” Though he was not embracing the whole of the faith, he was understanding how his love of the body and his quest for meaning, relation, and knowledge could be summed up in that image of the God-man.
But how does the Incarnation help us understand or love that god-awful sound coming out of Tom Waits? The answer, in part, runs through a redemptive ugliness; an ugliness that finds use and meaning as part of larger redemptive story. In this, Waits is in a time-honored tradition.
There is a church in Bavaria, and above the altar is this crude sculpture:
The Suffering Christ, The Weiskirche, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany
It is generally acknowledged that this image is not only poor craftsmanship, aesthetically, but more than a bit revolting in its horrific and gross corporeal detail: bruises, blood, scars and gaping wounds. Over the centuries, the church guides tell me, there have been numerous attempts to remove this sculpture and replace it with a more sanitary alternative, but the peasants kept revolting and forcibly hauling it back. At one point, tears had been seen upon it, and it became a pilgrimage site. It’s ugly, it’s wounded, it’s broken, it’s dilapidated, and it cries for them. In other words, it’s imperfectly perfect—a material echo of Christ’s divine life and work.
Now, the Apostle Thomas doubted, like the rest of us, and Thomas Waits is no exception: “Unless I put my fingers in his hands, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” But in Waits’ own scars, we sense he has been doing just that:
Cold was the night, hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
Lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She’s too young to be out
On the street.
Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there for
Sometimes, it all seems very hopeless in Tom Waits’ world, but the astute observer will note that the first lines of this song–“Dark was the night, cold was the ground”–is actually an intertextual reference, a dialogue with a very famous, blind, abused and poor bluesman: Blind Willie Johnson.
Blind Willie Johnson
As a poor, blind black man in the 1930s, Johnson really had suffered in unimaginable ways, and yet managed to hold the faith. His song – which was a version of a well known spiritual–went like this:
Dark was the night, and cold the ground
On which the Lord was laid;
His sweat like drops of blood ran down;
In agony he prayed.
”Father, remove this bitter cup,
If such Thy sacred will;
If not, content to drink it up
Thy pleasure I fulfill.
Go to the garden, sinner, see
Those precious drops that flow;
The heavy load He bore for thee;
For thee he lies so low.
Then learn of Him the cross to bear;
Thy Father’s will obey;
And when temptations press thee near,
Awake to watch and pray.
What makes Johnson’s version so special: his voice rivals Waits in its gravelly, shredded quality, and he speaks not a word of this well known spiritual. The lyrics (known and embodied in the oral culture of the African-American community) were already there, hanging in the air. As the they gesture toward the unspeakable, Johnson hums, groans, and incarnates the truths behind the words in remarkable musical interchange with his guitar. Any doubts that Tom Waits expresses in “Georgia Lee” need also to be seen in conversation with the sainted bluesmen who have gone before. In this light, Waits does not simply voice doubt, anger, and struggle, but quests for understanding through evocation of those who struggled before him. “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” Cornel West once said. I’m trying to convince my daughter that what I love in Tom Waits is connected to that Bavarian statue and the groans of Blind Willie Johnson.
Do we see resurrection in Tom Waits? Not quite, it seems, but we do see hope. Even the resurrected Christ–healed, perfect, victorious–bears the scars.
 Found in Image-Music-Text (Stephen Heath, trans.). London: HarperCollins, 1977.
 Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 7-7, 14.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 61, 68.
 Ibid., 71.
 Rice, Tom. “Sounding Bodies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 299.
 Ibid., 81.
 Ibid., 14.
 “Faith and Good Faith,” in Sense-and Non-Sense (Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus, trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964.