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Nick Coleman on Tom Waits

2022: For I am an ear-dog too: the ballad of Tom Waits

This summer and autumn I have been enjoying the last knockings of my residual auditory function. I am going completely deaf quite quickly now, after fifteen years of managing well enough with just one ear. I lost the other one overnight in 2007. It was a dreadful trauma at the time and for some years afterwards, but I learned how to cope and then to manage and then to enjoy what remained, which is about the best you can hope for when the world reaches you from all directions at once in mono.

The latest calamity began in August of this year for no apparent reason; and now, in early December – in the absence of any successful medical interventions over the four months since August – the time has come at last for me to contemplate the inevitable. It's all over, I think. Finished. I am occasionally reached by a scurf of distorted sound from the outside world but mostly my head is filled with its own crushing bilateral tinnitus: the noise your brain generates when it can't figure out why it isn't receiving a decent range of input signals from a traditional source, such as the good old world out there. The tinnitus is very loud indeed, an electrical storm confined within the bowl of the cranium. It rages. I try to stay calm.

This means of course that, along with the voices of others, the punctuations of birdsong, the song of pneumatic drills and the existentially comforting tap of my own two walking feet, music is now a thing of the past. It's hard to imagine what that's going to be like, or how I will cope, but it's a reality I will have to accept somehow.

It has been a disorderly withdrawal. As summer gradually faded, I was able to listen to a little music off and on, very sparingly, until the leaves began to fall, and then rhythm, melody and harmony together in any sort of useful or attractive form became completely inaccessible some time in November – a diminishing squirt of detuned, arhythmic, bubbling noise. And now, rather than turn away from music altogether, I stare into space a lot and listen intently to the barrage that stands between me and it. There is a reason for this – a compelling reason. The reason is that there's someone else in there too, occupying that rowdy space inside me. It's a man, a slightly alarming one. What is he doing in there? Why is he singing (if you can call it singing)? He keeps singing the same thing over and over again, stentorian as a house dog barking at intruders.

"I shot the morning in the back with my Red Wings on", he ruffs. "Told the sun he'd better go back down..."

This strange auditory spectre appeared, uninvited, a couple of weeks ago, as the hurricane was blowing a little less aggressively than it does now. Suddenly, I became aware of a voice singing into the weather. Well, bellowing actually; bellowing against the storm. It was hashing out a tune I recognised, and with startling persistence – not so much an earworm as an eardog.

"Odd time to get an eardog", I thought, despite knowing full well that there is no such thing as an odd time for eardogs, or worms. Eardogs (and worms) are only too happy to present themselves at any time you might reasonably be caught unawares.

And call him what you will, eardog or auditory hallucination (but not worm), this man inside me obviously was not going anywhere. Unlike an earworm, an eardog is an auditory hallucination, which is distinct from a worm in neurological definition and very different to experience, expressing as it does the illusion of an intruding physical entity within the sealed infinity of your inner space. So I played along with this slightly aggressive presence, fully aware from prior encounters that neither dog nor worm are biddable. They come and they depart at their own choosing; they are not amenable to DJ requests. They are in fact the unwanted children of that great pattern-seeking organ, the brain, as it conducts its researches into what may or may not be going on within its own auditory cloister. It should be emphasised, by the way, that both eardogs and worms are considered to be essentially neurological phenomena, not psychological (of the two of them, only the canine qualifies as a phenomenon-of-interest to that most rarefied and liminal of all medico-scientific disciplines, neuro-psychology). And neither brain tic is subject to the governance of either our proprietary feelings or our sense of taste – that elevated array of things we choose to like because of the person that we are, or think we are, or would like to be.

That's what the science says, and it's what I thought for years too. But the raucous voice I heard bellowing in my cranium this autumn did not feel autonomic and neurological to me. He seemed somehow hotly invested and of my party. He was not facing down the tempest at any request of mine, yet he did appear to be acting on my behalf, aggressively, tenaciously, like a most loyal dog. What was he doing in there, woofing at my meteorology in a way that I, the legitimate owner-occupier of my head, could not?

"So tell me, brave cap-tain", the voice roared, "why are the wick-ed... so strong..."

It was Tom Waits of course, shouting astride his Dionysian New Orleans-style R&B lurcher "Mr Siegal", off 1980's Heartattack and Vine (a beloved song off a favourite album). And his purpose appeared to be to drive the hurricane down with funk and snarl – until he abruptly changed his approach after a few days and started singing ballads and lullabies. Tragic, pitiful, soaring slow hymns to the broken self.

Why, thank you, brave captain.

And he stuck around. He was still in there a couple of weeks later, running through his repertoire of slow melodies, night and day after day after night, drenched and windswept but holding his end up manfully until he began to fade, perhaps slightly wearily, along with the last vestiges of the hearing he was attempting to defend with his hoarse bludgeon. He's gone now. Can't hear him at all. It's all just weather in my dome and not a soul is trying to sing it down anymore, which is why I suspect that the end is close. Even Old Tom's given up now. Don't blame him. There must be easier gigs.

Nevertheless, I am rather charmed by the notion that, when put to it, the mind-brain axis of my inner-ear defence network summoned Old Tom and not one of my other musical staples. I have loved Waits's music since I was seventeen or eighteen years old, and sometimes with a quite irregular passion, as if his strangeness were somehow matrix-linked to my own – that very small and inconsequential strangeness that may one day be found in me, like foreign currency in a dead man's pocket.

This is something I've become ever more preoccupied with over the years – not my strangeness but the active role played by music in the evolutions of individual lives, neither as a passing amusement, nor as invisible furniture, nor even in its familiar contemporary get-up as a socio-political signpost, but as an adjustable property of the self. I like above all to consider music for its psychological grip: the way it attaches and binds and illuminates aspects of the listener's sense of selfhood. "What's it been doing in here?" is the question I always want to ask of the music I've liked.

As for Tom Waits... He, more than any other, gave vivid voice, heft and a certain thickness of language to the sense of grief I started to carry as an exalted mid-to-late adolescent in the late Seventies; grief not for any one particular loss as such but grief as an abiding tone, an inkling, a fixed presentiment of what life was going to contain as a matter of course. The desperate ache of "Tom Traubert's Blues" did not, as it turned out, figure in me as a foreshadowing of future addiction, victimhood and loneliness but it did seem to express the lineaments of an already-existing pain, as yet abstract in form, that would make itself readable at last when adulthood came, because that's what life is – the wound that will never heal.

Similarly, when "Ruby's Arms" materialised in 1980 and I would find myself sinking into its lushly agonised coils late at night with a spliff in one limp hand and a discarded volume of, oh, Pinter on the floor, then I was not indulging my longing for the inaccessible girl of the moment but dwelling in the sure anticipation that pretty soon, when I was no longer an adolescent fool, adult life would begin and it would entail countless repetitions of the long, wilful, weathering walk away from Ruby – because that’s what life is when you grow up: a fugitive walk away into pain that is hopefully less difficult to endure than the pain you have just left behind; plus other stuff.

In other words, Waits achieved the remarkable feat – virtually untraceable in the music of my other teenage heroes – of presenting adulthood as a real place you were going to fetch up, whether you liked it or not, and not as a place to be resisted or ignored or fulminated against. At nineteen, the sheer grief of living used to freeze me sometimes and I would stick on "Kentucky Avenue" or "Tom Traubert" or "Invitation to the Blues" or "Burma Shave" or, perhaps the truest of them all, "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis", and somehow the feeling of unmitigable sorrow would soften and the unhealable wound would close itself gently, at least for a while. I have thought that Tom is the greatest writer of slow songs in postwar music since then. He has also stood as the figure who single-handedly warrants the feeling in my bones that I just don't need Bruce Springsteen.

And here he is yelling on my behalf at the end of all things, as my very means of connecting with him (and with every other jag of music I've loved and depended upon) is finally severed and I am uplifted by the fierce sadness of his songs in memory alone – no longer even a hallucination. He is standing by me at the end, but silenced now, the old contraposturer, not quite as I used to imagine him doing when I was a young man, but true as a dog nevertheless; and I am amazed to find that the grief in those songs still translates, even in a high wind. It's the same grief. I can feel that it is, even if I can't actually hear it in the good old world.


Is it possible to rank and categorise a creation as allusive yet overwhelmingly idiosyncratic as a Tom Waits ballad? You can certainly try – but before long you begin to feel the push-back: the sense conveyed by the songs themselves that artistic creation is above all things a great cry against the brute attentions of category and order, as, for a couple of weeks this past autumn, Waits's work, his sound and his fury stood as a bastion in my stormy brain against the death of my hearing. The push-back is real and quite intimidating. But hell, I am a stubborn cuss too and I don't care anymore. So I had a go at sorting them out and this is what I resolved.

It began as an enquiring post on Facebook, I am not in the least ashamed to say – and developed quite quickly into a substantial thread. It seemed that everyone I "know" in that artificial infinity wanted to talk about voyages undertaken on their favourite Waits slow boat. But the law of copyright conveniently dictates that, on this occasion, in this place, you only get to read my thoughts.

"Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis"

I have been casting around for dull reasons of my own as to which might be the greatest of all Tom Waits ballads. And the current leader is this, the fourth of his slow songs after "Tom Traubert's Blues", "Invitation to the Blues" and "Burma Shave" to cleave me in twain when I was a grief-stricken teen (in truth it is more akin to a Gospel anthem than a ballad – just imagine it being sung by a choir that claps and sways, in bouncing double time).

Has there ever been a more beautifully worked dramatic reveal and twist in a sad – no, not sad... in such a fully tragic song? Or a more genuinely plausible one? Or a more cogent demonstration of creative empathy? Yes, Waits is acting as he sings but he's also really going there as he acts, because the feeling that gnaws in Tom – for the broken and the rejected – is real.

And what is he acting? The presumption is, when you first hear it, that he's acting the role of the hooker in Minneapolis, as she writes the eponymous festive greeting to Charlie (an old boyfriend or john?), spinning the yarn that she hopes will trigger his compassion. But it became apparent to me, after a long period (maybe a couple of decades) of earnest envelopment in this brilliantly outlined and shaded scenario, that what we're listening to is not the hooker herself but Charlie reading the Christmas card out loud to himself, perhaps for the fifth time, maybe the fiftieth, thinking and feeling and pondering and trying to make up his mind – and above all experiencing the feeling of having feelings.

Well, how do you like that?

"Whistle Down the Wind"

When you're stuck on Waits balladry, you're stuck not only on feeling but on form. And it's worth contemplating for a few seconds the possibly heinous thought that, as the Chorale was to JS Bach, so has been the big, sentimental, booming ballad to Capellmeister Tom – a solid, weight-bearing buttress in the structure of a cantata/album; a melodic haven to escape to from the incessant rapping/recitative required by both Waitsian and oratorio-style story-telling; a deep and shapely cathartic sump in which to drain off the emotions of the moment; and a shed in which to keep stuff. (Maybe not the last one.)

The ballad is where Waits goes to both explore and demonstrate his interest in form in its relationship with emotion. It's where we go to wallow. Johann Sebastian would surely dig Tom's vibe – and he, like Tom with his ballads, composed Chorales as easily as he did anything in life.

Much of my week has been expended far from idly on the desire to figure out which was the best Waits ballad of them all, Tom being my preferred composer of sumptuously emotional slow songs which suck you into their bosom like Grandma used to.

Sometimes he goes too far – as Bach can sometimes be too formulaic. And, in view of this slight unreliability, I am never convinced as to where "Whistle Down the Wind" belongs in the canon. It fits just dandily into the abrasive pummel-and-clank which is 1992's Bone Machine – a savage album that needs its balladry like we all need air. But if you can get past "Whistle"'s enchanting 19th-century parlour melody, its gorgeous pedal-steel descant and the fact that Waits sings it as if eating a desperately overdue meal – slowly, savouring every syllable in the fetid cave of his mouth as if it were a bursting bubble of his favourite taste – you have to concede that it is boilerplate Tom. It's the stuff he dishes out as easily as breathing. Lookee here, sirrah: yet another woebegone fugitive upon the road again at a poetic time of day – and he's all engulfed by the world as it really, really is: one big fucking beautiful poem.

I ask leave only to question this notion of the world.

But there are towering moments, as there always are. I don't know why it is such a clobberer, but it is, the line about the dog and the wagon of rain – but it may well be that we have actually been softened up by the one that precedes it, and the way he sings it...

"Well, the sky is red and the world is on fire

And the corn is taller than me

And a dog is tied to a wagon of rain

And the road is wet as the sea...”

It's the corn being taller than him – gets me every time. This is the chink in the fabric of the song (and there's always one) where Waits admits the feeling of being a child: helpless, small, vulnerable, alone. And he always goes there, even in his boilerplate stuff – the highest class of boilerplate you could ever hope to encounter, incidentally – and he always takes you with him, even though you're not sure you really want to go.

"Georgia Lee"

It's usually the case that Waits ballads are easy to get on board with, to climb inside and make yourself comfy in the upholstery, with a hipflask of some outmoded alcoholic beverage and a chaser of distilled lachrymae. But not this one. This one usually makes me feel sick.

It is conventional that the big rounds of applause, where Mule Variations ballads are concerned, are reserved for "Take It With Me" – and quite right too: it really is one of the great songs of resignation and binding love. I'm with you all the way on that; wouldn't be averse to having it played at my funeral too. But "Georgia Lee" makes me want to hurl, and that's a special quality for a desperately sad, quiet song to have about the killing of a small girl.

Mark you, this is not the emesis of moral indignation or of gagging horror – although those two things are in the area, so to speak. No, this is the queasiness that arises when perspectives shift, the world tips and it becomes difficult to find one's footing in the scenario as it is unfolded. Old Tom is playing a clever game here: he wants you to recognise that learning the fate of Georgia Lee is not about finding the correct place to stand on the matter, or the right posture to adopt. It's about learning the ropes; about being there, in Nature, and feeling the contiguity of everything that is. The terrible complicity of everything in the enactment of this crime, including God's blind eye.

To that end, and without changing his voice, Waits swaps positions to tell the story cubistically, one position after another, seamlessly in the tinkling musicality of a lullaby. Four times he does it: a reporting, tutting, canting neighbour; then Georgia's mom, Ida, who was unable to stop the little girl from running wild (for God probably does know what reason); Georgia herself, playing hide and seek with her killer, excruciatingly, unaware of what she was inviting upon herself; and finally, the sanctimonious, parsing voice of Nature itself, who insists, without actually saying as much, that Georgia had it coming because Georgia was herself, ineluctably, a part of Nature.

I also want to throw up because I have a daughter (who was born within a year of Mule Variations and very nearly named Georgia) and that ties me in too. Waits is merciless. I literally never hear this song without some form of metabolic upheaval, and it nearly always ends in tears. And so it should.

"Down There by the Train"

As a much younger chap I nursed a feeling that the reason I didn't get on very well with Bruce Springsteen had something to do with Tom Waits; that I couldn't be doing with the former chiefly because the latter existed and took the space in my psyche that might otherwise have belonged, in the late 1970s and '80s, to the muscular Jersey revivalist. As if everyone has an inner space reserved to the accommodation of one or the other of them; as if Tom and Bruce were strictly either/or.

As usual I was missing the point – but not for once by much. The truth is that I don't get on with Springsteen because he's so, well, so relentlessly Springsteeny, and Bruce just can't help his noble self. He's a rescuer, a minister, a saviour, a cop; a spiritual paramedic with an uplifting solution for the erring soul, along with the usual splints and dressings. This is not what I require from rock 'n' roll, though Springsteen's large and persisting success as both high priest of a certain kind of wholesome rock performance/ritual and, to a lesser degree, as a shifter of hard product indicates that that is precisely what many folk do require from rock, at least some of the time. He's really good at it and wholly believable too, if you feel the need to believe. And a central feature of that mission is his search for the hero inside the misunderstood, the misled and the disregarded, as well as within himself. He is an inverter of sin. Whump! And he's got a great big backbeat in his toolbox with which to bash the door down and then nail your problem, whatever it is. He is wholesome. He is Ideal Dad.

Waits, on the other hand is always looking for... well, what have you got? What is there to be seen? What have I got to hide? Where is my shame? How low can I go? What's that man DOING in there? Old Tom, with his cranky, fractured beats (or his earlier pressing swing), is on the snoop for broken things because that's where the humanity is, in all its tragic weirdness. It is not his purpose to rescue souls or hero-ise them but to observe their suffering and give the suffering a name and a place. Simple as that. The suffering is the point of interest, not how you rescue the sufferer. Tom wants to touch the wounds.

For this reason, his melancholy is profound and inherent, and a sound basis for his natural curiosity about those broken things. And if he ever wrote a slow, bawling song that gave literal place to suffering and to nothing else, then this is it: "Down There By The Train", a song that rescues not a single sinner by its own muscular force or through its ability to uplift souls by other means, but does provide a location for them to be washed in the blood of the Lamb – not, please note, because sinners are folk endowed with a special gift for finding the hero inside themselves but because they're sinners and sinners are people too.

“There’s no eye for an eye

There’s no tooth for a tooth

I saw Judas Iscariot carrying

John Wilkes Booth...”

It's those old Gospel changes again, profaned. Waits sings this one with a sense of worldly empathy so supercharged it's almost a grind. And it's almost frightening – how cold it is down there by the train, how cold, barren and bereft where you wait in the chill to be washed of your sins. And in this unrefined demo he bawls and vomits up emotion, makes a horrible blues-mess of the final cadences, as if any hint of redemption into grace were not his gift to give. Not today, not ever. In the end, of course, he arraigns himself.

And that's why I like Tom so much. He's not there to show you the way to the higher ground and perhaps boost his own spiritual standing by offering you a helping hand to get there. No indeed. Tom has come to scuff around on the ground you're sitting on, and then to squat down beside you in the firelight in the squalor, to look you in the eye – and to really see you. That's both curiosity and compassion you can see in his hesitating, downcast, flickering gaze.

And glory be, I think I now know which, for me, is the greatest Waits ballad of them all, and why.

It's "Christmas Card from A Hooker in Minneapolis". But the top table is crowded, certainly busier than any other table given houseroom by any other instinctual ballad composer I can think of in the postwar era.

Here are the diners at that table, in some sort of rough but not hugely significant order: "Christmas Card...", "Georgia Lee", "Ruby's Arms", "Tom Traubert's Blues", "Time", "Down There By the Train". At a smaller trestle not far away are also lodged "Kentucky Avenue", "Take It With Me", "Invitation to the Blues" and "Burma Shave" – though the first three keep edging "Burma" off the bench on the grounds that he isn't really a ballad at all.

But hey, we're all sinners here. Cut the fella some slack.


A couple of days after Tom stopped singing – and the day after I'd completed the first draft of what you've just read – I started to throw up with startling violence, and to lose my composure as well as my balance. A couple of days subsequent to that, following the desperate exploitation of a communications backchannel, I found myself in the clinic of an ENT doctor I both respected and trusted, who had previously looked after my auditory rehab for some years and had agreed, within hours of my furtive appeal for help, to see me as an emergency appointment. She patiently went through the case notes emitting an occasional sigh as she read, while bouncing gently on her chair. My tired old hearing aid, turned up to eleven, squealed an inelegant descant.

"Nick", she said at last, slowly and ever so clearly, "I am sorry to say that I think there has been a misdiagnosis. I don't know what you've been through over the past four months but it must have been difficult, I can see that." I spread my palms as if to say, "Well, yes, to put it mildly..."

"I rather imagine you thought your auditory function was doomed..."

"I certainly did", I said, overloudly. "I actually said goodbye to it formally on three separate occasions."

"But I think you should be encouraged by this", she continued, brightening, yet still enunciating very carefully. "The really good thing is that you should not expect to lose all your hearing – and I rather think that you might even get most if not all of it back pretty much intact – just on the one side, of course..."

Satisfied that I'd got the headlines, she then offered a barely intelligible explication of the evidence for misdiagnosis, and for her preferred interpretation of August's testing. The new approach would entail the immediate lifting of the sledgehammer drug regime that I had been subject to over the past four months and its replacement with a much gentler course of medication.

"It will be slow because the dose will have to be moderate due to other factors... and you will have to be patient ­– but I think we'll get there."

I looked at her face, twinkling behind its plastic covid visor. Appreciated her "we". Looked at the floor. I felt an impulse to burst into tears but the implacable howling inside my head ensured that it did not happen. I digested the news. So: I did not after all have Autoimmune Disease of the Inner Ear. No longer would I be required to prostrate myself at regular intervals in wards full of pallid, weary-looking individuals, tubed up like me to have their vascular systems flooded with day-long infusions of immune-suppressing monoclonal antibodies. My body was not, after all, attacking itself cruelly at the cellular level with killer proteins. Instead – and indeed all along – the war being conducted inside my head, which had been teasing out its gradual destruction of my hearing with games of auditory peek-a-boo, was not in fact warfare at all, but an electrical storm trapped in the teacup of my vestibular system. We were dealing with an exceptionally bad case of Chronic Migraine of the Inner Ear.

Rare as hens' teeth, or so they say.

A day or two later – now only ten days before Christmas – the implacable howling was suddenly infiltrated by what appeared to be a Russian Orthodox choir, singing "Silent Night" with mutinous dignity and resolution, over and over again. The choir was actually there, beards and all, in my head; and it kept me up half the night. Then, when I woke the next morning, the same carol was being sung by a rather less stately choral outfit, one not unlike the choir I used to sing in when I was a choirboy fifty years ago; less stately and much less beardy. And then, after another rough sleep, a huge Baroque choir with fat ladies and screeching tenors in dinner jackets took over – before reverting to the Russians... And so it went on day after day, choir after choir, "Silent Night" after "Silent Sodding Night". I contained them all as if I were a properly ecumenical Anglican church. And on Christmas morning, after close to two weeks' ingestion of my mild new medication in a moderate dose, I woke to silence. Well, close to silence. There was no howling wind in my head, just the hiss of the old, low-level, long-established tinnitus in my dead right ear, like a bleeding radiator, and the rasp of my wife's sleeping breath in the left. My favourite kind of silence, the kind you can really hear.

We had music on all Christmas day, but not Christmas music. It wasn't all Tom Waits either. The music was whatever music I wanted to hear in the moment of desiring it – and no one in my family seemed to mind in the slightest. In fact, they encouraged me and then watched me listen.


Five days later, five short days of incontinent joy, I woke to the sound of a fuzzy breeze. By breakfast it had swollen into a fuzzy wind, soon matched in one ear by a foghorn lowing in the other. I spent the day battening down hatches and tethering myself to immoveable objects. And all day the wind got itself up and up. By the time of the countdown to New Year the storm had arrived in full force, and I was unable to hear a thing.

Well, maybe a little. Just a bit.

More than a bit. I could hear my feet when I kicked things.

Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.

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