Think Music: Nicky Beer on Tom Waits

Today’s guest blogger is Nicky Beer, author of  The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon Press 2010) and coeditor of Copper Nickel.

It’s hard for me to write about Tom Waits. He’s influenced my writing in so many ways that it’s hard to pick out a single thread to concentrate on. And since I’ve been a fan for twenty years, it’s similarly difficult to address him without devolving into autobiography; I started listening to him shortly after my dad died and was already stretching out countless emotional tentacles to fill that void of masculine influence in my life. Even the way that I first heard him, via a mix tape given to me by a drifter junkie with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles, could qualify as a lyric from Waits’ oeuvre. However, for the sake of succinctness, I’ll make the herculean effort to limit myself to addressing Waits’ use of persona.

In a recording career that has spanned three decades, Waits has proved himself a virtuoso of not only taking on radically different musical styles—jazz, country and western, gospel, Broadway musical, Beat scat pastiche, blues rock—but assuming distinct personae for these styles as well. In “Eyeball Kid,” a percussive shout-fest on his Grammy-winning 1999 album Mule Variations, Waits sings from the point of view of the manger of a freak show sensation whose entire physical being consists of one eye: I know you can’t speak, I know you can’t sign, so cry right here on the dotted line. In a related song on an earlier album, he vaudevilles as “Tabletop Joe,” a Coney Island piano prodigy who, inexplicably, is “born without a body.” Through persona, we become acquainted with the bizarre family of the speaker in “Cemetery Polka”: Uncle Bill will never leave a will, and the tumor is as big as an egg, has a mistress, she is Puerto Rican, and I hear she has a wooden leg. In his numerous studio albums, Waits has also sung from the point of view of an elderly paramour in “Martha,” an child addressing a neighborhood friend stricken by polio in “Kentucky Avenue,” a paranoid, nosy neighbor in “What’s He Building in There?” and a homesick soldier in the anti-war ballad “The Day After Tomorrow.”

For a teenage weirdo sometimes-poet living in Long Island suburbia, the cumulative lesson imparted by all of these personae is that it’s imagination, rather than personal circumstance, that makes one a writer. The fact that you may be a short, unpopular endomorph doesn’t mean a goddamn thing when you’re making art—and may even mean that you’re going to have a hell of a lot more fun than all the well-groomed, pretty people out there.

Other favorite characters of mine from the catalogue include the down-on-his-luck Vegas sleaze bag in “Mr. Siegel”(I shot the morning in the back, put my Red Wings on, told the sun it better go back down. And if I can find a book of matches, I’m gonna burn this hotel down.), the tough-guy, Southern gothic avenger in “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”(I’m gonna whittle you into kindling.), the Brechtian carnival barker with an improbably bad French accent on the title track of The Black Rider album (I theenk I’ll have ze veal—a luvvvvlee meal! Zat’s how I feel—oh, may I use your skull for a bowl?), and the broken, wistful eponymous correspondent in “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” (Charlie, I’m pregnant, livin’ on 9th Street above a dirty bookstore on Euclid Avenue). As countless others have observed, Waits makes a habit of representing those voices that are on the margins, from the depths. He does this without any overt political agenda or self-righteousness, though his lyrics can tend towards the romantic and the macabre. But overall, the message of these songs seems to be that, if you’re doing it right, you can let the voices speak for themselves without any superfluous commentary. It’s a reminder that the expression of the individual voice, regardless of its message, is an inherently political act.

The use of persona exposes the self through the subterfuge of concealment. Waits isn’t summarized by any one of these voices any more than I am through any single poem I write, even the ones that appear to be most intimate and autobiographical. But in the sum total of his work and mine, I believe we’re there, our true selves as clearly delineated as an anatomical diagram.

From Waits, I’ve learned that every poem is—whether explicitly or implicitly—an exercise in persona. When I’m writing, I’m not just trying to get the words right, I’m trying to represent the specific voice that’s speaking them in my head as well. I’m reluctant to characterize this as a kind of possession, or to suggest that the writer is a kind of medium, using her keyboard as a trumped-up Ouija board. Nor do I care to think of it as a kind of madness, as the idea’s a little too glib, and certainly trivializes the real condition of mental illness. It’s simply that there are voices that show up and, for some inexplicable and blessed reason, only you can hear them. They’ve got something to say, so you’ve gotta do right by them.


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