Sunday, December 5, 2010
I've always been a huge fan of Tom Waits, something I gushed on here before.
If you live long enough to have been writing songs for twenty years or more, you learn a few ugly lessons. First, compared to anyone you like, you're maybe not that good. Secondly, much of what you wrote early on in your development (when you were staking your claim to be a real songwriter)was at best inconsequential, that it tried way the hell too hard to be important, and very often it chokes to death on its own self-aggrandizing earnestness. Being forced to listen to a ton of my own early stuff recently wasn't a chore, it's was a sentence. It was the analog to when your mom shows your baby-in-the-tub pictures to your date.
If a songwriter lives long enough, he too often winds up writing the songs he's expected to exactly as you think he would, which is no fun. They write songs the way some people build lawn furniture. Stan Ridgway once told me it's better to suck for a while and come up with new tools for having tried new things than to just behave. Nick Lowe isn't writing "Cruel To Be Kind" much these days, and he sure made a few rough records along the way. But his last few records have been -- for me -- some of the most head turning of the last five years.
Every songwriter who ever broke up with his girlfriend thinks he's got Blood On The Tracks in him. Yeah, well... Some do, some don't.
(Note: Check out Dave Alvin's Museum of Heart or -- shock -- James Taylor's Dad Loves His Work to hear it done very well.)
Tom Waits' development has been unique. Here was a guy that started out -- in the 1970's -- writing songs that came of the most venerated conventional song topics ever. He seemed to have the blood of Stephen Foster, Damon Runyon, Hoagy Carmichael and more running through his songs. But his 1983 Swordfishtrombones seemed to come of a need to shred any typical lyric concerns in favor or a kind of indescribable parade or characters and images. That said, he still kept his feet in the classic American song waters.
"I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is one song that I keep coming to again and again. It came out on his 1992 Bone Machine album, which I think was the only record he made up to that point where there's no piano. How these lyrics went unwritten until the nineties, I'll never know.
Well, when I'm lyin' in my bed at night, I don't wanna grow up
Nothin' ever seems to turn out right, I don't wanna grow up
How do you move in a world of fog, that's always changing things
Makes me wish that I could be a dog
Well, when I see the price that you pay, I don't wanna grow up
I don't ever wanna be that way, I don't wanna grow up
Seems like folks turn into things that they'd never want
The only thing to live for is today
I'm gonna put a hole in my TV set, I don't wanna grow up
Open up the medicine chest, and I don't wanna grow up
I don't wanna have to shout it out
I don't want my hair to fall out
I don't wanna be filled with doubt
I don't wanna be a good boy scout
I don't wanna have to learn to count
I don't wanna have the biggest amount
And I don't wanna grow up
Well, when I see my parents fight, I don't wanna grow up
They all go out and drinking all night, and I don't wanna grow up
I'd rather stay here in my room, nothin' out there but sad and gloom
I don't wanna live in a big old tomb on Grand Street, ooh!
When I see the 5 o'clock news, I don't wanna grow up
Comb their hair and shine their shoes, I don't wanna grow up
Stay around in my old hometown
I don't wanna put no money down
I don't wanna get me a big old loan
Work them fingers to the bone
I don't wanna float a broom
Fall in love and get married, then boom
How the hell did we get here so soon
Well, I don't wanna grow up
Ever since Jackson Browne got on the map by adopting a professional self-congradulatory self-pity, singer-songwriterly introspection seems to have largely replaced anything real in pop songs. A few guys beat the trap (Waits, Dylan, Springsteen, Mayfield) prior to punk rock. The sad fact is that the model by which people some emasculated, broken boy with an accoustic guitar drones on about his latest bad news is the norm. Real sad songs, songs of real loss and true gravitas are rarer now than ever, and they weren't exactly littering the landscape before.
"I Don't Wanna Grow Up" is truly great. It's a song about how hope gets lost in the pursuit of just keeping your shit together. It doesn't congradulate itself itself for its alleged sensitivity. The guy in the song isn't trying to make himself out as a hero nor a victim.
Who needs the biggest amount? Who needs his (her) nerves shredded chasing status? Who needs to be dictated to about what he should want for himself?
Man, why didn't I write this song?