Sunday, April 20, 2008

Book Review: 33 1/3 - Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones by David Smay

For better or worse, the entries in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series have a reputation of being serious, analytical, and largely humorless studies of various classic albums. While this approach is likely loved by an artist’s most dedicated fans ("100 pages about the musical techniques and literary themes of Double Nickels On The Dime? Sign me up"), it does run the risk of making the series inaccessible for casual music fans.

All of which makes David Smay’s take on Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones the bastard stepchild in the Continuum family. Simply put, Smay’s book is a great read for both serious Rain Dogs and casual music fans. It’s also damn funny. Taking a traditional approach by structuring his book according to the album’s songs, the end result is far from typical for 33 1/3: Smay is informative without being overly didactic and humorous without being overly snarky.

While the primary focus of Smay's book is Swordfishtrombones, he also manages to cover the various themes and styles that have characterized Waits’ music over the years in a unique way. Although the book is ordered according to the album’s songs, Smay expands the book’s scope to cover far more than just the album. In this way, his discussion of the song “Dave the Butcher” shows how images of slaughterhouses and butchers recur throughout several of Waits' songs. Likewise, Smay uses the song “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six” as a starting point for an interesting take on how images of crows and mules are used in various Waits songs. Sure it’s kinda geeky, perhaps even borderline psychotic, but an entire series of books that chronicle every burp and gaseous emission of an album is pretty geeky and psychotic.

Smay's book also partly serves as a non-chronological biography of Waits' life, and especially of the various creative, absurd, and laughably ridiculous myths and tall tales the musician has crafted and that some fans and critics have accepted as fact. Smay gets into these biographical details without coming across like a sleazy tabloid journalist or mediocre blogger writing a review of his book. He discusses the role of wife Kathleen Brennan in Waits’ life, and how various true-life details have found their way into the songs. The character in “Eyeball Kid” from Mule Variations has the same birthday as the singer, the Uncle Vernon referenced in “Cemetery Polka” is actually Waits’ uncle, and perhaps most despairingly, the Mathilda referenced in “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is based on a Danish singer who Waits drank with right around the time he hurled on his shoes. Smay also creates some new Waits myths; according to Smay, the musician “was born September 8, 1683, during the siege preceding the Battle of Vienna.” Sure it’s pure BS, but it works; in a clever way, Smay shows the reader both how Waits has essentially fabricated an alternative biography and how the various songs mix historical details and characters with wild fiction.

In many ways Smay’s book is actually a better study of Waits’ music and life than the few recent (and much longer) biographies. The major elements of Waits’ music, and how many of those elements originated with Swordfishtrombones, are all addressed with a mixture of well-researched information and hilarious anecdotes and interpretations. Smay doesn’t use boring, technical terms when describing the songs; instead, a song like “Underground” is explained as “black-hammered bastardy…Timed precisely to the throb in your temples, this may be one of the ten worst songs to wake up to with a hangover…somebody’s just dropped a toolbox on your head.” Unconventional perhaps, but this approach works.Waits fans will find plenty to like here. Even the most grizzled Rain Dog (you know the one…he wears his “Blue Valentines” t-shirt proudly and screams for “The Piano Has Been Drinking” at every Waits concert he attends) will find this an enlightening, engaging, and humorous read.

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