9. Tom Waits, Big Time
By now, Tom Waits is so solidly ensconced in the canon of cool music-makers that it can be difficult to remember that the man is something of an acquired taste. I once asked a deejay to play a half-hour straight of Waits’s music on his birthday. She never forgave me. Throughout her remaining tenure at the station, at entirely unpredictable times, she reminded me of how miserable she was during that thirty minutes. Big Time, the first proper live album released by Waits, is fittingly a useful primer on everything that makes the performer beloved to many and agonizing to others. His crumpled poetry and weaving balladeer persona are represented marvelously across the album, and just enough tracks are trying in their crunched gravel galumphing to ratify the shared decision of the unconverted. In other words, it does what it intends to do: provides an overview of Waits some fifteen years into his career and a further strong statement on where he stood at that moment, following three straight revered albums with Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank’s Wild Years (1987).
The album gets underway in nearly ideal fashion, with a romping version of “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six.” It exemplifies the haunted, hallucinatory circus vibe of Waits’s music at the time, the whole song sounding like it emanates from a rusty calliope that’s thrown a few springs. Recorded at two West Coast dates on the tour promoting Frank’s Wild Years, Waits is a creaking dervish of gloomy, theatrical lunacy. He’s a bourbon bottle bard, but he’s also an unmistakable showman. As downbeat as a lot of his music is — while also infused with a battered romanticism — the sensation that comes across most clearly across Big Time is a joy in sharing his gifts, undoubtedly bolstered by a certainty that he was in a stretch that could be viewed as a creative prime. That can occasionally undermine individual songs (“Cold Cold Ground” loses some of the poignant yearning of the original version, found on Frank’s Wild Years), but overall the impression is of an artist in command of his art, which is somewhat at odds with his disheveled image. That schism between the two is one of things that adds a level of fascination beyond what is usually present on the drab tour documents that are live albums.
Still, Big Time is a live album, and it comes with all the inherent flaws that are typical of the form. The album is association with a film of the same name that fills in some of Waits’s charisma which doesn’t fully translate onto record. It’s nice to hear the effusive sputter of “Way Down in the Hole” (on record, Waits introduces it by saying, “I feel as though we should move right into the religious material”) or to get a version of “Rain Dogs” that sounds more than ever before like it was written to specifically accompany a jubilant act of carnival arson. It’s better to see it, too. It becomes truer and more pointed. On record, it’s an echo, more of a memento than an album as artistic statement. Big Time does serve as a nice cap on a meaningful portion of Waits’s career. Another three years passed before his next studio album. That release, Bone Machine, started a whole new era for the artist, one in which the apparent influence of his wife, Kathleen Brennan (now credited as a co-writer on most songs), added extra flint dimensions to the music. Big Time celebrates an important portion of Waits’s career. It also, perhaps unwittingly, sets it out to sea on an ice floe. Compelling changes were on the way.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong