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Credit: RCA

On the streets of Tom Waits’ avant-garde masterpiece ‘Rain Dogs’

In 1982, Tom Waits produced the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From The Heart. His then-record label, Elektra-Asylum, deemed his change in style disastrous and dropped him. He was picked up by Island Records and, as if to rub it in on his former label, he produced three more experimental pieces. They were all greeted with rightful acclaim, none more so than the zenith of the trilogy: Rain Dogs.

While the headline for this piece sports the term avant-garde, Waits’ long-chartered history of capturing tales of the “urban dispossessed” is more akin to the coverage of some ardent gonzo reporter studying the demimonde who has long since lost his subjectivity. Life on the urban outskirts is a maelstrom of manic weirdness in reality let alone when you try to transpose that freak underbelly into song. Thus, whilst Waits’ wonderful sonic kaleidoscope might seem whimsical, it’s merely trying to scribble down the unfurling happenings of the urban underworld with fidelity.

Rain Dogs unspools like a jaunty hatted stout quaffing page nine small story pariah chasing leads down the street, scribbling reportage on a notepad like a demented newsman, only to fling his dogeared jotter back under his trilby when the next surrealist sight ushers his neurotic wandering muse elsewhere. In short, the album is a befitting fracture, frantic and fruitful portrayal of the lowly urban mire at its core.

From a retrospective viewpoint, this style seems like it could be a response to the synth-pop sedation rising up around Rain Dogs when it was released in 1985. This disavowal of sanguine glossed-over tales that had drowned the upbeat era makes Rain Dogs stands out as a point of contrast. However, Waits has never seemed to be this sort of artist — he’s too embalmed in the sultry miasma of his own underground muse to wonder what is happening elsewhere. 

In this regard, the album seems similar to the Velvet Underground’s bruised banana debut. While much jazzier and far less proto-indie, it tells much the same beat-inspired tale of cities. In fact, these comments that David Bowie used to describe early Lou Reed are very fitting for Rain Dogs: “One of them was the use of cacophony as background noise and to create an ambience that had been unknown in rock I think.”

He then added: “The other thing was the nature of his lyric writing which for me just smacked of things like Hubert Selby Jr, The Last Exit from Brooklyn and also John Rechy’s book City of the Night. Both books of which have made a huge impact on me and Lou’s writing was right in that ballpark. It was Dylan who brought a new kind of intelligence to pop songwriting but then it was Lou who had taken it even further and into the avant-garde.”

Much like the Velvet Underground, when approached from the frothing surface, Waits’ record seems like the depths of cultural degeneracy. Upon first listen there is something perturbing about the opening track ‘Singapore’, the perverse dirt of some dingy dive bar is suddenly whisked into unwelcome life. And the dissonance of the down-tuned instruments creates the same vibe as the feeling you get when you visit a pub for the first time that you feel you don’t belong in. 

After a while, as the album sprawls out, it becomes clear that indeed there are certain bars unfit for every person. The seafarers reside in the realm of sea-shanties down by the quay, while the arty rejects do their best Humphrey Bogart impression in the sepia bars where ‘Time’ rings out, and the friskier fellows sling back Havana cocktails in the sweaty ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’. Every cobbled stone is touched upon in Rain Dogs and it results in a masterful album that plays more like a book than a usual twelve inch, and what a read it proves to be!

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