Tom Waits is a fellow who knows his way around a story like Harry Houdini knew his way around locks. Whether it’s the whimsical postmodernist wonder of ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ or the wistful reminiscence of ‘Martha’, his songbook is crammed with crooked, cobbled tales lassoed from the whims of his own wavering imagination. Simply put, he is a master of poetic narrative in song.
Thus, the idea of Waits wading into short story territory has always been a titillating one. This literary dream came to the fore ten years ago when “Jeff Antebi, the founder of music publisher Waxploitation, had an idea to ask his favourite music artists and favourite contemporary painters to come together and collaborate on original children’s stories for a benefit project.”
Waits paired up with his wife Kathleen Brennan to take on the weirdest circus in town. Starring Horse-faced Ethel and Her Marvelous Pigs in Satin alongside the magical saw player Mighty Tiny and his mouthful of gold teeth, this is a travelling show like no other. Swirling in a kaleidoscope of manic imagery, Waits and Brennan weave a wandering tale of a mausoleum of characters fit for the perusal of the fabled Robert Ripley. Less of a narrative tale and more of an odditorium of juggling misfits in written form, Waits remains as unburdened by the need to have an ending as he always has been.
However, that only makes the tale all the more adventurous. And this escapist feel is added to all the more by the immersive animation of Joe Coleman’s original paintings and the gruff timbre of legendary outsider jazz artist Ken Nordine on narration duties. Purring and swirling, these words and images are brilliantly brought to life in the animation.
As Waits once said himself, “My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane.” That notion has always been apparent in his wandering songbook, and it was certainly never going to stray when he entered fiction in a more traditional sense with his high-wire circus tale.
No matter how bizarre his tales may seem, with Waits, there is also a sense that he has dragged them up from the dogeared depths of the demimonde to deliver them like long lost parcels on a forgotten postal route. As he also said himself, “If you’re a writer, you know that the stories don’t come to you – you have to go looking for them. The old men in the lobby: that’s where the stories were.” You can check out the lobby lifted tale of the Circus below.