Social media has made birthdays the time to remember old friends. So those who might have noticed that Tom Waits turned 67 on Wednesday could have used it as a chance to re familiarize themselves with his unique (understatement) style of music. Depending on where you start, there’s a chance your first reaction might be, “holy crap, he turned that into a music career?” To which the answer would be. No, he turned that into a music career, an acting career and more.
Tom’s history, however, is not the main subject of this article. That’s what Wikipedia is for (they’re seeking much needed donations now, by the way). Up for examination is how well Tom’s music would fare if he were starting out today. More specifically, what would happen if he went up against all the other talent that is out there on shows like The Voice?
Odds are, when you started refamiliarizing yourself with Tom Waits, you landed on something that more resembled gutteral croaking than singing. Assign all the words you want – deep, scratchy, haunting – none of them do justice to its uniqueness. What does come to mind for me, however, is surprise in that someone’s vocal chords could actually sustain that style over the course of a concert, let alone an entire career.
Let’s go there, to that deepest place in Tom’s vocal range, as demonstrated in “Rain Dogs” from 1985 on the album of the same name.
Now, imagine that voice on The Voice. Set aside the theatrics for a moment. After all, in the blind auditions, the four coaches have their backs to the musician. Just focus on the song. Imagine he’s on stage, and he starts howling like a wolf. Then, he goes right into singing in a voice that sounds like the same old wolf. Twenty seconds in, he’s still in his wolf voice, and the audience is in stitches. No coaches’ chairs have turned. Then, at the phrase “huddle a doorway with the raindogs,” his tone changes to that of an evil Popeye. The camera zooms in on Adam Levine who raises an eyebrow.
That’s the moment, all of a sudden, when anyone who appreciates the beauty in anything different is going to root for Tom Waits.
Turn your chair around, Adam, some of you will say out loud. Yet, just as many of you will still be stuck wondering if this is really music? You’ll remember all the elegant voices that came before him, and want to save a spot for all of those that will come after him. You’ll think of how, when the judges have said in seasons past that they’re looking for “distinctive” voices, they didn’t really mean anything like this.
While you’re lost in thought, Adam will press his button. He’ll turn around and see Tom Waits, crouched on The Voice stage, wearing his signature hat and feigning bench presses with the microphone stand. Adam will laugh and clap once. He’ll turn to Blake Shelton, who just shakes his head at him like he’s as crazy as the voice they’re hearing.
Then, about a minute in, something else happens. Tom sings “we’ll never be going back home,” and there’s a purity in the line that ends with an actual trill of the voice on “home.” Blake does another shake of his head, this one quicker: a double-take. Before the camera pans out from the close-up, Miley Cyrus and Alicia Keys have simultaneously turned their chairs. Within a minute of the first howl, all four coaches are facing the artist.
Because that’s what Tom Waits is – an artist. As the season progresses, that becomes abundantly clear. In the battle round, he convices coach Adam (who he chose because he found the gap in their vocal ranges amusing) to let him use a megaphone to sing about “Chocolate Jesus” (released on his 1999 album Mule Variations and shown here on the Letterman show).
Spoiler alert: he beats out the “country singer with the perky voice” from Nashville.
In the knockout round, he grunts out “God’s Away on Business.”
In the post-song banter, Alicia imitates him.
The ship is sinking.
The ship is sinking.
The ship is sinking.
Yet it isn’t. He beats out the “flawless Latin artist who used to sing backup for C&C Music Factory.”
In the final live show, it culminates in the unexpected. Even Tom Waits himself might not have planned for this. Yet there he is, on stage, subdued, not the same man who pranced around all season, bench pressing the microphone stand, using a megaphone and wearing down several vocal chords getting to that final night. The stage is dark, and all you see is a silhouette of Tom’s hat. The lights come up just enough to make him out, seated at a piano…which the audience hasn’t witnessed all season. Even more surprising is his tone as he begins. “Operator, number please, its been so many years.” Granted, it’s still distinct (there’s that word again), in that every other note sounds like it might be slightly out of tune, but it’s infinitely smoother than anything else he’s done (reality check, this is actually the earliest work I’ve highlighted, from 1973’s classic album Closing Time). It’s still art.
The touching lyrics about Tom Frost and Martha combine with a newfound subtlety in Tom’s voice have many audience members, and Miley, in tears.
His competitors, one of which had been compared to Adele (whose “Hello,” funny enough, has been said to have lyrics surprisingly similar to “Martha”), follow, and yet in the end it is Tom Waits who is the last one standing.
Apparently, for a brief moment in a fictitious recap of The Voice, there was an appreciation of the beauty in that which is different.
Happy birthday, Tom Waits. Nice getting to know you again.