Review of 'Real Gone' by Tom Waits
Tom Waits has been obscure and surreal in his critique of society, but not any more; this album is a damning indictment of the US at war. Real Gone is a celebration of resistance to the corruption endemic in capitalism - and to the ultimate corruption and barbarity of war.
The black and red sleeve of the CD echoes the themes: blood, death and 'gravel'-the recurring theme of the 'gravel in the road' (the dirt poor). 'Hoist that Rag' (surely not the Stars and Stripes?) is a growl. You can hear Dylan. Here's the madness of war, the ignorance: 'The sun is up, the world is flat'. Here's the decadence, the reality: 'The smell of blood, the drone of flies'. And finally the bitter homilies: 'All is fair in love and war.'
Listen to 'Sins of the Father'. The reggae beat is Marley. Waits spits out the words. They're full of references to injustice. 'Everybody knows that the game was rigged. Justice wears suspenders and a powdered wig.' It's immediate (Jeb Bush) and it's timeless - and it's already in song, a direct echo of Leonard Cohen's 'Everybody Knows':
Everybody knows that the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed:
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes. Everybody knows
Justice? '29 days of sinning and 40 to repent'. It's an upside-down world: 'Wicked are the branches on the tree of mankind the roots grow upward and the branches grow down.'
And finally there is the desire for justice and redemption, and an allusion to Gospel: 'I'm gonna wash the sins... Till the water runs clear.' 'Dead and Lovely' has shades of film noir, the sound of Robbie Robertson and the face of Bogart. There's the anti-religious 'Trampled Rose': 'Passing the hat in church. It never stops going round. You never pay just once. To get the job done'. 'The Trampled Rose' talks of lost dreams - I assume this is not about the Labour Party! The beautiful 'Green Grass' is immediate and intimate. But the stand out song has to be 'Day After Tomorrow'. It's a song of youth and innocence sung in an old man's voice, the voice of experience. It's a mixture of haunting music and passionate lyrics. It's a letter home from a weary soldier once the scales begin to fall from his eyes:
I'm not fighting for justice
I am not fighting for freedom
I am fighting for my life and
Another day in the world here
I just do what I've been told
We're just the gravel on the road.
It's not only the music of conflict; it's the music of harmony - between the opposing bits of 'gravel on the road'. No wonder it's featured on MoveOn.org's Future Soundtrack for America, released to support presidential regime change. It's a beautiful and moving anti this war, anti all wars protest.
It has to be said that this album hasn't just got lyrical power, it has musical power also. After a long time apart, Marc Ribot - maybe the perfect musical partner for Waits - plays guitar, and his rhythmic, yet disjointed playing echoes Waits's vision of a world breaking apart. According to Waits, Ribot is 'in a category all of his own'. As for Waits's intentions: 'I wanna get Bush out of there. But I don't know that Kerry is the answer. I think we really have a one-party system with two heads on it.' Real Gone is Tom Waits's war on war. He has recruited the protesters of previous decades to engage every critical voice possible. It's a great CD.