Chicago Diarist: A Drunkard’s Home Companion

(I wrote this in August, 2006)

Last Friday I made it to the Music Box for the first time in far too long to catch the midnight showing of Big Time, the Tom Waits concert film of 1988. A friend and I stopped at a Southport watering hole for a couple quick glasses of Irish whiskey before the show. It’s a little amateurish, to the degree that I was tempted to imagine what it might have been in the hands of a real filmmaker. But in retrospect, the scruffiness of the action and the murk of the sets harmonized well with Waits’ music, which at its best sounds both meticulous and totally thrown-together.

The on-stage sequences are framed by short scenes of Waits as Frank, the dreamy would-be star of Frank’s Wild Years. These struck me as pretty dispensable, although there was a certain wan sweetness to them. The performances, on the other hand, were great, mixing Waits at the piano riffing on things like stores selling used erotica (“Used by whom?”) with more conventional single songs. It was a tour through some of his best 80’s work: “Time,” “Cold, Cold Ground,” “Gun Streeet Girl,” “Clap Hands,” “Down in the Hole,” “9th and Hennepin,” and so on. He ended with an airy and sad rendition of “Innocent When You Dream,” a song that would work equally at closing time and at a graveside.

My own Waits fandom is past its peak, but seeing the movie reminded me vividly of what made me love him so much in the first place. His influences are so vast, from carnival music to country slang to diners and television hucksterism that his music is a wide, if idiosyncratic, depiction of America itself. He brings a lot of people to mind–Bob Dylan’s lyricism, Lou Reed’s love of urban grime, Twain’s scathing humor, and Hoagy Carmichael’s winsome sincerity–but I finally, watching this movie, connected him to Garrison Keillor. He’s Prairie Home Companion with a punk aesthetic, mining the same vein of oral tradition, local culture, and off-kilter Americana from a place much darker than a Minnesota winter.

For all my revived admiration for Tom Waits, seeing the film felt like a bit of a nostalgia trip. From 1996-99, starting with the soundtrack to Smoke and ending some time after the funeral of a friend who died far too young, “Innocent When You Dream” was often somewhere in the background, accompanying me from the last two years of high school through my days at Deep Springs and beyond. Then I bought Small Change, an album I dearly love, and “om Traubert’s Blues” was a constant from a road trip at the very end of 1999 to some time in 2001. It anchored many a night of frankly abusive drinking and a few toe-dips into despair. Like “Innocent,” I learned to play it on the guitar and brought it out on more than a few occasions, alone or in company. By 2001, Rain Dogs was the order of the day, and of all the stellar tracks on that album, I recall “Anywhere I Lay My Head” becoming another personal anthem, mostly invoked on the long, quiet trips home from Jimmy’s in Hyde Park as I finished college.

With the exception of a brief Tom Waits relapse in August and September of 2003, however, his music has gradually stopped being part of how I describe my life to myself. Now, in the late summer of 2006, I am about to become a husband and a churchman (I like the term’s combination of accuracy and lameness), and the shadow world that Waits’ music inhabits is not one I wish to or should share any longer. A life of heroic vice and aesthetic gloom–not that I ever really acheived those things–is no longer really on the menu. From now on–from some time ago, really–bad living is just indulgence at best, hypocrisy at worst, and no longer some kind of voyage of discovery through transdescendence. I’m a bit shocked to find that at this point in my life–27 short years–a hangover is just a hangover, something painful and at odds with the person I intend, and am expected, to be. I understand at last a little bit of the Peter Pan complex that produces both lifelong wastrels and zealous ascetics, two sides of the same carefree, obstinately private coin.

Before this post veers into dangerously Bob Seegerian “I used to be 18 and awesome and now I’m 35 and I suck” territory, I’ll just cut to the chase. Today I finished eleven weeks of summer hospice chaplaincy. Tomorrow I leave for a night with friends in Ann Arbor and a few days of prayer and retreat at Saint Augustine’s House. When I come back, I’ll have a few short days to move, have a bachelor party, and get married. Not that any of this will transform me into a different kind of person, but it will obviously change my life. While I’m away, I’m going on an all-media fast, and after I get back, I don’t imagine blogging will be foremost on my mind. I’m not saying I won’t post, much less that I’m hanging this up, but I won’t be saying much for the next month or so. I invite all of my co-bloggers to jump in as often as you feel like it, and I’ll be back late in September, all hitched up and listening to adult contemporary or something like that.

In the mean time, I have an apartment to pack up, and I have some Tom Waits to play while doing it (thanking the Dutchman for the idea). It will be the last of nine bachelor apartments and dorm rooms that have housed me for most of the last nine years. “Running through the graveyard, we laughed my friends and I / We swore we’d be together / Until the day we die / Until the day we die.” Whether this kind of sentiment makes you old or keeps you young I don’t know.

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