Thursday, September 24, 2009

GMVW # 90 "Youth and Intellect"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 90:  Youth and Intellect
Song:  I Don’t Wanna Grow Up by Tom Waits
(Songwriter: Tom Waits)
September 24, 2009

A fourth Gem via album recommendations is in the books, this one from good friend, Pat Shea.  Pat aimed high, for the top of my list actually (see Gem # 58).  I was hoping someone could steer me in the right direction regarding what Tom Waits brings to the table.  Mr. Shea did so with an enthusiasm that could only come from someone who feels strongly about the subject.  He even sent me a cd:  “Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years” (thanks again, Pat).  It turns out Pat’s been a big fan of Tom Waits for some time now. 

Tom Waits:  I’m going out on a limb here, Pat, and try to summarize his music.  Let’s see, well for starters, Waits is diverse; that is he is all over the map with the range of musical genres he covers.  Nothing enlightening there, other than for novices like me who have only recently dabbled.  The subject matter of his songs is all over the map as well, including lyrics with a ‘squirm factor’ about them.  What I’ve come to see mostly in his music, however, is a youthful spirit: Waits pens songs as if he were still a kid… a kid with a boat load of intellect. 

Waits and those of like mind, tend to buck trends.  There is certainly some cockiness there, but it’s more a level of intelligence that gets bored with normalcy, orderliness and predictability:  They already have all that stuff pretty much figured out.  Chaos, dichotomy, paradox, and randomness (to use a favorite term of nephew, Joe)… now your talking!  Guitar and drums? about ukulele, harpsichord and tuba? The Beatles and the Stones?.... how about Zappa and Devo (and mix in some jazz, cabaret and vaudeville while your at it)?  ‘M*A*S*H*’ and ‘Letterman’? …how about ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and ‘Fernwood Tonight’ (not to mention the affiliated ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’)?  ‘Rocky’ and ‘Titanic’? ….how about ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’?  The ‘X-Men’? ….how about ‘Howard the Duck’?  John Grisham?  How about Kurt Vonnegut.

Elements of the same high-intellect-character trait revealed in Tom Waits, through his music, can be found in several friends and family members: Along with Pat, that short list includes Mac and Dale. My initiation into this alternate view of life, however, was particularly potent through my longtime friendship with Phil.  I must elaborate.

During the first half of my second decade of life, an average summer week could have easily consisted of the following activities:
Monday: Leggos with John; puzzles (in the 'puzzle room') with Joe and Fred
Tuesday: Pickup baseball with everyone; model building with Joe and Fred (including the old Hobby Shop monster models like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wolfman, the Mummy, and Phantom of the Opera)
Wednesday: Hike down the tracks with Bruce and our dogs; trek downtown to purchase baseball cards and Wacky Packs and to exchange rolls of coins with the bank and local stores (to open and scan for wheat pennies and silver dimes for our collections)
Thursday: Blazing bike trails with Jeff through the woods and designing (then jumping) bike ramps.
Friday: Street hockey with everyone; baseball card trading with John, Fred, Bruce and Joe
Saturday: Monopoly with Fred, Phil and Joe; Chess with Bruce
Sunday: Water balloon fights with everyone; Kick the Can with everyone

This was pretty exciting stuff, but standard fare for a boy growing up in a great neighborhood, which would have sufficed.  But thank goodness for Phil, who made my weekly agenda far more unique and intriguing than what it would have been otherwise.  Phil was always keen on adding a twist, like recording bizarre ideas (how I wish we still had the recording of us impersonating ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie’ with the caveat that they were in their 90s), making ice cream, or envisioning truly outrageous and hilarious scenarios.  To this day I laugh when thinking about them.  A skit of ‘Charlie on the MTA’ for our parents was beyond the beyond.  Playing with my plastic animals was a journey into character development (and even Phil had to admit those plastic animals had a truly aesthetic quality about them).  And the standard fare, including Monopoly, pickup football and croquet, evolved in ways their creators would never have imagined possible. When a cranky old neighbor (in the ‘castle’ across the street from our home) purchased a giant spotlight to keep an eye on us at night if we trespassed, Phil put together a song and dance routine.  My imagination grew by leaps and bounds in those days, and I have to give Phil much of the credit. 

Listening to ‘Beautiful Maladies’, I found myself traveling down that old familiar trail of life in the quick-thinking, high-intellect fast lane.   The album keeps you off balance, on the edge of free fall with nothing to grab on to.  But it is chock full of great tunes including ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’, ‘Shore Leave’ (sounds like a Robbie Robertson style song, or is it the other way around?), ‘Innocent When You Dream’, ‘Hang on St Christopher’, and ‘Downtown Train’.  The song ‘Singapore’, apparently about a pirate trek to the Far East, has Waits modifying his singing voice for what appears to be two distinct characters, and includes the following stanza where the two characters swap vocals, line to line:

“The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He’s throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind
The one-eyed man is king,
….so take this ring”

Gem of the Week, ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’, is a particularly poignant song on this album.  The title is actually quite accurate for a Waits song title, as the lyrics conjure up thoughts of classic lyrics like ‘Hope I die before I get old’ and ‘May you stay forever young’.  It also reminds me a bit of last week’s Gem theme about the Beatles and wisdom.  When you think of wisdom, you think of growing up and overcoming your childhood insecurities.  But songs like these argue otherwise, interpreting wisdom as what you gain by staying young.  I believe the same goes for faith, as the most spiritual people I have ever known were all young at heart (particularly the priests and nuns who have managed to maintain a youthful air about them). 

Ahh, the paradox of youth and wisdom: Just the way Pat, Phil, and Confucius would expect in anything worth its weight.

So Pat, thanks again.  Listening to this album made me long for sitting around another campfire with you and the Canadian crowd, if only to see where the conversation would go. But for now, please put all our minds at ease and get back to deciphering black holes, totem polls, and Dead Sea scrolls. 

Below the Gem Video is a humorous conversation between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. 
Below that is another Waits video, ‘Downtown Train’.

- Pete

Gem Video “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’

Tom and Iggy (Coffe and Cigarettes):

‘Downtown Train’

About the Video: Made-for-MTV like video (Tom Waits singing under a diner table)

Video Rating: 1

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