Monday, January 08, 2007

Tom Waits: Observer Along the Road to Peace

Tom Waits has long been one of my favourite singers. He’s in a class of his own, like Dylan, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. He’s the antithesis of commercial pap, has a voice that’s been scraped off the sidewalk of some gritty industrial suburb, but he can still growl with tenderness and compassion.

One of my early favourites of Tom’s was Jersey Girl, a love song for a girl in New Jersey. I’ve never been to New Jersey, but it’s the anti-hero of the urban American (US) landscape. It symbolises the eked-out existence of the US proletariat. Tom doesn’t name the girl he addresses in this song; rather he states:

"Nothin’ matters in this whole wide world
When you’re in love with a Jersey girl."

By identifying his girl with the tough landscape in which she lives, the song becomes an anthem to the working class, a rejection of the world of Eighth Avenue and the glitz and glamour of those who are successful under capitalism.

(Listen to Springsteen’s live version of this song, sung to a New Jersey audience, to appreciate what I mean by "anthemic".)

For the most part, Waits has been an observer at the arse-end of capitalism. Invariably, reviewers and journalists refer to the flophouses, bowery bums and assorted low-life that inhabit his songs. He’s put in the same literary tradition as Kerouac and Bukowski.

He is an honest observer and shows his understanding of the world in his works. He has the same respect for the reality of unrewarded life as Brecht or Lu Xun, and the same gift for description. He is part of that progressive middle ground of people who have not yet, but may some day, realise that the point is not so much to understand the world as to try and change it.

I still think that one of the most accurate portrayals of the mood whipped up in the US in the aftermath of 9-11 is his monologue What’s He Building? on the Mule Variations CD. It’s Senator McCarthy meets Boo Radley, an inquisitive neighbour developing irrational fears on the basis of scant information. Its final line is the chilling "We have a right to know".

And in the stifling climate of rampant Christian fundamentalism in the post 9-11 Bush-bashed United States, Waits has a lovely lament on the same CD, Georgia Lee, inspired by the death of a ten-year old black girl who lived near his own home in California:

"Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
For Georgia Lee?"

On his latest release, the Orphans CD (which, incidentally has his readings of works by Brecht and Weill, by Kerouac and Bukowski), Waits has the song Road to Peace - his take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The song errs in that it equates the Palestinian resistance with the Zionist lebensraum in a sort of "plague on both your houses" stance, but it clearly identifies and attacks US foreign policy from Kissinger to Bush, and echoes Georgia Lee in suggesting that God has turned his back on those who suffer. Here are the lyrics, but please try and listen to the song to capture its cadence and mood:

Road To Peace(Waits/Brennan 2006)

Young Abdel Madi Shabneh was only eighteen years old
Was the youngest of nine children. He’d never spent a night away from home
And his mother held his photograph up in the New York Times
You see the killing has intensified along the road to peace

He was a tall thin boy with a wispy moustache disguised as an Orthodox Jew
On a crowded bus in Jerusalem, some had survived World War Two
And the thunderous explosion blew out windows two hundred yards away
With more retribution and seventeen dead along the road to peace

Now, at King George Avenue and Jaffa Road passengers boarded bus 14A
In the aisle next to the driver, Abdel Madi Shabneh
And the last thing that he said on earth is, "God is great and God is good"
And he blew them all to kingdom come upon the road to peace

In response to this another kiss of death was visited upon
Yashir Tehah, Israel says he is an Hamas senior militant
And Israel sent four choppers in, flames engulfed his white Opal
And it killed his wife and his three year old child leaving only blackened skeletons

They found his toddler’s bottle and a pair of small shoes and they waved them in front of the cameras
But Israel says they did not know that his wife and child were in the car
There are roadblocks everywhere and only suffering on TV
Neither side will ever give up their smallest right along the road to peace

Israel launched its latest campaign against Hamas on Tuesday
And two days later Hamas shot back and killed five Israeli soldiers
Though thousands dead and wounded on both sides, most have been Middle Eastern civilians
They fill their children full of hate to fight an old man’s war and die upon the road to peace

And this is our land we will fight with all our force say the Palestinians and the Jews
Each side will cut off the hand of anyone who tries to stop the resistance
If thy right eye offends thee then you must pluck it out
And Machoud Abbas and Sharon have been lost out along the road to peace

Once Kissinger said we have no friends, America only has interests
And now our President wants to been seen as a hero and he’s hungry for re-election
But Bush is reluctant to risk his future in the fear of his political failure
So he plays chess at his desk and poses for the press ten thousand miles from the road to peace

In the video that they found at the home of Abdel Madi Shabneh
He held a Kalashnikov rifle and he spoke with a voice like a boy
He was an excellent student he studied so hard it was as if he had a future
He told his mother that he had a test that day out along the road to peace

The fundamentalist killing on both sides is standing in the path of peace
But tell me why are we arming the Israeli army with guns and tanks and bullets?
And if God is great and God is good why can't he change the hearts of men?
Or maybe God himself is lost and needs help
Maybe God himself he needs all of our help
Maybe God himself is lost and needs help, he's out upon the road to peace
Maybe God himself is lost and needs help
Maybe God himself he needs all of our help and he's lost upon the road to peace
And he's lost upon the road to peace, out upon the road to peace