Happy 32nd Birthday to Rain Dogs, the Best Album Ever Recorded by Mortals

Happy 32nd Birthday to Rain Dogs, the Best Album Ever Recorded by Mortals

You might argue that the greatest album of all time is the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, or Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. Or perhaps you’d go with Nevermind, or something even more contemporary, like Lemonade. But you’d be wrong.

It’s Rain Dogs.

Now that we’ve established this objective fact, I’d like to point out that on September 30th in the year of our Lord two-thousand-seventeen, my favorite album, Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs, turns 32.

(The same age as me.)

In celebration, I’m going to publish a rambling post about all my ~feelings~ regarding this album on this blog that no one asked for because I am complete fangirl trash. Enjoy.

*****

 

I first listened to Rain Dogs in college, which is perfect, when you think about it, because that’s right around the time one gains a true appreciation of Art, and coincidently, when one becomes a truly insufferable pretentious douche about such things.

My college radio station, always on the leading edge of technology, was finally going completely digital and liquidating its CD & vinyl collection. As a deejay at the station, I was allowed to take home whatever I wanted.

“A kid in a candy store” does not adequately describe the situation. “A self-involved hipster in the college radio station library for a vinyl free-for-all” more aptly captures the feeling.

I came across the iconic album cover on one of the shelving units that ran along the wall of the claustrophobic studio. The album itself was probably an early pressing that would be valuable if “WNEC” hadn’t been scribbled in black marker across the front in a conversation bubble coming out of the man’s mouth.

I grabbed the station’s entire artist collection, Supermarket Sweep style, and spent the next several weeks in a Tom Waits musical bender, playing Heart Attack and Vine, Franks Wild Years, Swordfishtrombones, and of course Rain Dogs on my roommate’s Best Buy turntable, and then later illegally downloading mp3s from Limewire so I could listen to it all more intimately in my room with headphones.

Right around that time I was dealing with some severe physical (and probably mental) health problems, and any kind of music that felt like an escape to another world became my sanctuary. Tom Waits definitely fits that description.

Rain Dogs has an eclectic array of songs, from cabaret, to sea shanties, to bluesy-carnival-polka…it’s all there. But flowing underneath it all are lovely, emotional tones of loneliness, melancholy, and dreaminess.

Singapore, the first track, sets up characters and imagery that could be an early Tim Burton movie.

Clap Hands sets the perfect mood for a New Hampshire fall evening, while Hang Down Your Head breaks your heart.

Downtown Train is perhaps the album’s closest thing to a radio hit. (It kind of was – Rod Stewart released a version in 1991, along with a very literal & well-coiffed video.)

The spoken-word 9th & Hennepin, which I can recite by heart, inspired a semester’s worth of my own shitty poetry.

Anywhere I Lay My Head is a great tune to howl along to while drunk.

Each song is like a dream, transporting me directly into Edward Hopper paintings of lonely characters in closed-in spaces. Some songs edge closer to the surreal, and immediately draw to mind Magritte paintings of bowler hats and floating eyes, or Remedios Varo’s peculiar allegorical paintings.

Here is Waits performing the title song with his merry band of French cartoon characters:

(Tag yourself. I’m the accordion player.)

*****

 

It also really helps that Tom Waits is a weird character in real life. One of my favorite movies from my college years was Wristcutters: A Love Story, in which he played the prophet of insignificant miracles. One scene in particular gets me every time — when his character tells an allegory about a straight tree and a crooked tree.

Waits has popped up in other movies, including Mystery Men, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Seven Psychopaths, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and The Book of Eli, always as dark, whimsical characters…so, himself, basically.

The reason I continually turn to Waits and artists like him is his insistence that being strange is good, that loneliness and melancholy are valid emotions that shouldn’t be suppressed or denied. Moreover, these things can be enjoyable and even capable of stirring great creativity.

In a culture that wants you to be direct and positive all the time, that measures success against an unattainable sense of constant happiness and endless smiling selfies, anything that encourages embracing the absurd and differentiating melancholy from sadness or failure brings us one step closer to knowing ourselves.

*****

 

I’m not quite sure what a rain dog is exactly, but Waits claims to be one on this album. I imagine those people in the Hopper paintings to be rain dogs (Waits actually has a live album called Night Hawks at the Diner, an obvious reference to the famous painting).

Perhaps they are fringe people who come out only on rainy nights, isolated no matter where they go. Like a wet stray dog, they are grungy in appearance, or just in spirit. They may be mangy, wandering outsiders, “crooked trees”, but anywhere they lay their head, they call home.

Because they’re at home with themselves.

And I just like that sentiment.

 

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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Shopping for roller derby wheels

 

I’ve been playing this sport for a long time. I’ve never understood the anxieties over wheel setups. People often ask me for my advice, and I always feel like anything I say needs an asterisk. Since there are no playoff tournaments this week, here are my general thoughts on wheels.

If you’re stressing about what wheel to use when, here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter. Except for outdoor versus indoor wheels, there really is no objectively right or wrong wheel. So chillax, my dude.

If you don’t want to pay $150 for a set of high-quality wheels, then don’t. Go for the $50 ones. There’s no rule saying you have to own multiple sets, either. You can still be awesome even with those worn-in hand-me-downs. You can have a killer season and never once change your wheels.

Sure, there are extreme situations when a floor can be really sticky or really slippery, but it all boils down the individual. Different positions, skill sets, and even body types play into what works best. You can spend a fortune on wheels, guaranteeing that you have all durometers and styles for all surfaces and carry them all around with you to every away game. People do that. But it’s not going to make you a better skater.

A good athlete can adapt to any situation. Slick floor? Take smaller strides and allow for longer stops. Grippy floor? Sit lower into stops and be prepared for a fast game. The condition of the floor is just another factor that can’t be controlled, just like the calls of the ref crew, the strategies of the other team, or the drunkenness of the fans. But you can adapt to these conditions.

If your fundamentals suck, they are going to suck on any surface. Rather than stressing about wheels, get really good at edgework. Get your stops as clean as possible. Train on as many different surfaces as possible. Improve your core and lower body strength. The floor is not your enemy; your lack of edgework is. Get to know the wheels that you have, and get really good at adjusting your skating style.

All that having been said, wheels do wear down. Someday you will need an upgrade. So what should you try?

Beginners (first 6 months): Literally anything. You won’t feel the difference. You’re still learning how to skate; you’re still wobbly, you have no edges to speak of, and you have limited speed. Different durometers won’t change how any of that feels. I’ve seen freshies do great things on some pretty terrible setups. (Take it from someone who started out on Cobras.)

Blockers: Lower durometers (80s range). Blockers must be able to dig in on stops and hold at low speeds. Lower durometers allow for more grip with less effort. Wider wheels will give you a little more traction.

Jammers: Harder durometers (90s range). Unlike blockers, jammers need to have agility at high speeds. Harder wheels mean more speed with less effort. Narrow wheels will also aid in agility. However, coming out of turns at high speeds may cause extra slippage, while stops are generally easier to control with more slide. Figure out which you are more concerned about. You can start with some kind of middle ground by using “pushers” (grippier wheels on the left side of each skate) or consider purchasing hybrid wheels.

 

OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

  • -As your edgework improves, you may find a preference to harder wheels. As a default, start with lower, grippier durometers and work your way up.
  • -Heavier wheels will allow you some more stability, but will make you less agile. Lighter wheels are faster and put less stress on your feet.
  • -If you train more recreationally, say 1-2 times per week for only a few months out of the year, there’s no need to invest in high-level wheels. But if you do train more intensely, it will be worth investing in wheels that will last a long time.

Many skaters do a lot of blocking AND jamming. There is no one wheel that will work in every situation. So basically, get used to doing everything with whichever setup you choose. While there are different factors to consider that may aid in certain circumstances, remember: it’s not the wheel or the floor, it’s your skill and adaptability that make the difference.

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