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.