SFF Song of the Week: Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s a real pleasure to welcome this week’s song choice from fellow Orbit author Robert Jackson Bennett.  Robert and I had a good old blarney about stuff on the Orbit site a way back, here and here.  And after his deliciously brilliant Mr Shivers, he’s now got a new book out called Company Man, which I’m looking forward to reading.

Over to you Rob…

Robert Jackson Bennett writes:

It’s difficult to say much about Tom Waits, because the image precedes the man every time. Which is really quite marvelous, as he’s got at least three images attached to him, depending on which part of his back catalog you’re pulling from: he’s the lovable, down-and-out hipster with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, a walking homage to Kerouac and Bukowski; or, he’s the avant-garde, junkyard carnie barker who works nights as a Weimar-era cabaret performer; or, he’s the dust-covered, hangdog-faced, mythical bluesman who seems to have walked right of the Great Depression, his voice filled with Biblical doom and sorrowful longing. Maybe he’s got yet another metamorphosis up his sleeve, and he’s waiting for the right time to surprise us all.

There are many versions of Tom Waits, and the first thing most people will zero in on is his voice, which critics seem to really enjoy cooking up metaphors for. But there’s another constant underneath all these images, one that usually doesn’t utilize his raspy, savage growl: his ballads. No matter who Tom’s been, he’s always had a sentimental streak, and it always shows up when it comes to one of his ballads, which rarely use the subhuman registers of his pipes.

And for my money, there’s no ballad of his better than “Time,” an unearthly, confusing, fantastical song about… Well. I’m not sure what it’s about. I’m not sure it’s even about time, really, but listen for yourself. [SEE BELOW - Ed]

It’s an unusual song, an impressionistic nonsense-poem full of poignant images tossed among faint but persistent strands of logic, similar to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Which brings me to another favorite touchstone of Tom’s: children’s stories, songs, and rhymes, and he almost always juxtaposes them against subjects better suited to, say, a Raymond Chandler story or a Bukowski poem. You can hear quite a bit of that influence in “Time,” as certain lines have the same structure as a nursery song rhyme: “…and the band is going home, it’s raining hammers, it’s raining nails,” and “…so put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips, as the dish outside the window fills with rain,” are both personal standouts for me. But the melody itself is the most glaring evidence: this is a lullaby, but it’s not one you’d ever sing to a child.

“Time” also mimics a children’s song in how it steadfastly refuses to stick to a conventional narrative. Unlike many songwriters, Tom does not really use his songs to tell stories, at least not in a direct way, and “Time” is no exception. For example, it’s unclear what the chorus really means: is he saying that the time has come for you to love, or that it is time itself that you love? I’m not sure, and I don’t think I’m supposed to be: his songs paint their subjects in an elliptical fashion, filling in the edges but never the whole, offering up snatches of conversation and bizarre vernacular which are then followed by images of suggestion and emotion. But there is rarely a hard, definable sequence of events in a Tom Waits song. What he gives you are muttered references and half-completed pictures that imply a lot more than they actually say.

Now, think of a song like “Hush, Little Baby.” It is never made clear in the song precisely why a parent would want to buy an infant a mockingbird, or a looking glass, or a diamond ring, or especially a billy goat. But that’s not the point of the song. The song is meant to offer reassuring images and possibilities to a young and nebulous mind, not to make sense. “Time” does the same thing, but it’s as if it’s singing to its subjects, yet rather than young they are beaten down by the hardships of life, and scrabbling for a hope strong enough to last them through the night. So perhaps they need those nursery song images of soothing comfort and warm hopes even more.

It’s this melding of the innocent and naïve with the sorrowful, nasty reality that makes this song a great reference point for modern fantasy. A lot of fantasy literature has that same touchstone in children’s stories and fables, where an innocent point of view can make a little fright balloon into a harrowing terror, and fairytale logic feels like it can overcome nearly any obstacle. Tom himself is no stranger to fantasy, having composed a soundtrack inspired by Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” that deals far more directly in lunatic images and Victorian decadence. But in using these words and mechanisms to paint images of the desperate, he manages to give his subjects a soulful tenderness that even they might not realize they have. These aren’t junkies and madmen and desperate drifters: they’re dreamers and orphans, little lost children who one day woke to find themselves all grown up, and they aren’t sure how to get home.

It’s an exchange, really. One reference point colors the other. The beleaguered and dystopic is brightened by the child-like wonder of a nursery rhyme, and the fable-like images, when placed among the gin houses and warrens of Tom’s dockside ghetto, gain a little more humanity and verisimilitude.

Think of Ofelia wandering back and forth between the Spanish Civil War and her twisted fantasy world in Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” or Neil Gaiman’s gods slumming as frauds and strippers in his “Sandman” series, or “American Gods.” It’s that umbilical point between the fantastical and the mundane, the innocent and the cynical, the fables twinned with their grim truths, that really make this song and many stories like it work for me. Tom’s been to the carnival and seen the show, but he’s also been backstage where the roustabouts smoke and drink and leer, and in his head the two are indivisible; his is a world of wonder and worry, all at once. In the world of “Time,” a world seemingly shared by three of Tom’s strongest albums – “Swordfishtrombones,” “Rain Dogs,” and “Frank’s Wild Years” – all the paupers are secret princes with no thrones. And a winesot can be a traveling troubadour if he’s got a good song in his heart, and a tired hooker can be a princess if she’s under the right set of stars. If there’s anything I’d wish to take away from “Time,” it’s the song’s perspective: there is a willingness there to find wonder in places you’d never want to look, if only you looked at them the right way.

[Because of rights issues, you can't hear this song directly on Debatable Spaces - just click where it says Watch on You Tube and hop back and it's the same thing - Phil]

Well, the smart money’s on Harlow
And the moon is in the street
The shadow boys are breaking all the laws
And you’re east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds like a round of applause
Napoleon is weeping in the Carnival saloon
His invisible fianc is in the mirror
The band is going home
It’s raining hammers, it’s raining nails
Yes, it’s true, there’s nothing left for him down here

And it’s Time Time Time
And it’s Time Time Time
And it’s Time Time Time
That you love
And it’s Time Time Time

And they all pretend they’re Orphans
And their memory’s like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can’t remember
Tell the things you can’t forget that
History puts a saint in every dream
Well she said she’d steak around
Until the bandages came off
But these mamas boys just don’t know when to quit
And Matida asks the sailors are those dreams
Or are those prayers
So just close your eyes, son
And this won’t hurt a bit


Well, things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl
The boys just dive right off the cars
And splash into the street
And when she’s on a roll she pulls a razor
From her boot and a thousand
Pigeons fall around her feet
So put a candle in the window
And a kiss upon his lips
Till the dish outside the window fills with rain
Just like a stranger with the weeds in your heart
And play the fiddler off till i come back again


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