Tom Waits may be something of a divisive musical figure, but he’s one heck of an interesting dude. After all, there’d be no ‘Jersey Girl’ or ‘Ol’ ’55’ without him, both classic songs that he penned (the latter is an absolutely seminal piece of songwriting that should probably be featured in any “best song ever written” list). This is not him at his most subversive, on the surface being a simple ballad about neighbourhood strife, but it is a quite remarkable track nonetheless. It’s off the album Swordfishtrombones, which might be a good place to start if Waits’ occasionally impenetrable manner puts you off his back catalogue. I can also point you in the direction of Closing Time, his first album, which is far less harsh and unconventional than some of his other work. Recently, Mule Variations is generally regarded as the foremost of his more modern works, and I would recommend giving that a listen also.
Anyway, the song itself has some cracking writing in it as well. “Well the eggs chase the bacon, round the frying pan” is one of the best opening lines to anything ever and you won’t convince me otherwise. The chorus refrain is enchanting, with the horns and trombones that suit Waits so well rising to a crescendo surrounded by bells and snare drums. All the complaints and struggles described in the lyrics have a charm to them that would be hard to replicate if delivered by another voice, I suspect. These elements combine to create a song that while containing a sense of nearly sad routine, is great at firing the imagination toward that nostalgic America that probably seems far better now than it ever did at the time (even if all the song does is whine about it). I want to sing along to the words whenever I hear them, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing them. Look, this song probably should be the American national anthem.
Although when I first heard it I interpreted it as Waits pastiche on small town America, the song may actually refer to Los Angeles, where the video was recorded (and the album was made). In it, Waits parades down an alley near his house joined by a band of misfits, but it has a very final feel to it, like it’s his last trip around the block. Today, the place where the video was filmed has all been tarmacked over. Most of that area of LA is now gentrified, and wildly different to what it would have looked like 40 years ago. In this context, the song takes on a new, wistful meaning, a sonic painting to the past, and it’s all the more hauntingly beautiful for that. I imagine Waits would approve.