Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rock Hall Rorschach: Tom Waits or Neil Diamond?

It's a rock and roll Rorschach test: Which new Rock Hall inductee are you cheering for?

By tomorrow I expect my Facebook feed to fill with Neil Diamond fans, YouTube-linking to the Solitary Man as they hum "Sweet Caroline," to which I can only say what Bill Murray said in What About Bob?.



And since this is Cleveland Rock City, I expect some old-school Buzzard fans to crank up the Alice Cooper on their drives to work tomorrow.

But I've got Tom Waits spinning in my CD player tonight, gritty-growling about the Eyeball Kid, the murder in the red barn, and the 16 shells from a thirty-ought-six. He's going to change his name to Hannibal, or maybe just Rex, and maybe I will too.



Complain about who got snubbed all you want, but I think the Rock Hall voters are figuring out the right mix. Each year needs a pop star, a rocker, and a poet. That's why Leonard Cohen got in the same year as Madonna, or Patti Smith along with Van Halen.

Tom Waits doesn't get on the radio at all, not like Neil, or Alice, or even Darlene Love. But he'll give the induction ceremony a huge dose of cool.

He did the same for the House of Blues in 2006, when he swung through on an ultra-rare tour, playing with his own scarcity by staging two shows in one night, in Akron and Cleveland. His anti-scalping rules had the unintended effect of giving his second show even more of an after-hours exclusivity: he didn't go on until way past midnight and finished after 3 a.m. I just remember the vibe: the loose, improv version of his cabaret-spiked found-instrument blues.

Years ago, when I was living in Ann Arbor, I was drinking with my upstairs neighbor when she showed me the cryptic words a former tenant had scrawled inside her window frame: "Your pistol and your Bible and your sleeping pills." I recognized it instantly: lyrics from the Waits song "Who Are You?", one of the most bitter kiss-offs ever recorded.

There is something scorched and lonesome about Waits' music, something that makes you want to make a mark with it just before leaving town. It could be mistaken for a romantic feeling, but be careful. I once read a wise quote on the subject, which my Googling is not turning up, so here's an approximate version:

'I don't know why guys think owning a Tom Waits record is going to help them with women. I own all of them and it's never worked for me.' -- Tom Waits

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