Tom Waits

Alice and Blood Money, two disparate yet profoundly connected works being released the same day (May 7), are credited solely to Tom Waits, which is a bit like recognizing only the shopkeeper for the loaf of bread without acknowledging those who baked it and provided the ingredients. They're recognizably Waits albums--they possess the voice of a carnival barker too long at the freak show and the melody of a merry-go-round spinning recklessly out of control--but that shouldn't diminish the contributions of others, including long-dead ghosts who peer over shoulders hunched over out-of-tune pianos and peek through lyric sheets written in ink and blood. Foremost among Waits' collaborators is wife Kathleen Brennan, who provides equal doses of melody and mood; her words are Waits' words, make no mistake. And stage director Robert Wilson--Waco-raised, University of Texas-educated--is an equal co-conspirator: Alice, whose origins date back to 1991, represents his second collaboration with Waits and Brennan for the German stage; Blood Money, born in 2000 in a Copenhagen auditorium, follows as the third.

But equally important are the influences behind each work: Alice was adapted, more or less, from Lewis Carroll's cracked Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; how appropriate that Waits should romp around a stage with the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, his spiritual kin. Though bootlegs have long circulated of the 1992 performances at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, the new version is considerably different: Songs have been added and deleted till it's almost a wholly different take; one need not know its history to appreciate its impact.

The same goes with Blood Money, adapted from Georg Büchner's 1837 play about madness and murder, Woyzeck, which the playwright never completed. He died of typhus before he was 24, leaving only a mishmash manuscript of half-completed pages and faded notes. That Waits and Brennan would be drawn to such material--the play deals with a soldier who sells his body for a doctor's bizarro experiments, then kills the mother of his child after he catches her wearing earrings given to her by another man--seems natural, if not inevitable. The couple fill in Büchner's blanks with their own muddle of music, a hodgepodge of rollicking circus-tent screams and blood-bath reflections. With Büchner ever present, the trio make perfect partners in crime; the dead and living wield the same dripping knife.

These two remarkable albums stroll, hand in hand, down a bleak and treacherous path; they hint at the barely contained hideousness and insanity lurking behind the thin veneer of beauty and calm of everyday life--the murder of the mundane. Both discs overflow with the promise of a bloodletting; there are so many shared references to razors and knives, to secret kisses containing "madness with the bliss," to drowning in rivers of misery and pools of guilt. To listen to the albums without knowing their respective back stories is to think them a double-disc concept album about the gruesome and grotesque lurking among us all; Waits merely acts as narrator, pointing out the monsters among the mortals as they stroll to their doom. "We're all mad here," he growls on Alice; "everything goes to hell," he reiterates on Blood Money, echoing the cuckold of Büchner's play, who figures since we're all doomed anyway we might as well fuck up and fuck around while we can.

But at most, the albums are separated by their use of instruments: Alice plays more like a musical, crammed as it is with French horns and cellos and violas; it's as soothing as it is disquieting, offering lullabies croaked by the voice of death. Blood Money is more dissonant and more disturbed; it sounds like all of Waits' post-Swordfishtrombones albums mashed into a tidal wave of paranoia and rage. In short, it's some bleak and beautiful shit--a Cabaret where the emcee never leaves the stage.

It's so much metaphor set to such strange, strangled music; this is Bone Machine territory--Alice was written around the same time--with the smell of death commingled with the heavenly scent of cotton candy. (Waits once said his music owes as much to the carnival scenes from Strangers on a Train as from, oh, Kurt Weill and Cole Porter by way of Captain Beefheart.) They're hardly identical works: Alice runs rampant with oddball characters, an assortment of sleazos and pervs and sideshow attractions: Table Top Joe, who's little more than two hands playing Stravinsky on a baby grand at the Sands; little Hans, who wears women's undergarments at the Reeperbahn; and poor Edward, who had a woman's face permanently affixed on the other side of his head ("to remove it would kill him"). If Blood Money proffers a narrative (its theme: "If there's one thing you can say about mankind/There's nothing kind about man"), then Alice is the nightmare one has after the telling of the tale.


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