Tom Waits' 'Mule Variations' at 20: A Track-by-Track Retrospective

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Tom Waits performs on July 17, 1999.

Tom Waits is known to many as a carnival barker, a railroad hobo, a balladeer of heartbreak four sheets to the wind. But on his 1999 masterpiece Mule Variations, he plumbed beyond the bottom of the bottle to the depths of human experience.

For a while, the image worked. His debut album was 1973’s Closing Time, an after-hours songwriter record about navigating the dating world as a boozy lothario. By 1976, he found the act to be limiting -- at worst, glib and disrespectful. “There ain’t nothin’ funny about a drunk,” he said. “I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out.”

The tipping point came when he married his wife, Kathleen Brennan, in 1980. Since then, her collaborative influence has led to decades of colorful, impressionistic albums -- and 1999’s Mule Variations is the pinnacle of them all. Tuesday (April 16) marks the album’s 20th anniversary.

Waits and Brennan met on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola film One From The Heart; he composed the score, and she was working as a script analyst. Her keen imagination and cinematic flair brought new dimensions to Waits’ songs. “I'm the prospector, she's the cook,” explained Waits. “I think we sharpen each other like knives.”

Co-producer Brennan helped fill Waits’ songs with characters -- needless to say, strange ones. And Mule Variations is a panorama of Waits’ most well-crafted oddballs. Cue up any song, and you’re liable to hear about eerie neighbors, hayseed preachers, or a child with an eyeball for a head.

Bizarre humor aside, Mule Variations is also full of ballads -- wizened, aged, with a patina Waits songs lacked before. “Take It With Me” and “Picture in a Frame” contain a wealth of sentimental detail, set to an ocean of creaky, decaying piano notes. “Georgia Lee” is a devastating reaction to a real-life young girl who was found slain in Petaluma, California.

It all adds up to his richest, most well-rounded listen. Whether you prefer your Waits poignant, prickly or impossibly strange, there are Variations here for you. Here’s a track-by-track retrospective of the album.

“Big in Japan”

Mule Variations begins with a peculiar racket: a tape recording of Waits roaring in a Mexican hotel room like a wild animal. “I started screaming and banging on this chest of drawers really hard, ‘til it was kindling,” said Waits. “It sounded like some guy alone in a room, which it was, trying his hardest to sound like a big, loud band.” This soundbyte gets blown up to IMAX size: Primus’ bassist Les Claypool and guitarist Larry LaLonde tear up the mix like rampaging giants. “I see myself in the harbor, ripping up the electrical towers, picking up cars, going in like Godzilla and levelling Tokyo,” said Waits. “Big in Japan” is about a puffed-up palooka bragging about his overseas appeal; whether or not his story checks out, Waits and Primus play like they have the whole damn nation on their knees.

“Lowside of the Road”

“Lowside of the Road” was inspired by a blues anecdote. The story goes that in 1930, Lead Belly was jumped by a group of white men, produced the penknife he used as a guitar slide, and summarily went to jail for attempted murder. “He was rolling over to the low side of the road,” said Waits in a 1999 interview, as if he witnessed the knife-fight firsthand. “I think we all know where the low side of the road is.” He took the abyssal vibe even further. Waits envisages a nightmare-world of reversals: a horse whipping its jockey, a dice throwing a man, Jezebel naked with an axe. The bare, devastated music suggests Job scraping at his boils. Welcome to your personal lowside.

“Hold On”

Just as Variations threatens to topple into darkness, Waits delivers “Hold On,” one of his warmest, most empathetic songs. It began with the Waitsian sight of a street dancer in freezing weather. On a bus trip with his young daughter, Kellesimone, Waits saw a character cutting a rug on a street corner, sans music. His child’s response? “It must be hard to dance like that when you’re so cold and there’s no music.” Instead of mining the sight for cheap laughs, Waits grew it into a meditation on tenacity -- and his marriage to Brennan. When the world feels hostile, take his hand, stand right here, and hold on.

“Get Behind the Mule”

“Get Behind the Mule” is a song of instructions. Don’t let the weeds get higher than the garden. Keep a diamond in your mind. Meet me by the fall-down tree. It was inspired by, of all people, the father of the mythologized bluesman Robert Johnson. “Trouble with Robert is that he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plow,” Waits quoted the elder Johnson as saying. “That was the life that was there for him,” he added. “To be a sharecropper.” Humble beginnings for the father of the blues. Maybe Waits could relate. He was a doorman, a firefighter and a Coast Guardsman before he ever dipped a toe in the music business. Whether you’re a sharecropper or songwriter, “Mule” could be about any hard day’s labor.

“House Where Nobody Lives”

“What makes a house grand, it ain’t the roof or the doors/ If there’s love in a house, it’s a palace for sure.” Not Waits’ most penetrative insight, but there’s plenty of sentiment to mine in “House Where Nobody Lives.” It begins with Waits inspecting an abandoned domicile. The paint is all cracked. There’s papers stacked. The folks have long moved away. The questions begin. Did it hold laughter, dreams or heartbreak? Do the experiences within a home add meaning once they’re done? Truth be told, “House Where Nobody Lives” may be the fifth best ballad on Mule Variations. Which speaks less to its emotional value than to the almost unbearably moving “Take It With Me” or “Georgia Lee.”

“Cold Water”

A slovenly and besotted blues, “Cold Water” follows a day in the life of an itinerant drunk. You may have woken up with a latte and a trip to the gym; Waits’ character did with ice water on his face to revive him. Not that he’s complaining. He reads the Bible by a 40-watt bulb. He found an old dog, and it seems to like him. As the storefronts flip to their open signs, he panhandles for a bottle of wine before winding down in front of the tube -- in the window of a furniture store. Rather than ending up jeering or exploitative, “Cold Water” is a long belly laugh; Waits’ protagonist is happy. Despite his indignities, he sleeps like a baby with the snakes and the bugs. I mean, do you?

“Pony”

“I’ve written these songs before,” said Waits of the plaintive “Pony.” “You’re way out from home. How are you going to get back?” Here, his character falls out of his front door to a host of misadventures. He ran his race with Burnt-Face Jake and built a fire on the side of the road. “I lived on nothing but dreams and train smoke,” Waits adds; given his past life living in his car and the Tropicana Motel, this reads autobiographically. But “Pony” reaches somewhere deeper; like his hero Charles Bukowski’s poem “Bluebird,” it’s about whether Waits’ wearisome path will leave his essential soul intact. A long scrape of slide guitar from Smokey Hormel is all the backing he needs.

“What’s He Building?”

Most of us piece together our neighbors’ lives from two or three clues; the loud fight, the strange coat of paint, the car that never leaves the driveway. “What’s He Building?” is that speculation turned up to 10. Waits uses eerie sound effects to create a theatre of the mind. Fetid water drips on concrete. Hammers crack and echo outward. “He’s all to himself,” Waits notes, to the sound of flickering radios and buzzing power tools. “I think I know why.” “What’s He Building?” is hilarious because it’s so petty; for all the ominous vibes, Waits is agonizing over a shaggy lawn, a pile of magazines and the hook-light on the stairs. As for the construction project in the garage, that’s anyone’s guess. But we have a right to know.

“Black Market Baby”

“Black Market Baby” is of a proud Waits lineage: a head-over-heels love song for a disreputable, strange woman. But this one was mostly Brennan’s; she hatched up the title and the line “She’s a diamond who wants to stay coal.” (“That was almost finished the minute that she said that,” he said.) Waits matches Brennan’s gallows images with marvelous, atmospheric music. Every aspect of “Black Market Baby” sounds seedy and lived-in, like Waits is pitching woo in an ill-at-ease basement speakeasy. “Every time you play the black/ The red is coming up,” he sings of his felonious paramour, like a night of romancing will result in her ticket back to Spain and the bill charged to your room.

“Eyeball Kid”

Mule Variations’ most outlandish song came from an unlikely source: Nicolas Cage, who reintroduced Waits to the world of comic books. (“It was inspiring to see him keep alive some of those principles that we associate with childhood,” said Waits.) Cage’s influence produced a disturbing character for a song: the Eyeball Kid, whose head consists of only a big, blue eye. But Waits isn’t in it for the scares; this is showbiz, baby. The unblinking oculus gets a manager and his name in lights at Carnegie Hall. “It's a metaphor for people that get into show business,” said Waits. “They usually have some kind of family disturbance or are damaged in some way or another.” To that end, maybe you know an Eyeball Kid yourself.

“Picture in a Frame”

Waits is famous for filling his songs with idiosyncratic places, dates and times, but he’s just as skillful at peeling back the layers. “Picture in a Frame” maps out a love affair in 34 words. Every detail of this love song hangs. He greets the morning sun. He comes calling in his Sunday best. “I’m gonna love you until the wheels come off,” he vows with a dash of mirth. “Oh, yeah.” Waits’ sonorous piano seeps into every corner of the mix; when Ralph Carney’s musty gospel horns kick in, your heart may leap into your throat. The effect is of sepia-toned bygones and sticking together despite the odds.

“Chocolate Jesus”

For any believers who’d rather sleep in on Sunday, Waits has a sacrament for sweet tooths everywhere. “Chocolate Jesus” is about a hallowed treat with a cross on one side and a Bible inscription on the other. He’s not knocking Christ; to Waits, the Chocolate Jesus provides tangible satisfaction without paying a tithe at the end. “It’s an immaculate confection,” said Waits. “Someone might think it's blasphemous, but it's actually kind of a grassroots spirituality.” And where better to record this secular hymn than outdoors, with an actual rooster crowing along? “He was not paid,” clarified Waits. “He's just transient. But I paid him in one form: he's still alive.”

“Georgia Lee”

In 1997, a 12-year-old girl named Georgia Lee Moses disappeared from her home in Santa Rosa, Calif. She was found slain in a grove of trees by a freeway on-ramp in Petaluma, Calif., nine days later. There were no suspects found. Her case is still unresolved. It clearly struck a chord with Waits, a father of three; he sat in the back of her funeral. “A lot of people came and spoke,” he said. “Everybody was wondering, where were the police, where was the deacon, where were the social workers, and where was I and where were you.” Soon after, he sat at the piano and composed a rending ballad in which he petitioned God for answers. Instead of wallowing in grimness, he surveyed the Californian landscape; a crow in the corn, a toad in the witchgrass, wildflowers twisting around a wooden cross. He didn’t get sanctimonious, he only pleaded and wondered. Most importantly, he honored and dignified Georgia. Her namesake song may be the most touching he ever wrote.

“Filipino Box Spring Hog”

Waits never got sadder than on “Georgia Lee”; on its unlikely follow-up, “Filipino Box Spring Hog,” he pulled out every raucous, rib-tickling trick he had. Simply put, it’s about a bunch of squalid, half-naked block-partiers roasting a swine on the box spring of a mattress. Let him introduce you to the guests. Spider is here from Hollister Burn. He sees Bill Bones and gives him a yell. They lay out a questionable spread: rattlesnake piccata, mincemeat filigree, turkey-neck stew. “Stinks like hell and the neighbors complain!” he crows. Brennan even showed up as part of the motley crew -- to her playful chagrin. “Gee, thanks a lot!” she told Waits. “You finally stick me in a song, and I’m sitting in a bar in my bra.” The soundtrack is goofy, grinding metal: downtuned chords, DJ scratching and Waits screaming and roaring like he’s having the time of his life. You, too, will want to change into your worst and join the party. Swat them flies and chain up the dogs!

“Take It With Me”

“You can’t take it with you,” goes the old American idiom. Treat pain and pleasure as they are -- as fleeting as life itself. If you don’t want to leave here, you better not come here. Waits’ heart-stopping piano ballad, “Take It With Me,” says the opposite. Life, it seems to say, can be like a videotape, or a journal. You really can bring your memories with you to the other side. Every detail of the song feels woozy, half-awake, like the dawn of a half-remembered morning. Waits and Brennan drink champagne and fall asleep on the porch. Children play as the day winds down. If you’re wondering what you’ll bring with you when it’s all said and done, raise a glass to “Take It With Me.” “All that you’ve loved is all you own,” he sings. 

“Come on Up to the House”

The closing song on Mule Variations is for anyone oppressed within, an exhortation to drop the self-pity and trust there’s someone watching out. It would be Gospel language, if not for the best line: “Come down off the cross / We can use the wood.” “Come on Up to the House” is Waits’ non-denominational gospel, a series of encouragements set to a lumbering, martial beat from Andrew Borger. If you’ve ever felt flogged and beaten from within, whether by grief or by regret, Waits’ song is a port in your storm. Waits had never written with this level of tenderness, safekeeping or empathy. If he sounded like a woebegone kid on his early records, “Come on Up to the House” suggests a caring guardian. That’s the lasting impression of Mule Variations and of Tom Waits’ songbook. That there’s a light in the tunnel.