An Album That Changed My Life: Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits
I was 15 and growing up in London at a time in the early 80s when your attire was a direct indication of the music you were listening to. I had already gone through a ‘Rude Boy’ and a ‘Mod’ phase, then a ‘Futurist’ phase in quick succession. (I was able to do this because my older brother had a pretty broad taste in music.) It was a time when you could wear make up to school and no one would start questioning your sexuality. Music meant everything to me. I would lock myself in my bedroom listening to David ‘kid’ Jensen and John Peel on the radio, and buy 7 inch Singles with every spare bit of cash I had. Peel introduced me to such a diverse array of music from The Carter Family and Mrs. Miller to The Cocteau Twins and Husker Du.
One day I was watching a TV show called Eight Days A Week, and the presenter Robin Denselow introduced the Tom Waits video for ‘In The Neighborhood’. After the clip finished Denslow said Waits sounded like he had washed his mouth out with razor blades. I was immediately hooked, not just by his voice, but by the narrative in the song, about a circus filled with outcasts, lacking the talent to be intriguing, that comes through a small town.
It felt like a culmination of the Doors’ ‘People are Strange’, the 1932 Tod Browning film ‘Freaks’ and ‘The Basement Tapes’ by Bob Dylan and The Band. It felt like Tom Wait’s vision was so clear to me. I always felt like good music had the ability to do that; to make completely relatable, and familiar characters, and transport me to their space.
Later I wouldn’t be able to believe that the same person who wrote ‘In the Neighborhood’ could, on the same record, also write ‘Johnsburg Illinois’, a tender love song about his wife’s hometown.
I started to backtrack, buying an early compilation ‘Asylum Years’, which contains a song called ‘Ruby Arms’ where he talks about leaving everything behind except his railroad boots and his leather Jacket. Right then and there I had had to buy a leather jacket, that’s what Tom Waits music meant to me.
Michael Awosoga-Samuel is a bookseller and music specialist at Readings Carlton.