The buzz is that first-time nominee Jon Bon Jovi might just win a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Mary, I can hear your Woo-Woo from here.) Fifteen hopefuls altogether. They are singers and songwriters but, first and foremost, they’re storytellers. Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer is about a fictional working class couple, Tommy and Gina, who struggle to make ends meet and stay together. Tommy “used to work on the docks” because “union’s been on strike, he’s down on his luck”. Gina works at a diner, “workin’ for her man”.
Stories. Memories. Small moments. They’re important to us as writers. We can learn a lot from songwriters like Bon Jovi and Tom Waits.
Tom Waits is a nominee, too. You could say he’s a poet, a barfly poet with a warm lumpy growl. But Waits says he doesn’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet – so he calls what he does an ‘improvisational adventure’. The man is like an antenna. It seems like whatever is out there finds a way in. His memories and small moments are embedded in his stories. There’s the small-time gangster who gets blown away by the big boys, the tough whore who sleeps with a torn-up teddy bear, the barely employed sucker who spends his spare time and puny paycheck at the local saloon, the cabbies, newsstand dealers, shoeshine boys and all-night waitresses. Waits tells the same stories all the time but he makes each one sound different.
Marion Roach Smith, in her slim volume, Writing What You Know: Realia, said “Remember the small.” Waits takes the snapshot. He narrows the lens. He gets specific. When he sings, you feel the chicken wire, breathe the dust, see folks cook pigs on overturned beds (“Filipino Box Spring Hog”) and stir their brandy with nails (“Get Behind the Mule”).
Waits mixes truth and fiction. He carries a crumpled notebook filled with bursts of serpentine scrawl. Started with a line I read in the paper one day, Waits says. Some of his ideas come right out of The New York Times. “They fall right out of the paper and onto the tape recorder.” Sounds like more of Marion’s advice: Use the muse you’ve got.
Waits’ whiskey-and-bar-stool stories speak to us. Come spring, I’d like to see a glass panel etched with his signature in that Ohio museum.
But Waits doesn’t appear to be focused on that kind of Glory.
He just hopes there are nightclubs in Heaven.
Speaking of Heaven, read my version of Heaven on Toni’s Page.
Tom’s crusty tunes, like Warm Beer and Cold Women, are just one side of this performer. Here’s Tom singing Young at Heart. Who knew?