Weekly Download Vol. III No. 9

Anywhere I Lay My Head by Tom Waits – This is how you get Tom Waits.

This song, perhaps absolutely my favorite Waits’ song, unleashes Waits’ unmistakeable voice in its gravel-throated explosive glory, refusing at all to fuck around. It’s a fantastic test case to learn whether or not Waits is ever something you’ll listen to. Because this is him, right here, up through the 2nd line coda, all of him.

In the last couple of years Waits has reached that ultimate level of artists for me. He crafts tales of the down-trodden with fractured metaphors piled on top of witty, often humorous, observations leading to incongruous conclusions, often absurdity and he pours out emotions, both warm and ice cold, so stark I feel directly plugged in to his head.  I’ve never read (hear) a word he’s written and don’t immediately crave more.  There aren’t many like him.

I once read a seriously hipster piece on Waits (N.B. I can’t find it to link) with many great anecdotes about Waits as they related to the author (including a disturbing aside about the author’s daughter running a way from home and then only re-appearing after singing Innocent When You Dream off the back of a train…). But one point that stuck with me was the writer’s belief that listening to Tom Waits was a musical palate cleanser. Meaning if she had been listening to a lot of junk (Kayne) then Waits was what refreshed her musical taste buds to allow her an untrammeled appreciation of the next bunch of junk (Foster the People).

My immediate neither-politically-correct-nor-particularly-pious thought about was: Jesus, that’s retarded. My secondary-thought-after-seriously-thinking-about-it-too-much was: She may be on to something. But palate cleanser is an inapt metaphor. Waits doesn’t refresh one’s musical tastebuds from the trash (Coldplay) listened to as much as he’s a caustic pumice forcibly dislodging the junk (Bon Iver) mindlessly stuck in your head from which you can’t seem to escape. This, for me, is completely accurate. When everything starts to sound boring and unoriginal a good shot of Rain Dogs can clean you out like none other.

He takes up a place so separate from any other music I listen to. I’ve tried for years to include any Waits’ track on a mix CD for a proper windshield time soundtrack and have failed spectacularly save for once. Any such CD, even filled with solid and purposeful cuts, comes across as: song, song, song, song, @#$%WAITS!@#$#, song, song, song…… It doesn’t flow, and frankly is outright disconcerting. (N.B. my one success was placing the Waits’ song Way Down in a Hole (known from the opening credits of The Wire) immediately after the completely stellar Spotieottiedopalicious by Outkast. I don’t know why it worked, maybe the horns, but it just did.) (N.B This is also why his new album, Bad As Me, while a completely killer sampling of everything he’s every done but also new and pitch perfect (including the unbelievable duet with Keith Richards, Last Leaf) won’t be on any of the WD year-end best-of stuff (Next three weeks, hold your breath).

But more than any of that, Waits is special. Musicians are artists. In a sense silence is their canvas. I once read (again no link, sorry) an argument that no one understood and took advantage of the canvas of silence better than Johnny Cash. I dearly love John Cash, but I disagree. Tom Waits takes silence, perfect silence, mashes it and mangles it and paints it with sonic flourishes of hope and despair, of the uplifted and the cursed, of the perfectness of love and the inevitableness of life. He commands silence with his aural vision the way Van Gogh claimed a canvas for his perfect colors. And Waits’ vision, like life, isn’t often pretty or even pleasing, but with his grunting and grating and blasting horns, morose guitar, soulful piano and weapons grade voice, he makes it sound real. And that’s why I love him. There is no pretension. There is silence and then there is real. Waits is between.

I love tattoos. I love other people’s tattoos. (N.B. so does Waits: and the girl behind the bar’s got a tattoo tear / one for each year he’s been away) Living breathing epigraphs of some thought, some feeling their adornee once had. Sometimes as simple as “I’d really like a tattoo” or as complex as “this will really make my mother hate me.” Sometimes a mistake, the evidence of which you carry with you. Sometimes the purest thing about you. But always a distinct marker in the road-map of you.

Jimi Tatu in Dallas, Texas put my first tattoo on me when I was 19 and all I wanted in the world was to be “a guy with a tattoo.” Sometimes I try to trace back through the thought process that led me there. I struggle with that 19 year old. I still like him, but I wonder about him. I have never once regretted it, that first tat.  Even as the stigma of having one ebbs and flows with wherever I find my current station, I’ve never once described it as a mistake.  When questioned, I only ever offer: you were 19 once too.

My newest second tattoo is not 6-weeks old. It’s two lines from this song.

I see that the world

is upside down.

It seems that my pockets

were filled up with gold.

Here’s a story: In February 2010, I began training for the relay of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon in a boondoggle conceived and orchestrated by my very good friend and connoisseur of all things, Tdunn (gigantic ups for finishing 26.2, hoss). Committing was textbook “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” But I was committed, if only to finish my leg (10k). I trained and was literally running more than I ever had before, measuring it in miles and hours lots of minutes. And frankly, getting in decent shape.

However, during this training, I started having bouts of diplopia (Greek: diploos (double) opsis (vision). Foreigner refers to it as double-vision. Maddening and headache inducing double-vision that struck me at will. Walking, my face would contort into creepy one eyed squint.  Sitting at my computer, I’d be forced to cover one eye and lock down to continue what I was reading. As I drove, things got….interesting.

Of course I correlated the two, the running and the impaired vision. Just as I was formulating a grand argument with my diplopia as evidence that humans simply weren’t meant to run distances greater than stand-up triples or kick-off returns (neither of which I’d ever done), I began having various other neurological funnies, (equally maddening optic neuritis, tingly hands, permanent pins and needles in my feet). I’d had these intermittently in the past, but now these symptoms seemed to be working in concert to tell me something was up.

So then I went to a doctor, and then I went to another doctor, and then I sat through three seriously long MRIs, and then my drs. conducted an analysis of my cerebrospinal fluid extracted through a procedure called lumbar puncture but known colloquially by the way more WD friendly spinal tap. All done to tell me what Google had told me months before, I have relapse-remitting multiple sclerosis.

OK, I drafted an extended explanation of MS, the history, the symptoms, the pathology all of it. Then I nodded off while proof-reading it. Instead, here’s what I came up with. My immune system’s relationship to my central nervous system once led me to believe said immune system should be envisioned like this:

We will protect you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But now because of some genetic abnormality which is neither understood nor fixable, my immune system is more accurately envisioned like this:

Never mind, fuck you!

 

 

 

Make sense? I’ll spare you any more details, but know that through the collaboration of a number of specialists, I’ve been fitted with an apparatus whereby I can still type and communicate akin to Stephen Hawking…..kidding, kidding. (N.B. but I do now have free reign over all, and I mean all, cripple jokes.)

MS is incurable and degenerative. Scary words, the combination of which means it will only get worse. The medicine (and of course there’s medicine, expensive medicine, big Pharma.  But thank you both Chesapeake and Obamacare for ensuring me access to it.) is meant both to slow the worsening (N.B. and make me feel important by having to inform the TSA that there are syringes in my carry-on) and, I guess, to remind me every morning I have it.

For now the prognosis is a waiting game (not months, years, hopefully decades) to see what “only get worse” means. Today it means I’m terrible at golf….., am prone to mining for sympathy from the one person who’ll never give it to me, and pretty much doing everything else exactly the same. But in 15, 20, 30 years, who knows?  Not the doctors. There’s a chance it will be a nuisance, forever ruining my chances for the Senior Tour.  There’s a chance it will one day be assisted ass-wiping time (love me some cripple jokes). But I would say there’s still every reason to believe my death will come as I’m trying to switch CDs while driving.

Some of you, loyal downloaders, know most of this and can aver I’m still the same inappropriateness fraught wreck you went to junior high or graduate school or waited tables with. MS is perfectly manageable for most people. (N.B. And a lot of really famous people have it like Lou Gehrig, Muhammed Ali, Clay Walker and Montel Williams……) But it is weird.  Really weird. For someone who (maybe unhealthily so) can be at times preoccupied with death, particularly his own, thinking of myself as someone with a “disease” (terrible word) certainly adds an interesting layer to the narratives contained within said preoccupations. But what do you do? Tonight I’m blogging, sipping on a stout, listening to Waits, occasionally twittering, tomorrow I’ll wake up and get out of bed and pretty much just keep waking up every morning after that.

And one last thing. Indulge me.

We just put you to bed. You were especially giggly tonight. I fed you carrots. Then you and mom read a book. Someday I hope you read this, so you’ll know about me and mom in Dr. J. Mike’s office on that Monday officially confirming what we already knew and asking him if the medicine I’d inject into myself every day might keep us from ever having you. About us afterward at the bar deciding if trying to have a child was still a good idea. What if things get really bad? And then about two days later when we learned you were already on the way. You had been there all along, right with us. The team was already together. You were already there, you little shit, giggling about how worried we were. And how the very first thing you ever did, before you were really anything, was pick up dad in the middle of bad week. Thank you buddy. Dad loves you.

If you think your world is upside down, check your pockets. Enjoy.

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