If you search Waltzing Matilda on Kazaa or another P2P network, you might hit on one of the most beautiful songs ever. It starts with a short piano intro and a raspy voice: "Wasted and wounded/it ain't what the moon did/Got what I paid for now".

It's by Tom Waits, and if you hear it and you are untouched I question your ability to feel. I played it for my father, who had not been in Australia for 15 years, and he started to cry.

Sometimes I listen to it on the bus home, and I cry too, though I have no connection to Australia beyond my residence here. I cry because I will never write a song this good; because I will never find out why "Matilda's the defendant/she killed 'bout a hundred"; because I am not and never will be Tom Waits.

On bad days this knowledge causes me some joy. Then the song plays again, and I realize it does not matter how low I feel, or how much lower the narrator of the song feels. Such simple solutions cheapen what is, simply, art. Go, waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, You'll go a waltzing Matilda with me , he sings, and there is no other voice, no other pain.

Now I lost my Saint Christopher now that I've kissed her And the one-armed bandit knows

What else needs to be said about this man ( On Bushmill's I staggered), his femme fatale, his piano? The rest of Small Change, the album this song opens, lives up to its beginning. I have still not heard the original Waltzing Matilda. I do not know if Tom Waits had a bad experience in Australia, or a good one, or an indifferent one. I don't know influences, narrative history, or who Matilda represents.

It doesn't matter. Listen, and be transformed.

Wasted and wounded
It ain’t what the moon did
I got what I paid for now

The first time I ever heard this song was at around two in the afternoon on a commercial radio station, played by some mischievous DJ who was possibly hoping to get fired. It caught my attention. It’s not often that you have your lunch interrupted by a guy who sounds like Paul Robeson throwing up, singing about prostitutes, drinking and begging someone to stab him.

Later in life I explored Tom’s back catalogue a bit more thoroughly. Tom Traubert’s Blues is by no means his best song, but in the same way that Stairway To Heaven isn’t Led Zepplin’s best song, or Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t Queen’s best song. It is an extraordinary song, and seems to contain the essence of the man in a way that none of his other songs do.

No one speaks English
And everything’s broken

Most people are probably hooked into the song by its usage of Waltzing Matilda as a chorus. What keeps you interested are the huge, epic, evocative, enigmatic lyrics. “I’m an innocent victim of a blinded alley, and I’m tired of all these soldiers here”, he sings, and Christ knows what he’s on about. The cumulative effect of the lyrics is to create a kind of spoken-word abstract movie, with unnamed characters with indiscernible motives struggling in some unspecified crisis. For a long time I thought it was about immigrants from some country describing their experience in some other country. I had a phase where I was convinced that it was about troops fighting in Gallipoli.

Tom himself is very vague about the song’s significance. It’s subtitled “Four Sheets To The Wind in Copenhagen”, and research shows that Tom spent a night on the town with Danish singer Mathilde Bondo shortly before the song was written. As for the identity of Tom Traubert, Tom says that he was a friend of a friend who died in prison.

No, I don't want your sympathy,
The fugitives say that
The streets aren't for dreaming now

It all begs a question about meaning itself. One of the great unsolved mysteries of modern music is: would lyrics which we describe as poetry actually count as poetry without the music to help us. It’s an interesting problem. I certainly think that the king of the rock-poets, Bob Dylan, falls down without the music to back him up. I can’t imagine Dylan Thomas writing a line like, “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”.

One of the essential differences is meaning. The words of traditional poetry are heavy with meaning, an inner logic that bursts through the rhymes. Whereas lyrics can have a meaning that exists some place between the music and the words. I can give you a line like “the girls down by the striptease show” and it doesn’t mean much on the page. But couple it with the chord descent that it’s given in Tom Traubert’s Blues and you immediately understand the significance. It speaks of the failure of modern life, and the emptiness of cities, and the loneliness that everyone feels deep down. That feeling doesn’t come from the music or the lyrics but some place in between.

So, after spending half of my life contemplating this song, I’ll say this: I really have no idea what it’s about. Perhaps there’s a simple explanation for why this song affects me so. Perhaps there isn’t, and the problem is that some things can’t be neatly deconstructed into simple essays explaining our emotions, but need to simply be experienced in a purely a priori fashion. Perhaps all great song lyrics are integrally linked to the music that accompanies them, and to separate the two is like separating the head and body of a living creature. Perhaps I just need to drink more budget Scotch. All I know for sure is that my heart breaks when he sings:

It’s a battered old suitcase
In a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal
No prima donna
The perfume is on an old shirt
That is stained with blood and whiskey
And goodnight to the street sweepers
The night watchmen, flame keepers
And goodnight Matilda too.

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