Who are the Rain Dogs? The homeless, broken people who huddle together in the rain and spend their nights in seedy bars. It's Tom's life
. or at least, his imaginary one.
Tom Waits' 1985 release, Rain Dogs, is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It was released after 1983's Swordfishtrombones, which was a departure from Waits' earlier style of his rough-voiced bar-room junkie persona, to his new one, which was, in a nutshell, a white boy with a voice that sounds like a cross between an old black jazz-man and The Angel of Death singing creepy carnival-esque tunes with beat-poetry lyrics. Waits' backing band on this album included such colorful characters as Marc Ribot and even Keith Richards.
Rain Dogs is alternately eerie, otherworldly, staggeringly original, and strangely beautiful.
The album starts off with Singapore, a dark, clanging, claustrophobic song where Waits gruffly spits out lines like "The captain is a one-eyed dwarf, he's throwing dice along the wharf, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king...so take this ring!" As with many lyrics on this album, they seem to be chosen for images and rhythm rather than actual meaning.
The next song is the disturbing Clap Hands, opening with ominous bells and creaking along at a dead man's pace with hollow percussion and Waits singing beat-poetry in a raspy voice. A guitar solo suddenly pierces the empty sound, but it's not your traditional guitar solo. It twitches rather than flows and it's minimalism at it's creepiest.
Cemetery Polka is, in fact a polka, but it's surely a weird one, with Waits singing lines like "Aunt Elaine has gone insane, she lives in the doorway of an old hotel, and the radio, is playing opera, all she ever says is "go to hell!" Uncle Violet, is a pilot, he said there's no pretty girls in France, now he runs a tidy little bookie joint, they say he never keeps it in his pants!" Meanwhile the band screeches and howls like an injured cat.
Jockey Full of Bourbon almost resembles a ballad, performed by Waits' twisted carnival band. Waits almost softly sings the lyrics, but his voice is still as rough as ever. The percussion is mellower than most of the album, and there is a quiet, insistent guitar melody hidden somewhere in the mass of sounds.
Tango Till They're Sore begins with a shifty, drunken piano before Waits starts spouting his nonsensical poetry: "Well ya play that Tarantella, all the hounds they start to roar, the boys all go to heaven, and the Cubans hit the floor, they drive along the pipeline, they tango 'till they're sore, they take apart their nightmares and they leave 'em by the door." This tune actually has a recognizable chorus, and would make a pop tune, if, you know, it wasn't beat-poetry sung by Tom Waits and backed up by wailing trombone.
Big Black Mariah is a rock/jazz tune, with the legendary guitarist of The Rolling Stones, Keith Richards playing along with Waits. The song seems to be about running from the police, and Waits gives an inspired vocal performance, howling out lines and using his gruff voice to its fullest extent."Well he's all boxed up on a red bell dame, Hunted Black Johnny with a blind man's cane, a yellow bullet with a rag out in the wind, out in the wind, an old blind tiger, get an old bell, Jim!"
Diamonds & Gold is a particularly dark song, with almost a normal rock backing, but with an eerie vibe. The lyrics reference the theme of the album, the lowlives of the streets: "Small time Napoleon's shattered his knees, but he stays in the saddle for Rose, and all his disciples, they shave in the gutter, and gather what's left of this clothes."
Hang Down Your Head could indeed pass as a radio hit, a melancholy pop tune where Waits gives an emotional, theatrical vocal performance. A sublime guitar ballad.
The next song, Time, is probably the best song on the album. A beautiful atmosphere, and a simple, humble backing of just an acoustic guitar, a double bass, and an accordion. Lyrics such as "Well she said she'd stick around,'till the bandages came off, but those mama's boys just don't know then to quit. And Mathilda asks the sailors, "are those dreams or are those tears?" so close your eyes son, this won't hurt a bit." Though the lyrics do nothing but tell an abstract story, the imagery and the delivery is gorgeous.
The title track is one of the best songs on the album, a rowdy bar-room tune with an organ intro and Waits howling away like he's possessed. "Give my umbrella to the rain dogs, for I am a rain dog too!" Possibly the singular best moment on the album.
Midtown is an instrumental performed by The Uptown Horns that sounds more like a car crash or a theme song to a bad cop show than a jazz tune.
9th & Hennepin is one of the most interesting songs on the album, Waits reads a poem, backed only by the subtle sounds of a seedy bar. "...and no one brings anything small into a bar around here, they all started out with bad directions, and the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear, one for every year he's away, she said. Such a crumbling beauty. Ehh, there's nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars won't fix..."
Gun Street Girl is a long, rambling banjo tune with Waits whispering nonsense like "Took 100 dollars off a slaughterhouse joe, bought a brand new michigan 20 gauge, got all liquored up on the road house corn, blew a hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette, a hole in the hood of a yellow corvette. Bought a second-hand Nova from a Cuban Chinese, and dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco..."
Union Square is another rowdy rocker in the tradition of Big Black Mariah, but, as most of the songs on the album's second half, isn't quite as original or creative as the first side.
Blind Love is a beautiful country ballad, featuring punk legend Robert Quine and Keith Richards on guitar and backing vocals.
Walking Spanish is a dry, quiet groove with apocalyptic lyrics about Death Row. While the lyrics are always fabulous on the album, the actual song content begins to wear thin by the end.
But that's not true for Downtown Train, a beautiful guitar ballad later covered and made into a pop hit by The Defiler.
Bride of Rain Dog is another twisted horn instrumental, which finally leads into Anywhere I Lay My Head, a beautiful album closer where Waits gives a truly theatrical performance, and the album ends with what sounds like the horn band walking down the street, playing, slowly getting softer until you can't hear them at all.
Overall, Rain Dogs is a masterpiece, a beautiful, strange, utterly unique album that suffers from frontloading and being a bit overlong. The first half of the record is almost flawless, and the second begins to drop off and become less memorable, thought it still has it's high points. The good points definitely outweigh the bad, making Rain Dogs truly a classic album. Recommended for those with a taste for the weird.
Rain Dogs-1985, Island Records. All Songs Written & Produced by Tom Waits, except Hang Down Your Head, by Kathleen Brennan & Tom Waits. All titles published by Jalma Music.