Six Degrees of Tom Waits’s Bad as Me

Austin L. Ray

By Austin L. Ray

on 10.26.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Bad As Me

Tom Waits

While rattling off a litany of things that encapsulate his badness on the shit-kicking, self-titled first single from his new album, Tom Waits barks, "I'm the blood on the floor/ the thunder and the roar/ I'm the boat that won't sink/ I just won't sleep a wink." Then, not much later, he eschews metaphors altogether, instead laying it out a little more obviously: "No good, you say? Well, that's good enough for me." With Bad as Me, Waits, who's now in his 60s, kicks off his fifth decade of recorded output with his 20th studio album. At this point, he's earned the right to boast. Speaking recently with Pitchfork, Waits said that his wife, Kathleen Brennan, advised him to keep it short this time around. "Get in, get out," she told him. "No fucking around. Because people don't have a lot of time." Apparently, he took this to heart, as 13 of the 16 songs on the deluxe version of the album fall under the four-minute mark. "You can do a lot in two minutes," Waits said later in the same interview. "I'm starting to get more economical as I go. Don't overstate, don't restate." The less-is-more mindset works well here, with many of Bad as Me's finest moments coming from its most compact songs. "Back in the Crowd" is simple and sentimental, its Spanish tinge highlighted by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. "Chicago" is carried by sax and trombone and chased by Marc Ribot and Keith Richards's complementary guitars, while Waits hopes that "maybe things will be better" in the titular city. (All this, and it barely tops the two-minute mark.) Elsewhere, "Get Lost" and "Bad as Me" are equal parts swagger and quick-and-dirty wanderlust, the kind of stuff a confident old dude can pull off without sounding disingenuous. "Let's go get lost," Waits sings on the former, as if he talking to the listener. "I wanna go get lost." Let's indeed.

The Teenage Rockers

These English rockers found rather massive-if-fleeting fame in 1964, striking hit single gold with "Tobacco Road" and backing Jerry Lee Lewis on his feral, classic album, Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg. The Nashville Teens' fame would be short lived, but another young man who would one day be known for his impressive live show was experiencing teenager-dom across the pond and sponging up influences. Waits would play rhythm guitar and sing in an R&B-influenced rock band called The Systems in 1965, covering the Ventures and trying to be as cool as Link Wray. To this day, there's still a whiff of "Tobacco Road" in his more straight-ahead rockers

The Bad Mother—


Isaac Hayes

The bad-is-good concept in recorded song is a time-honored tradition with countless artists bragging about their supposed badness. Michael Jackson declared "I'm bad" in 1987, George Thorogood was "Bad to the Bone" in 1982, and Albert King (by way of Booker T. Jones and later covered by Jimi Hendrix, amongst many others) was "Born Under a Bad Sign" in 1967. But there's only one "bad mother shut your mouth!" and that's John Shaft, whose epic double-album soundtrack was written and produced by Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes.

The Rockabilly Raver

Buddy Holly Fifty Favourites

Buddy Holly

Last time we heard Tom Waits doing the rollicking, hiccupy vocal stylings Buddy Holly owned in the 1950s was on the excellent "Lie to Me" from his 2006 collection of weirdos and wild ones, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. He brings the endearing trick back here on "Get Lost," one of Bad as Me's finest moments, backed by burping saxophones and trombones, a small army of guitars, and some keyboards for good measure.

The Unsatisfied Rockers

Out Of Our Heads

The Rolling Stones

On "Satisfied," which features Keith Richards on guitar, Waits sings, "Now, Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, I will scratch what I been itchin' before I'm gone." Drilling the point home a little later on, he asserts, "I will have satisfaction." A sister song of sorts, it's of course referencing the Stones' anthem, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," which was first available on the U.S. version of this early record from the band, nestled amid a bunch of American R&B covers, including Otis Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is."

The Fellow Weirdoes

Life Fantastic

Man Man

While these Philly art rockers have been saddled with unending Waits and Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart comparisons since their 2004 debut, if the oversized circus-junkie shoe fitsYes, Honus Honus owes his junkyard-bark grit to Waits, but more importantly, just like the man who made Bad as Me, this is a group willing to evolve with time. For instance, Life Fantastic is their most mature and pop-oriented album to date. Waits started his recording career by leaning up against a piano on his debut album; perhaps Man Man will end its own that way?