Feature compiled by Jack Foley
REAL Gone is the unpredictable follow-up to
the atmospheric and conceptual Alice and Blood Money,
the two acclaimed albums Tom Waits released simultaneously in
the spring of 2002.
In an exciting departure from those CDs, Waits has crafted a
musical hybrid, grafting together sonic and ethnic worlds from
both old and new musical traditions.
Written and produced by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, his longtime
musical collaborator, the 15-track CD features primal blues, Jamaican
rock-steady grooves, African and Latin rhythms and melodies and
what Waits calls 'cubist funk'.
And, for the first time, there is no piano on the record.
"I moved my piano into the studio. But I didn’t use
it. After Alice, (primarily a piano record) I was looking
for different voicings and approaches to the songs," explains
"We wrote most of them a capella and let the words determine
the shape of the songs."
The crash and collide of rhythms and genres within a song are
punctuated by a live band and turntable playing to Waits’
home recorded voice percussion.
In this sonic cubism Waits has adapted some of hip-hop’s
cut and paste approach to his own aesthetic.
As a result, his vocal percussion, or 'human beat-boxing', replaces
the drums on many of the most driving and raucous tracks.
While Waits has traditionally used voice as an actor, inhabiting
each song with a different vocal character, on numerous songs
here he uses it as a chugging, sputtering, wheezing, syncopated
engine of sound and rhythm that can explode like a string of sidewalk
firecrackers, or sound like the dark incantations of a street
Waits recorded hours of vocal sounds and rhythms in his bathroom
at home, and he and Brennan began writing songs to them.
Originally, Waits intended to capture the feel of the raw tapes
with the trio - Marc Ribot (guitars), Larry Taylor (bass) and
Brain Mantia (percussion).
He wanted to make a record more visceral and explosive then the
more stylised, European, and intricately-arranged Alice
and Blood Money. But things changed when the band arrived.
"I couldn’t find the textures anymore. The temptation
was to send everyone home," he reveals, candidly.
"But Mark Howard, the engineer, the band and Kathleen convinced
me to transfer the tapes and just play live over them.
"Then the problem was - what do you add to the song without
collapsing it? What do you keep? Some we paste and cut.
"We used most all of our first takes and on the spot mixes.
The band got it instinctively… we recorded a lot of songs.
Some came out like old cars with new seat covers. Others never
While it sounds like Waits looped his vocals, he maintains: "I
didn’t want to do loops…so I did my mouth rhythms
for the full length of the songs - sometimes longer. I wanted
the inconsistencies in them - I’d overload the mic - so
they didn’t sound like wallpaper."
Turntables first showed up on Waits’
1999 album Mule Variations with Black Market Baby
and Eyeball Kid, but here on Top of the Hill and
Metropolitan Glide - songs Waits calls 'contraptions
containing both funk and r&b' - the turntable is used more
for its spastic syncopation than for atmosphere, as it was before.
"That’s Casey, [Waits’ son who also plays percussion
on several cuts], he has that touch," explains Waits.
"I’ve been hearing turntables and underground hip-hop
blasting in the house alongside Sullivan’s music (Waits’
youngest son) for years now. It’s all mixed in with the
Lomax field recordings I listen to. And whatever Kathleen’s
The songs on Real Gone are some of the longest, groove-laden
Waits has ever recorded.
It wasn’t his intention, Waits notes with a laugh. A couple
of years ago, tired of working with large groups of musicians
and inspired by all the new, stripped down retro blues and rock
bands, Waits wanted to work in 'primary colours'.
"I was looking for the absence of sound. Initially, I was
going to do three-minute songs," he recalls.
"Bread and water. Three legged tables. Nothing superfluous.
But it’s not where the music took me … recording is
like capturing birds or photographing ghosts, an uncertain enterprise."
On Blood Money, Waits added Brecht to his Weill. The
lyrics to songs like God’s Away on Business and
Misery Is the River were dark social commentaries and philosophical
indictments of the human condition.
Real Gone goes even further with Day After Tomorrow,
a soldier’s wartime letter home.
Without saying so, the song is obviously about the current political
situation. This is a first for Waits.
"My son and all of his friends are draft age and they are
all heading into the world and it’s looking like the whole
world is at war," Waits says.
Hoist That Rag and Sins of My Father also address
events of the day without mentioning particular names, dates,
or places, intentionally keeping the topics more universal and
"It’s the well-worn path of human behaviour, its ironies
and its ills," he points out.
Waits’ lyrics have transformed from the Tin Pan Alley style
and cinematic narratives of his earliest work through to the experimental
and more abstract use of language as sound during the Eighties
to arrive at the more spare and direct lyric form that started
with Mule Variations.
With Real Gone, he has blended the surreal absurdist
qualities of the Eighties for the up-tempo songs, but the lyrics
are more compact and conform more to the irregular meter of the
blues or hollers.
The ballads combine social documentaries and dark tales to weave
morbid consideration of life’s pit and pendulum.
The title of the record - Real Gone - references some
of its themes: a lost mind, a renegade leader, war, love sublime,
love lost, death, desire, escape … places and times beyond
It is also an expression used by musicians to describe the experience
of playing and losing yourself to a place where you can finally
The record alternates between cacophonous, jubilant numbers and
mournful, haunting and spare ballads.
"Yeah," concludes Waits in his pitchman persona, "Real
Gone is an electric pill box, a homogeneous concoction of
mood elevators, mind liberators, and downers, an alchemical universe
of rattling chains, oscillating rhythms and nine-pound hammers.
So check it out."