The Air Is Wet with Sound



. . . being a collection of artists who influenced Tom Waits, who shared influences with Tom Waits, who got drunk with Tom Waits, who were influenced by Tom Waits, or who in some other goddamn way are connected to or resemble or remind me of Tom flippin’ Waits . . .



1.                   Mose Allison: Your Molecular Structure

Midway between jazz and the blues sits Mose Allison, whose relaxed piano playing and off-kilter lyrics were an important early influence on Waits.


2.                   Dr. John: Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya

Mac Rebennack has been an important player in the New Orleans music scene since the 1950s, and even had a hit single (“In the Right Place”) in 1971, but his defining moment is undoubtedly the 1968 solo album of which this is the title track. (The album was reportedly recorded during studio time left over from a Sonny and Cher session.) His crazier-than-life Mardi Gras persona—Dr. John, the Night Tripper—blended the voodoo magic of New Orleans with the hallucinogenic magic of California.


3.                   Ray Charles: Sinner's Prayer

Ray Charles was largely responsible for turning r&b into soul, in part by his forceful use of gospel music elements. (Of course, he was hardly the only 1950s performer to blend the sacred and the secular; those weren’t Ezekiel’s wheels Jerry Lee Lewis was singing about in “Great Balls of Fire”!)


4.                   Howlin’ Wolf: Evil

More than six feet tall and flirting with the 300 pound mark, the great Howlin’ Wolf dwarfed the motorcycle he would sometimes drive on stage. A chance encounter with bluesman Charley Patton (another important influence on both Tom Waits and Bob Dylan) turned the young Chester Arthur Burnett from a farmhand to a future musical legend. Short on subtlety, long on ferocity, the Wolf helped bring the blues of the Delta to Chicago and shaped the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and countless others. They say there’s a life-size statue of him in Chicago, but if that were true, I’m sure we could see it from here.


5.                   Dock Boggs: Country Blues

Dock Boggs learned to play the banjo in the mountains of Virginia, where he was born in 1898 and began working in the mines before he was a teenager. Dock recorded a few sides in 1927, as record companies scoured the Appalachians to feed a growing market for “hillbilly” music, but the Great Depression brought an end to such costly musical forays in 1929. There is a popular misconception that little interaction between black and white cultures in the South occurred before the 1950s, but recordings like this—which mixes the influence of Anglo-Saxon balladry with African-American country blues—show how false that perception is. Boggs was rediscovered, and began recording again, during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.


6.                   Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on You

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins has the questionable distinction of being both pioneering influence and cheap rip-off artist. Hawkins was a great and bizarre showman (he used to emerge on stage from a coffin, with a flaming skull named “Henry”) who recorded otherworldly r&b singles, none more brilliant than this 1956 classic. Years later, on his 1991 album Black Music for White People, a nearly forgotten Hawkins recorded cover versions of Waits’ “Heart Attack and Vine” and “Ice Cream Man,” initially taking songwriting credits for both.


7.                   Harmonica Frank Floyd: Swamp Root

Sam Phillips is famous for having said (before he happened upon a young truck driver named Elvis Presley) that if he could just find a white man who sang like a black bluesman, he would make a million dollars. Harmonica Frank, who—like Presley—would record at Phillips’ Sun Studios, fit the description perfectly: unfortunately, he was already in his forties and sounded like a 100-year-old bluesman out of Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America.” Having honed his craft on the medicine show circuit, Frank specialized in ribald songs, cheesy patter, and gutbucket blues. “Swamp Root,” recorded in 1951, is—like all great rock—the offspring of primeval cavemen and hydrocephalic extraterrestrials.


8.                   Lenny Bruce: How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties

Hipster Saint Lenny Bruce married traditional stand-up comedy to beatnik attitude. He openly discussed sex, politics, religion, and racism . . . and, in reward, was hounded by police and censors. Essentially an improvisational artist, Bruce—like too many other great jazzmen—died of a heroin overdose, at the age of 40. Waits has called his work “the road that all comics of today are driving on.”


9.                   Ken Nordine: I Used to Think My Right Hand Was Uglier than My Left

Ken Nordine has been blessed with a perfect voice, one that has allowed him a long and fruitful career as a radio performer and voice-over artist, heard in more commercials than anyone could possibly count. But his real genius lies in the spoken word performances he calls “word jazz,” which he has been recording since the 1950s. He has also worked with both Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead.


10.               The Fugs: Nothing

Friends of Allen Ginsberg and other counterculture luminaries, the Fugs (in particular Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg) bridged the eras of the beatniks and the hippies. The Fugs sang about sex, politics, drugs, and philosophy, connecting the ridiculous and the sublime (or, more accurately, showing that they were pretty much the same thing) by recording adolescent rave-ups like “Boobs a Lot” next to musical adaptations of British Romantic poetry. The group took their name from the euphemistic spelling used in The Naked and the Dead by novelist Norman Mailer, who was reportedly greeted at a party by Tallulah Bankhead with the exclamation, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck!”


11.               Charles Bukowski: The Best Love Poem I Can Write

Born in Germany but raised primarily in Los Angeles, where he haunted Skid Row, Bukowski published more than 50 volumes of wonderfully crude poetry and prose.


12.               Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Tropical Hot Dog Night

A child prodigy, Don Van Vliet (the “Van” was his own addition) was offered the opportunity to study painting in Europe, but ended up in the Mojave Desert instead. Smart move: while there, he became friends there with Frank Zappa. Like Zappa, Beefheart starting out playing fairly traditional blues and rock in the early 1960s, and both became increasingly eccentric (and brilliant) as the decade progressed. Beefheart pairs his bizarre imagination with an incredible vocal range (four and a half octaves) and complex musical intuition.


13.               Jim White: When Jesus Gets a Brand New Name

Although White started out sounding very Tom Waits-like, he has been developing his own distinct voice, richly informed by Appalachian balladry, Southern gospel music, and bizarre gothic imagery.


14.               Chuck E. Weiss: Devil with Blue Suede Shoes

You can’t hardly get more impressive cool credentials than these (not since the Rat Pack died off, anyway):

1.       toured as a drummer for Lightnin’ Hopkins.

2.      Hung out with, and wrote with, Tom Waits.

3.       Opened a nightclub with Johnny Depp.

4.      Had a hit song written about his love life (see #16).


15.               Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos: Postizo

A former member of New York scenesters the Lounge Lizards, Ribot has also worked with Tom Waits (on Rain Dogs). Waits speaks: “This Atlantic recording shows off one of many of Ribot's incarnations as a prosthetic Cuban. They are hot and Marc dazzles us with his bottomless soul. Shaking and burning like a native.”


16.               Rickie Lee Jones: Chuck E.’s in Love

A gruffer, grittier, beatnik-ier answer to Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones met Tom Waits in Los Angeles in the 1970s. “Chuck E.,” of course, is their pal Chuck E. Weiss. Amazingly, this was a hit single in 1979!


17.               Chocolate Genius: My Mom

I’m noticing that a lot of people on this CD developed alter-egos that took over their lives (or at least their careers). I’m not sure what that means, but here’s another one. Marc Anthony Thompson hung out with Marc Ribot, and all of the other cool kids, in downtown New York’s avant-garde watering holes. Now he’s super fly.


18.               Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Love Letter

Aussie Nick Cave was a member of celebrated goth-punk band Birthday Party in the early 1980s. In 1983, he formed the Bad Seeds, who perform gloomy songs that sound like an Edgar Allan Poe nightscape, and not all of which are about death. But mostly.


19.               Kaizers Orchestra: Markveien

I don’t know anything about these guys, but this is how Waits describes them: “Norwegian storm-trooping tarantellas with savage rhythms and innovative textures. Thinking man's circus music. Way out.” Sounds good to me!


20.               William Elliott Whitmore: Cold and Dead

Up-and-coming Americana artist Whitmore combines a stripped-down folk sound with an ancient-sounding voice and a morbid fascination with evil and death.


21.               Dave Van Ronk: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Unlike Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart), Dave Van Ronk achieved his “Van” non-surgically. Mostly this is because Van Ronk is from New York, where cosmetic nomenclature implants are seen as a sign of Californian decadence. Also because the city was founded by the Dutch, many of whom arrived in (or with) Vans. Van Ronk was waiting atop New York’s burgeoning folk scene to greet Bob Dylan when he arrived from Minnesota in 1961. Since the two did not yet know each other, however, that meeting had to wait until they already did. At that meeting, Dave reportedly offered his Van to Dylan, who stole his thunder instead.