Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's playing today? Tom Waits Mule Variations - music of uncompromising sadness and beauty

Photo credit Richard Beckwith (from Tom Waits Library)

"I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things" Tom Waits
Tom Waits's music is not for the fainthearted. His darkly poetic lyrics, his voice and use of instrumentation challenge the listener's assumptions. Waits tell stories that draw the listener in. He is at once social observer and social commentator. His songs reveal and uncover something of the mystery of life and the grit and grime of the world we inhabit.

One thing I like about his music is that it grounds us in the fragility and cycles of everyday life. Many of his songs are about people who inhabit the margins, about human suffering, desolation, love, tragedy and despair. But they are also about the lighter moments, moments of joy and beauty and of levity, and particularly humor. Waits is the funniest songwriter.

Tom Waits's 1999 CD Mule Variations is one of those CD's that I play over and over. It is an album of songs of such richness and depth about human experience and human suffering, all sung and played with the unique style, voice, originality and musicality that is a feature of Waits body of work.

One song is perhaps the the most startling, achingly sad and affecting songs I have heard. The slow ballad Georgie Lee tells the true story of a 12 year old girl who was found murdered by the side of the road near Waits home. (the full story behind the events that inspired the song and its creation and subsequent events can be found here)

The song begins:
Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She's too young to be out on the street
In the chorus that follows and is repeated through the song Waits poses the unanswerable question
Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?
Georgia Lee is a despairing song of desolation, but one of such compassion- for the young girl, for her mother, and for all of us who witness and feel suffering in the world and ask ourselves how can that be. Waits's work is infused with compassion. In all his songs there is such compassion for his characters

But here is Waits's genius. It is also a song of contemplation about some of the eternal mysteries- if god exists why does he allow such terrible things to happen? How are we all implicated in the death of a child? How could "we" allow this to happen?

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