Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Time by Tom Waits


Written and performed by Tom Waits. The song originally appears on his Rain Dogs.   You can listen to the recorded version here. You can buy the song from iTunes here.  You can buy Rain Dogs from iTunes here or buy the CD from Amazon here.

A beautifully sad song that will break your heart, Wait’s sings the song in the second person, addressing not only the dying man waiting for the bandages to come off, but each of us. It’s lush and warm with an easy melody that gently holds Wait’s gruff voice.  Listen as he leans closer and whispers with an intimacy that comforts and chills, singing as if breaking news of the inevitable, singing as if on the inside or our minds.

The world he describes is “East of East St. Louis,” which is a forsaken as you can get, though it might be called Desolation Row. It’s a world filled with the lost and forgotten: Harlow and Napoleon, orphans and sailors, shadow boys and a calendar girl who pulls a razor from her boot.

There is no narrator, no easy story line to follow. Instead, we see a world open before our eyes and slip away at the same time.  It’s a hard world, one full of chaos (“the shadow boys are breaking all the laws”) and hints of meaning and the apocalypse (“the wind is making speeches/And the rain sounds like a round of applause”). Everyone’s packing up and vanishing: “the band is going home, it’s raining hammers, it’s raining nails.”

 As life appears to slip away from the recipient of this song, who else can be singing but death itself. So death shares a secret about our memories:

And they all pretend they’re orphans and their memory’s like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget
That history puts a saint in every dream

It’s enough to drive a man to drink (Kerouac once said, “I drink to remember, then I drink to forget.”) But there is no escaping, as if our eyes are wired open (think Clockwork Orange) and forced to watch. People vanish, we are left with whom we are:

Well she said she’d stick around until the bandages came off
But these mama’s boys just don’t know when to quit
And Mathilda asks the sailors “Are those dreams or are those prayers?”
So close your eyes, son, and this won’t hurt a bit

As pathetic as the bandaged man may be, as pathetic as we are, we clamor for nothing more than time. Thus the chorus sung, not with bravado, and tinted by more than a smattering of hopelessness, but sung just the same:

And it’s time time time, and it’s time time time
And it’s time time time that you love
And it’s time time time

Yes, it’s time that we love. Just a little more time to savor, just a little more time to do what we always wanted to do, just a little more time to change, to make right the unholy life we’ve led.

The song ends with glimmers of salvation. No, we never get out of this world alive, but maybe we can have more time, maybe we can have another chance. What will we do with it? Campaign with the fervor of the born again?  Or live the life we always have because that’s whom we are and when death nuzzles up against us the next time, we’ll still plead for more time to let us live in this world inhabitated by so many strangers and broken hearts:

So put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips
As the dish outside the window fills with rain
Just like a stranger with the weeds in your heart
And pay the fiddler off ’til I come back again

I can share a Tom Wait’s anecdote from the early 80’s. It was New Year’s Eve and my bride and I decided to make a real night of it, so we splurged on some used tuxedos Antique Boutique, a used clothing store on lower Broadway and headed off to the old Tramp’s on East 15th Street. David Johansen performed that night n his Buster Poindexter persona, this ere the early days of that show, before the album and the video and the flash in the media. We arrived after stopping at two other parties and the Guinness flowed well.  Sometime late that night after all the clocks had stopped, I found myself leaning against the bar next to Tom Waits.

Some years earlier, I listened while a greybeard lectured on the proper etiquette for denizens of Manhattan. New York Cool, he called it, and defined it with a parable: you’re sitting at a diner counter and Jesus Christ himself plops down next to you. You might give a nod, but the most you’ll say is pass the salt.

So I’m standing next to Tom Waits and I blow whatever New York cool I might’ve had. I turn and say, “Hey, Tom Waits.”

He looks at me with his pointy chin and scrabble beard. “Yeah.”

Now I’ve got nothing, no plan, no real thought, other than, how cool, I’m standing next to Tom Waits. I’ve got nothing to say, but I speak anyway. “You know that Swordfishtrombones album, I really like that album.”

He fixes me with eyes too tired to be open. “YOU bought it.”

“Sure, I buy all your albums.”

“You and my mother.”

I knew enough to leave the bar and not tell my bride about seeing Tom Waits till we headed home

 Want more on Tom Waits? There’s a neat Tom Waits website here and you can read another blog piece on this song here.


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