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Radiolab Reads: Innocent When You Dream

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - 03:30 PM

Ferris wheel Ferris wheel (DanDeChiaro/flickr)

Lately the only song I want to hear is "I Don't Want To Grow Up" by Tom Waits.

I Don't Want To Grow Up from Anti Records on Vimeo.

I want to hear it when the alarm goes off, when people talk about stem cells, when there’s a swine flu pandemic…and it turns out it’s also a good soundtrack to apartment hunting in New York City (“I don't wanna live in a big old tomb on Grand Street – boom!”). It rolls along on just 4 parts: a crappy acoustic guitar, a fuzzy electric, upright bass, and this old nut shouting about how everything is just a con. People should play this song for their kids early and save them a lot of disillusionment and heartache.

I don’t know much about Tom Waits himself, so I started flipping through Innocent When You Dream, a “reader” spanning his career. I mostly just skip the articles and read the interviews. Tom can be an impossible interview subject, but never straight-up rude like Sid Vicious or Bob Dylan. He’s slippery. If he’s bored with the question (poor sap reporter: “What have you been working on lately?”), the answer will spiral immediately into a long hallucinatory ramble about Mexico and motels and miracle cures. It’s like the pitch meeting for a David Lynch movie, and totally effortless. A fan of his music might love those interviews because they’re not unlike his songs…and even if most of the time you don’t actually learn anything about The Man, it’s fun to visit the hall of mirrors.

But I get bored with the unknowable hobo routine, and yes! sometimes the guard does comes down. It’s usually only when he’s talking to an old friend. You get Tom and Jim Jarmusch shooting the breeze as they drive around, and the self-mythologizing vanishes. He becomes a little bit more like the young Tom, the balladeer (if funnier), and a little less like Captain Beefheart. And then, a minute later, the car catches on fire – really!

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I know you want a fun fact, so: Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, is apparently to thank for his turn toward more abstract, bizarre music (such as Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Yearsicon). There’s a nice moment where he talks about how she told him that he could take all of these disparate sounds that he loved and make them his own, which is what he did with Swordfishtrombones iconand every album since. Kathleen has been writing songs with him for years now, too, and it’s kind of a relief to know that some of his more inventive music is actually the product of two minds. She’ll have a dream about a prison riot and a fish bone, and then they run with the ball.

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Comments [3]

braininjury

my high school english teacher used to play his students tom waits, and always mentioned how he got his voice to sound the way it did,
cod liver oil, cheap whiskey, cigarettes, and screaming into a pillow

Mar. 06 2013 09:50 AM
bryk

We used this as our daughter Avrie's song at her baby naming. Also, my wife and I used "Little Trip to Heaven" from Tom Waits as our wedding song.

Often, I too want to "put a hole in my TV Set"...

Sep. 30 2011 10:48 PM

This song is scary!

Sep. 17 2011 07:33 AM

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