Waits wrote the song in the 1970s, when his music was usually a bourbon-soaked mix of jazz and blues, with a Sinatraesque ballad thrown in here and there, and as major themes booze, gambling, and bad women. Everything changed, however, when he met Kathleen Brennan. She got him to give up drinking, introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart, and thereby induced his major shift to the almost absurdistic albums he made from that point on, like Swordfishtrombones, Raindogs, and Bone Machine. I must admit I usually prefer the post-Brennan crazy stuff. His 1970s ballads could verge dangerously on the sentimental and the cliche-ridden; meanwhile, nothing beats the spooky weirdness of What's he building in there?, or the brutal stomp of Singapore.
Except, that is, for this one song. The lyrics conjure up strong images, yet are sufficiently abstract to give the song an enigmatic quality - and to provoke lots of debate on what the song is about. Some think it is about addiction, or even suicide. Tom Waits himself usually introduces the song by saying "this song is about throwing up in a foreign country." Supposedly he wrote the song after a drinking binge in Copenhagen with Danish singer and violinist Mathilde Bondo (hence the subtitle "Four sheets to the wind in Copenhagen"). Another story is that he wrote the song after hanging out with LA's down-and-out ("every single guy...a woman put him there" he is reported to have said).
I used to think the song was about the First World War - seriously. When I started listening to Tom Waits I had been playing Irish music for a few years. The standard repertoire includes The Band Played Waltzing Matilda by the Scottish-Australian songwriter Eric Bogle:
That song is about WW1, telling the story of one of the many Australian soldiers caught up in the murderous meat grinding machine of Gallipoli, in what was in those days the Ottoman Empire. The title of Bogle's song (and the chorus in Waits') refers to Waltzing Matilda, an Australian folksong about a transient worker that was (and still is) Australia's unofficial national anthem. Apparently, 'To waltz Matilda' is Australian slang for travelling by foot with your belongings stuffed in a rucksack. Bogle's song describes how Waltzing Matilda accompanied the soldiers' march to and from the battlefield, their remembrance marches, and perhaps even their afterlife:
And their ghosts may be heard as you pass by a billabongSo when I heard Waits sing:
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
I'm an innocent victim of a blinded alleyI couldn't help but imagine a lonely American, lost somewhere in a faraway corner of the crumbling Ottoman Empire (say, present-day Egypt, or Jordania), with nothing but his once fancy, but now torn and dirty clothes and shoes. And what about these lines?
And I'm tired of all these soldiers here
No-one speaks English and everything's broken
And my stacys are soaking wet
You can ask any sailor and the keys from the jailerI figured the old men in wheelchairs could very well be the veterans in Bogle's song:
And the old men in wheelchairs know
Matilda's the defendant, she killed about a hundred
And she follows wherever you may go
And now every April I sit on my porchBogle wrote his song in 1971, so it is possible - but I'm quite sure it is a coincidence and Waits did not have The Great War in mind when he wrote Tom Traubert's Blues.
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Renewing their dreams of past glory
I see the old men, bent, stiff, and sore
These tired old heroes of a forgotten war
And young people ask: what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question
Not that I care much for whether he did. To me, this image of a forlorn Westerner, lost in a country where he does not speak the language while the world is crumbling all around him, fits the lyrics perfectly. The song has a loneliness and a lostness to it that Waits must have recognized in the LA skid row (or in the Copenhagen porcelain truck after his drinking binge with Mathilde). I usually play the song on my mp3 player when I'm abroad for work. When you are in the bus from the center of Reykjavik to your hotel in a depressing office quarter at the border of town, nothing fits your mood better than hearing this grinding voice wail
It's a battered old suitcaseJust writing it gives me goosebumps: a wound that will never heal. When we travel, we leave behind the places and people we know and love. But we also develop a fondness for the place we've travelled to, which only gets stronger as we stay there longer. What I'd give for just one more bike ride along the coast of Santa Barbara, or a Guinness in Gogarty's, Dublin, or a fried fish and a vinho verde in some small unassuming restaurant on the Azores... Wherever you go, even if you go home, part of you still wishes you were back somewhere else.
To a hotel some place
And a wound that will never heal