Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Waits Breaks Loose

"I’m always looking for sounds that are pleasing at the time. The sound of a helicopter is really annoying until you’re drowning, and it’s there to rescue you. Then it sounds like music."
-Tom Waits, in Sasha Frere Jones' New Yorker review/feature
Like Randy Newman, Tom Waits already sounded like an old man on his first record, so it shouldn't be a surprise that both artists are still going great guns. And while Waits' new record Bad as Me sounds more or less like what you'd expect from him—the carnival-barker-bluesman-in-a-barn shtick—the record's penultimate track, "Hell Broke Luce," is a shattering breakthrough. On 12th listen, give or take, I'm prepared to say that this howl of PTSD rage ranks as one of the five or 10 best things he's ever done, and in a sense it's the work that his entire career has built up to.

What do I mean? While Waits has expressed anger and vitriol before, there's often been a comforting theatricality about it, a once-removed wink that lets us off the hook a little bit, puts a little literary distance between his howling and yowling and the realm of authentic pain and suffering. When he's barked "God's Away on Business" or "Misery Is the River of the World," he's done it with an emcee's leer; you can see the crumpled top hat and gold-toothed grin; even the harrowing "Murder in the Red Barn" has a camp Guignol affect about it. When Waits has poured real ache or outrage in his songs, it's been in quieter songs like "Georgia Lee" ("Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God listening? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee") or the uncharacteristically topical panorama "Road to Peace."

"Hell Broke Luce" is something else altogether: Its anger and confusion and nastiness are immersive and immediate. It's the first time, it seems to me, that Waits has used all that trademark clatter and atmosphere—the handclaps and stomps and echoes, and in this case, gunfire and what sound like ululuations—to put us viscerally into a scene rather than to powerfully suggest a mood ("Clap Hands," most of Swordfishtrombones) or, if he's telling a more conventional story ("Franks Wild Years," "What's He Building in There"), to put us in the presence of a narrator, a raconteur. There's no such distancing screen here, or if there is, it's fused to the narrator's own dissociative disorder. His name seems to be, or used to be, Geoff, an Iraq war veteran who's seen some fucked-up shit that's still rattling around his brainpan. And I do mean rattling—the phrasing and form of this song, though artfully controlled (check out the "Taps" moment at 1:52), is as disorienting as its noisescape. I swear here advisedly, too, just as Waits does in the song: The man's language, for all its pungency and ugliness, has very seldom been outright profane, so it's arresting to hear him simply declare within three lines, "That big fuckin' bomb made me deaf."

If you've ever glibly joked that Tom Waits sounds like a crazed homeless person screaming at you on the train, this song will straighten that grin right out; this doesn't sound like play-acting anymore. Just as he's spent the better part of his career honing his skills creating bang-on-a-can soundscapes, I think that Waits has had to go through a whole career of playing the addled and dispossessed, of trying on the hobo's clothes, to earn the right to be inside Geoff's skin. He's definitely crawled into it, and damned if this song won't crawl under yours, too.

Indeed, it's interesting that Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece pegs another song on the record, "Talking at the Same Time," as sounding like an outtake from Threepenny Opera, when it's "Hell Broke Luce" that is clearly a "Kanonen-Song" for the age of IEDs and scrap-metal Humvees. Waits practically quotes the Brecht/Weill tune's catalogue of casualties:
Kelly Presutto got his thumbs blown off
Sergio’s developing a real bad cough
"Real bad cough" might double as a description of Waits' voice. He's never used it with such lethal purpose before.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Better Lyrics for Brel

I perform with the band more or less weekly at Greenpoint Church, and about once a month I lead the music, meaning I pick the music. I'm always trying to come up with fresh stuff, and over the years I've brought in arrangements of Bob Marley tunes ("Thank You Lord"), the Psalm 23 theme from The Vicar of Dibley, and a bunch of tunes from Goodbye Babylon.

Last week, Pastor Jen told me she'd be preaching on the golden calf, idolatry, and placing our trust in what really matters, and I thought of "If We Only Have Love," the Jacques Brel tune, of which I've got a recording from the so-so Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris 2006 (which I reviewed for Newsday). I accordingly found the lyrics online and picked out the tune on guitar. I ran the lyrics by Pastor Jen, and she was satisfied that they fit the theme.

I wasn't quite satisfied with them, though. There were false rhymes and odd images, as in the closing lines:
Then with nothing at all
But the little we are
We'll have conquered all time
All space, the sun, and the stars
Really? I thought that might sound a little strange in church, and even the lyric's references to Jerusalem and drinking from the Grail felt a little odd to me. Then I remembered this passage from Sondheim on Music:
I fell in love with Jacques Brel's music long before that revue [Jacques Is Alive and Well]. In fact, I got all the French records. It was Judy Prince who introduced me to Brel's stuff, and I just bought every record I get...When I went to see Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, I loathed the lyrics, and that would have turned me off, if anything. Even though I don't understand Flemish or French very well, I'm so glad that I heard it first with him singing his lyrics, and read a translation on the LP albums, or had Judy translate them for me. That had the real flavor. I don't think the English lyrics carry the flavor well at all.
Digging around on the web some more, I learned that Brel's widow much preferred the translations of Arnold Johnston, a professor at Western Michigan University, but these translations aren't findable online. I was, however, able to track down a literal translation of Brel's "Quand on n'a que l'amour" here. Though these weren't singable in English, they were so much simpler, clearer, and more forceful than the ones by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. No mention of Jerusalem or the Grail, for the one thing, and two details struck me: Where Blau and Shuman's version had the hippie-dippie image, "If we only have love/We can melt all the guns," Brel's had the more poetic, "When we've nothing but love/To talk back to a gun." And the closing lines? Nothing about conquering the universe with love, but instead this beautiful statement:
So, while having nothing
But the force of loving
We will have in our hands, friends
The entire world
So I burned some midnight oil turning this literal translation into singable English lyrics, and I thought I'd share them with the Internet.

When We’ve Nothing But Love
By Jacques Brel

When we’ve nothing but love
As the gift that we bear
Then the path that we’re walking
Is the passion we share

When we’ve nothing but love
Between lovers and friends
Then each day is a voyage
And the trip never ends

When we’ve nothing but love
As the promise we give
And our treasure is faith
Every day that we live

When we’ve nothing but love
To enliven our days
And to brighten the dark
In this city of grays

When we’ve nothing but love
As our reason and mind
And the song that we sing
And the help that we find

When we’ve nothing but love
To serve food to the poor
To give clothes to the naked
When they knock at the door

When we’ve nothing but love
That we offer in prayer
To the evil that rages
In the world everywhere

When we’ve nothing but love
When we answer the call
Of the people who struggle
Just to go on at all

When we’ve nothing but love
As our compass and guide
To discern the best path
When beset on each side

When we’ve nothing but love
To talk back to a gun
And we’ve only got songs
To convince war it's done

So we’ve nothing but love
What is all this love worth?
My friends, barely nothing
Just the whole blessed earth