TOM WAITS - A LITTLE LIKE JESUS?
I stepped out over the prostitutes and headed towards the headquarters of my church denomination. The house I was about to move into had been damaged in one of the last bombs of the recent Irish troubles (and no I was not living there at the time and no it was not an everyday occurrence!!!) and I had been relocated to Belfast city centre. Without a television my then girl friend, now wife, and I would sit on the window ledge and watch Belfast give us a live performance on a Saturday night. It was more exciting. A drugs drop there and all kinds of goings on over there and you use that telephone kiosk at your own risk! So, I got used to the prostitutes congregated at the door of the flats. As I walked away from them this particular morning I felt a deep desire to connect, say hello, give them a little bit of dignity that society and this morning me in my actions withholds from them.
Yet, was this not a good Christian upbringing. Prostitutes are no kind of women for a good Christian boy to be making connections with. Of course it was the exact opposite. As I walked away I realised that Jesus would have been so comfortable chatting to prostitutes that he would probably have sat down on the steps beside them and forgot about all the so-called business he had to do at Church House. Befriending prostitutes would have been a higher priority. So as I gazed across all the books I had read and conferences I had attended and sermons I had heard, and even preached, about following Jesus I began to ask why I had not been taught how to just pass the time of day with the people Jesus seemed to hang out with.
Tom Waits has spent his career raising the profile of the people that Jesus hung out with and the Church usually has no time for. Waits most famous prostitute song is Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis. In the form of a note in the seasonal greeting the story is a happy one. Here is a woman whose world is turning around. She is off the drugs and quit the drink and found a man who will love the baby she is carrying even though it is not his. Sadly in the last verse she throws off all pretence and admits there is no man and she needs money to pay a lawyer to get her out of jail. Waits added even more poignancy and sadness to the tale live by adding Silent Night to the beginning. It adds to the possibility of hope but brings reality crashing even more cruelly in the absence of a happy ending.
Waits’ work has been founded on the freaks, the outcasts, the most intriguing of the marginalized. Prostitutes, strippers, fugitives, hoodlums, criminals, tramps, sewer dwellers, soldiers mostly war veterans, murderers, arsonists and the widest variety of drunks imaginable. Where many writers write about themselves or their peers, Waits has a pastor’s care for people he sees, writing songs to empathise, in many ways with the hope of exorcising their demons. Demons seem to over populate Waits’ albums and the devil himself hangs out but so does Jesus in maybe not equal measure but certainly with equal power. Singing about these characters, bringing them alive in songs and no doubt exaggerating them for poetic effect may be one of his ways to “Keep the devil down in the hole.” Another similarity to Jesus and niggling little jibe at the Church is how Waits loves them no matter what. The grace and the dignity he puts into their lives along with the dime or quarter he drops into their hand is never dependent on “successful” conclusions to their tragedy.
The religious leaders of his day could never quite understand why Jesus would hang out with Tom Waitsian characters. He would often say that the doctor does not come for the well but the sick and he would also set a new rule of thumb for our social connections; the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Tom Waits was a last shall be first man. There is a marvellous story to illustrate the point that Jay S Jacob recounts in his biography Wild Years though he is unable to confirm if it is true or exaggerated. Whether it is true or like Jesus story of the Prodigal Son which though not true is most definitely true, who cares!
Apparently near the Main Point venue in Philadelphia there was a restaurant and bar called H.A Winstons. Taking pride in their classy joint they would have a lot of the Main Point performers drop by. They wanted Waits though and he would never come. Classy was not his thing. In most cities he would reside and eat in the wrong side of town either feeling more comfortable there or always researching his songs or both. One night Waits turns up at Winstons and there is great excitement but Waits walks past the classiness and finds Artie the dishwasher who he hangs with for an hour washing dishes, ignoring those who were deserving of his company. Artie had played somewhere with Waits and he thought he would hear his story. The dishwasher was the last in the pecking order and Artie was not liked much but he who was first connected at his level to bring him grace and dignity. Jesus did the same for a guy named Zaccheus in Jericho one day. As a tax collector this little man was reviled in his day as a drug pusher might be in the neighbourhood today. Hated and the last person who deserved time with the days pop star storyteller, it was he who Jesus sought out and had dinner with. Wonder if they did the dishes together!
(this blog is taken from my book THE ROCK CRIES OUT: DISCOVERING ETERNAL TRUTH IN UNLIKELY MUSIC)