Tom Waits gritty voice is poetry augmented by music. The grittiness is not only in his voice but also in his lyrics. The trademark smokiness elicits more emotion in a sad song and weaves dark stories in much of his catalog.
Many of his title characters are women he’s loved or revelations about himself. Additionally, Waits writes heroines who have names like Martha, Muriel, or Georgia Lee. Others are nameless and still iconic, like a Minneapolis Hooker or the unnamed woman in Dead and Lovely. Tom Waits’ does not write songs built on traditional female stereotypes. Instead, he focuses on situations women consider and sometimes dread. When considering Tom Waits’ standout heroines, many choices, including his wife Kathleen Brennan, immortalized in “Jersey Girl.” The woman in this list are from all walks of life but share one common trait, a masterful storyteller.
Martha-Closing Time (1973)
“Poetry and prose and Martha
All I had was you, and all you had was me.”
Without thinking about Martha, this song is nostalgic. Now, we can look up someone with several clicks of a mouse. When Tom Waits wrote this ballad about a man who risks reaching a wrong number to reconnect with someone he lost along the way. You can imagine Martha sitting in her living room hearing a voice that she may not have heard in years but probably never forgot. Thinking about Martha listening to reminiscing through the phone and the emotions she must have felt are palpable. Without hearing her side of the conversation, you can almost see her compartmentalizing the phone call and picking her kids up from school. One of the fantastic things about Tom Waits is that he creates characters in his music that leave so many questions and open up many emotions.
Please Call Me, Baby-The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
You spit as you slammed the door
If this is love, we’re crazy
As we fight like cats and dogs
I just know there’s got to be more
The protagonist in this song is different from the others because she is with the other character. Much like the other woman, she is solid and firey. You get the sense that they live together, and she has run out being hot-headed. Many songs about relationships show idyllic happiness. Yet, this song is relatable because it illustrates that love is possible and people stay together because of true happiness.
When Tom Waits starts asking for that call, it’s hard not to picture a madwoman walking around upset and trying to cool off before returning home. Sentimentality is amplified because the trademark raspiness is much less defined.
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis -Blue Valentine (1978)
Hey Charley For Chrissakes
Do you want to know
The Truth of it?
This song is about a woman who calls an old flame and tries to make everything seem ok. As she begins to make everything seem ok and reminisces about their unforgettable memories, her intentions become clear. She is trying to make him feel sentimental so she can borrow money because she is in jail. Her last futile attempt is to let Charlie know that she will be paroled on Valentine’s Day. Once again, Tom Waits captures the fragility of human emotion and how even if there are sentimental memories, motives aren’t as altruistic as they appear on the surface.
Red Shoes By The Drugstore Blue Valentine 1978
There’s a little blue jay
In a red dress on a sad night
Tom Waits shows off his deft powers of observation in this song. The refrain of the song tells who this woman is with only a pair of shoes. The additional details he adds portrays a woman so desperate for love that she puts on her best clothes and does everything her lover says to do, even though he is a renegade because she wants to be loved. The line “a compact with a cracked mirror” illustrates the flaws in her plan.
Georgia Lee- Mule Variations (1999)
“There’s a toad in the witch grass, there’s a crow in the corn
Wildflowers on a cross by the road.”
Georgia Lee is the youngest of Tom Waits’ heroines, written to bring attention to an unsolved murder case. In 1997, Georgia Lee Moses poignant from her home in Petaluma, California. The song’s chorus asks the poignant question, “wasn’t God watching?”
Tom Wait’s version takes the listener to the crime scene. He considers all of the things he would have done to prevent this senseless homicide.
Much of Tom Waits’ music focuses on the American counter-culture. This song is a standout because you can hear controlled outrage but also because it’s one of only a handful of songs that focuses on social anger.
Muriel- Foreign Affairs
There’s one more burned-out lampost on Main Street
Down where we used to stroll
And Muriel, I still hit all the same old haunts
And you follow me wherever I go
The lilting saxophone and mention of a penny arcade takes listeners back to the early 1900s. Waits’ character thinking that he could never buy her a ring calls to mind a woman above the person’s social status. The way he is reminiscing about this woman paints a picture of a woman in traditional victorian costume who started not to see a person down on his luck but walked away, perhaps back to the lifestyle she was used to.
Dead And Lovely-Real Gone (2004)
He kept her on a leash
He’s not the kind of wheel you fall asleep at
Although the woman in “Dead and Lovely,” remains anonymous, the tale Waits’ spins is now an ID channel standard. The music has a sinister feel adding to the emotions this heroine must have experienced.
The social-climbing charmer must have met someone in perhaps a bar and had little to nothing. She used the one thing she had at her disposal to attach to a man who promised her the world. Unfortunately, this became her demise. “Her roots were sweet, but they were too shallow” speaks the character of this protagonist and her well-intentioned but misguided quest for love.
The Heroines In Tom Waits Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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