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Tom Waits Songs, Lyrics and Quotes

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Chris describes and reviews books, music, merchandise, even laws as a result of personal experience.

Tom on Stage in Praha, Czech Republic
Tom on Stage in Praha, Czech Republic | Source

The first time I heard Tom Waits or heard of Tom Waits was when I was on a break from my job on the midnight shift at a hospital. I was in one of the waiting rooms channel surfing and I heard this god-awful sound. It was Tom playing the piano and singing. I've been a fan ever since. When you say you like Tom Waits, you get one of two responses. Either who? or why? And that in spite of the fact that his songs have been recorded by Alison Krauss, Norah Jones, Rod Stewart, Diana Krall and The Eagles.

This won’t be a “Life and Times of Tom Waits” article. That’s been done. He has had an interesting professional life, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, but I don’t want to give a synopsis of that either. I simply want to tell what has attracted me to this musician, lyricist, actor, observer and interpreter of human thought and behavior for the seventeen, of his thirty-nine years on stage, that I have known of his existence. I also want to share some classic Tom Waits songs, quotes and lyrics.

Here is my personal favorite Tom Waits tune, "Hold On." I'll start with this rather mild and subdued song so you don't move on to another article....for now anyway.

Hold On, Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits

Insightful and Entertaining

I'll resist the temptation to refer to Waits as a philosopher. I find that title to be overused among musicians, poets and authors, even though in some cases it may be warranted, as is the case with Waits. Hold on, did I just end up calling him a philosopher?

In any case, the man does have some insight and an entertaining way of communicating it, not only in song, but also in the simple fashioning of phrases.

Here is a Tom Waits classic, "Get Behind the Mule."

About That Voice

Daniel Durchholz, who has written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post, describes Tom's voice as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.

Tom on his own voice:

"I talked to Robert Siegel, the newscaster on NPR, and he said that most announcers and people in radio, they want their voices to sound older. Because a lot of the news you're delivering is very serious and very heavy, and you don't want to sound like a little kid talking about how thirty-three people were killed in a roadside bomb. You have to compose your voice and your whole demeanor so that it's situated to give weight, dignity, and gravity to all the things you're saying. You want the same thing for your voice when you're a singer. You want your voice and how you're approaching it to suit the material. "

Tom Waits-"Hell Broke Luce" Language warning

Spreading the Gospel of Tom Waits

It has become a kind of entertainment for me to introduce people to the music of Tom Waits. Most people can’t get past the voice. Of course most people can’t get past what they hear on the radio as if that is some kind of proof of talent, creativity and good music.

We listen to a lot of music where I work. Most of the guys are like the rest of the known universe right now in that they listen only to contemporary, so called, country music. If you try playing Hank Sr., they boooo until you put on someone with a name like Taylor, Blake or Rascal. But if I dare put on Tom Waits, it gets serious.

Why do we flock to the polished, generic, same old same old music, packaged in the most recently discovered pretty girl or “mans’ man? Why does our music have to sound like it came out of a bubble gum machine with all blue bubble gum balls? Doesn't creativity, innovation, artistry and brains count for anything? Read the lyrics of a Waits song and compare it to anything you hear on the radio. The average dirge will put you to sleep. Waits will keep you up all night. Today’s popular tunes could be put with lyrics from another song and many wouldn't notice. Put the average performer on stage with Tom and his band as backup and they wouldn’t know where to start or end, or anything in between.

Tom on the Devil, Religion and God

I don’t know if Tom is an agnostic, atheist or believer. I just know that when he makes reference to religion and God, it resonates with me. It’s not that he is blasphemous about God, but he is very disrespectful of humanity’s idea of God. I’d like to think that when Tom walks through the Pearly Gates, God’s going to pat him on the back and say “Good show old chap.”

“You got to tell me the brave captain
Why are the wicked so strong?
How do the angels get to sleep
When the devil leaves the porch light on?”

“The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
There's leak, there's a leak,in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who ore the ones that we kept in
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
God's Away, God's away
God's away on Business”

“El Diablo hizo el mundo mientras Dios estaba durmiendo.”

“There ain't no devil, only God when he's drunk.”

Tom and His Wife, Kathleen

Tom's life off stage includes family. He has been married to Kathleen Brennan since 1980. Here are a couple of quotes which reveal, as only Tom can do, how he feels about the woman in his life.

"I'm Ingrid Bergman and she's Bogart. She's got a pilot's license, and she was gonna be a nun before we got married. I put an end to that. She knows about everything from motorcycle repair to high finance, and she's an excellent pianist. One of the leading authorities on the African violet. She's a lot of strong material. She's like Superwoman, standing there with her cape flapping."

"She's a shiksa goddess and a trapeze artist, all of that. She can fix the truck...she's outta this world...she's bold, inventive and fearless. That's who you wanna go in the woods with, right? Somebody who finishes your sentences for you."

The next song is "What's He Building (in there)."

Tom Waits during an interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 2007
Tom Waits during an interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 2007 | Source

I'll leave you with just a couple more quotes by Tom about music, lyrics and performing.

“Oh, I'm not a percussionist, I just like to hit things.”

“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

“There’s nothing more embarrassing than a person who tries to guess what the great American public would like, makes a compromise for the first time, and falls flat on his face… I would rather be a failure on my own terms than a success on someone else’s. That’s a difficult statement to live up to, but then I’ve always believed that the way you affect your audience is more important than how many of them are there.”

What's He Building in There? by Tom Waits

If you've never been introduced to/exposed to the music and lyrics of Tom Waits, I hope this has been a pleasant experience. Tom has twenty-four albums totaling nearly 400 songs. He covers the range of Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll and whatever Alternative means. Sure, it may be an acquired taste for some people, but hey, you drink coffee don't you? And I'll bet you've even struggled down a slice of papaya now and then, so give him a try, or a chance. He may just win you over.


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    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Tom is interesting and he is different. That's why we like him. Thanks for visiting my hub.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Mind Warp, I checked out Doc Savage's website. That is some great music on the "wind and Fire" album. Thanks for reading my hub and taking the time to comment.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      7 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I like this music. He is different, and I like people that are not boring and run of the mill. Thanks for a great introduction to a great artist. He obviously isn't run-of-the mill, either, as he married a woman who can do everything.

    • carter06 profile image


      7 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Thanks for this interesting hub about an interesting guy...really enjoy reading about someone different in the music scene...cheers

    • Mind Warp profile image

      Mind Warp 

      7 years ago

      What a coincidence! My buddy, Doc Savage (Savage Roads, lead on album "Wind and Fire") ... and I were just talking about him the other day! GREAT guy, all around!

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      I don't know of another song writer whose lyrics are as poured over as much as Tom Waits', unless it is Bob Dylan. Voice, lyrics and instrumentals are a perfect match. Thanks for reading and commenting. It is good to meet you Theeyeballkid.

    • Theeyeballkid profile image


      7 years ago

      Love Tom Waits, I don't think there is a more original artist that has had such a long and established music career.

      My fave waits tune "Falling down", "Time", "9th and Hennipin", "lonely", "A good man is hard to find".....ah there are too many to name. Great hub.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      I knew there had to be a few of us around here. I was watching the Hell Broke Luce video and thought about writing a hub. I've gotten thirty-four pageviews in the last seven hours, so I'll be happy with that. Thanks for coming by and it is nice to meet you.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      7 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the insightful hub on a truly brilliant artist. I also am a huge Waits fan and Hold On is one of my favorite Waits tune. But I agree that he is the type of artists that a number of people just don't get.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      It is amazing to me how many people don't know of him and yet he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Alison Krauss, Norah Jones, Rod Stewart, Diana Krall and The Eagles have all covered his songs. Well, I guess I got lucky. Thanks for stopping in Mhatter. It was getting lonely in here.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for shedding this light on Tom Waits.


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