Sunday 30 December 2007

Tom Waits: theologian of the dysangelion

To my delight (and my wife’s dismay), my collection of Tom Waits CDs has grown nicely this Christmas. I’ve been absolutely addicted to Tom Waits all year – I can hardly bear to hear anything else.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to describe Tom Waits as a “theologian” – as long as we add that he’s a theologian of the dys-angelion, the “bad news.” His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair – and on the horizon of this dark world we glimpse the first faint glow of dawn, the surprising appearance of grace “de profundis” (Psalm 130:1).

God himself suddenly breaks into these songs as a strange and threatening – even monstrous – presence, as an unaccountable interruption of the world’s (dis-)order. One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil / That’s just God when he’s drunk.” Or on another occasion he wonders: “Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?”

In such songs, God bursts onto the stage not as a benevolent projection of our own wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of deity. God appears not as a supreme being who calmly “completes” and “perfects” nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic newness of grace. Divine grace, for Waits, is thus a kind of unnatural incursion, a perversity, a disruption of the way things are. Grace interrupts, it shatters and strips things bare to the bone. And so Waits portrays grace in a way that is uncompromisingly – often shockingly – menacing and grotesque.

Even in Waits’ more “orthodox” gospel songs – and there are many of them, such as “Way Down in the Hole”, “All Stripped Down”, “Down There by the Train”, “Never Let Go”, “Make It Rain”, “Take Care of All of My Children”, “Come on Up to the House” – even here, grace appears as a perverse interruption of a world of murder and brutality and Satanic seduction. Grace breaks open this world like a nightmare or an earthquake – wholly unexpected, unconditional, presuppositionless; impossible to be tamed or assimilated. As Rowan Williams remarks in his study of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, “the actuality of grace is uncovered in the moment of excess – which may be in a deliberately intensified gracelessness” (Grace and Necessity, p. 105). A “deliberately intensified gracelessness” – that is the world of Tom Waits’ lyrical theology. And it’s in this way that Waits articulates the euangelion through a startlingly brutal and disturbing declaration of the dysangelion.

Grace shines from the abyss. It appears in the mode of the grotesque. And if grace is itself dysangelion, it is “bad news” precisely for those of us who are already complacent in our own religion and our own righteousness (our own ready-made “Chocolate Jesus”). It is “bad news” because tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of us (Matt. 21:31), because (as Waits puts it) those who “never asked forgiveness, never said a prayer” are nevertheless grasped and held by grace. It is “bad news” because God – if he is really the God of grace! – is not the God we want, not the God we think we need. He is the God who does not “fit”, but interrupts. He is the God whose Yes is hidden in a shattering No.

But this “bad news” is indeed “good news” – the best and happiest news! – for the undeserving, the criminals, those riddled and rotten with shame and doubt. As Waits puts it in one of his more conventional gospel songs: “Does life seem nasty, brutish and short? / Come on up to the house!” At the world’s dark end, all that remains is grace – grace for the ungodly, which is therefore the grace of God.

Anyway, I’ve gotten carried away with this prelude – but the real point of this post is to list some of my favourite theological lines from Tom Waits’ songs. Here are a few (you can read all his lyrics here):

“I’m close to heaven
Crushed at the gate.”

“Hell is boiling over and heaven is full
We’re chained to the world and we all gotta pull.”

“God used me as a hammer, boys
To beat his weary drum today.”

“The devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand.”

“God builds a church
The devil builds a chapel
Like the thistles that are growing round the trunk of a tree.”

“I left my Bible by the side of the road
Carved my initials in an old dead tree.”

“You can drive out nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again.”

“Did the devil make the world
While God was sleeping?”

“I swang out wide with her
On hell’s iron gate.”

“Well, you say that it’s gospel, but I know
It’s only a church.”

“Well, I got to keep myself, keep myself faithful
And you know I’ve been so good
Except for drinking
But He knew that I would...”

“Goddamn there’s always such a big temptation
To be good, to be good
There’s always free Cheddar in a mousetrap, baby…”

“Well they’ve stopped trying to hold him
With mortar, stone and chain
He broke out of every prison
The boots mount the staircase
The door is flung back open
He’s not there for he has risen…”

“Don’t you know there ain’t no devil
That’s just God when he’s drunk.”

“Well, you leave me hanging by the skin of my teeth
I’ve only got one leg to stand
You can send me to hell
But I’ll never let go of your hand.”


David Bruner said...

Brilliant! I would just add that anyone who wants to really understand apocalyptic in Scripture (e.g., Ezekiel, Revelation, etc.) needs to spend a lot of quality time with Waits' record "Bone Machine." Amazing stuff.

psychodougie said...

i think his profound ability to see good despite the dank, is a part of what you're talking about.

he sees real beauty when all is rotten, and i'm thinking mule variations here in particular, with the hypocracy of self made religion (c/f chocolate jesus), yet the simplicity of other hymns like picture in a frame, covers the real breadth of the tapestry of life.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Bone Machine, the last stanza of "Dirt in the Ground" is amazing:

"Now Cain slew Abel
He killed him with a stone
The sky cracked open
And the thunder groaned
Along a river of flesh
Can these dry bones live?
Ask a king or a beggar
And the answer they'll give
Is we're all gonna be
Dirt in the ground"

Anonymous said...

Ben, your theologically-informed musical tastes are perfect, except in one area: you haven't posted about my fellow countryman Bruce Cockburn. If you want a theologian troubador -- and I know you do! -- then our Bruce is your man!

Alex said...

For those of you who like apocalyptic themed albums, you couldn't do much better than Sufjan Stevens' "Illinois" and "Seven Swans". Illinois especially got really good reviews when it came out in 2005.

Anonymous said...

Over the Rhine's ( new CD 'Trumpet Child' has a song about Tom. It is excellent:

Don’t Wait For Tom

He’s got the hands of a blind piano player
He’s got a feel for the dark like a soothsayer
He takes a little bow and tips his fedora
Shouts like he’s gonna save Sodom and Gomorrah

Workin’ for the circus X railroad bum
Carnival barker for kingdom dot come
Dusty ol’ Gibson opposable thumb
Bangs out the rhythm on a 50-gallon drum

Don’t wait for Tom
Tom’s long gone
He’s already moved on
Don’t wait for Tom
I saw an ol’ ’55 Buick
Just before dawn
I said, Hey, hey Tom
The sun’s comin’ up
You got your wipers on

Are you tryna make it rain again?
Are you tryna make it rain again?
Is it rainin’ just around your bend?
Are you tryna make it rain again?

Sittin’ in a corner with his pet muskrat
Tossin’ his cards into an old man’s hat
He grins at the girls and they always grin back
He bets an old waltz he could get ‘em in the sack

He makes his own music from the bell of a ‘bone
A waitress’s falsie and a railroad phone
Bobs on his knees to an old tarantella
South of the border he stole it from a fella

Don’t wait for Tom…

His triple-jointed juke fingers splay like a scarecrow
He kneels down and whistles to a fallen sparrow
His eyes light up when they wheel in a piano
He reads a dirty joke out of an old Baptist hymnal
He wears a tuxedo made of sackcloth and ashes
Has a tattoo of a girl who can bat her eyelashes
Down on the river he was fishin’ with a sword
He knocked off John the Baptist for a word from the Lord

He takes his coffee with the blood of a turnip
Blushes his cheeks with an Amsterdam tulip
Choppin’ up a rooster for a pullet surprise
If the gravy don’t getcha he’ll getcha with his eyes

Hey Tom

Anonymous said...

I love Waits' ability to describe the power of temptation. For example the song 'Temptation':

My will has disappeared
My confusion is oh so clear

And of course 'The Black Rider', which is one of his most hideously funny songs:

Come on along with the Black Rider
We'll have a gay old time
Lay down in the web of the black spider
I'll drink your blood like wine
So come on in
It ain't no sin
Take off your skin
And dance around in your bones

Weekend Fisher said...

My favorite of them:

"There's always free cheddar in the mousetrap, baby."

Anonymous said...

you have basically said all that i might have to say about mr. waits.
i feel mildly slighted as you have said it first and said it far better. thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

I want to get into Waits. Where do I begin?

Ben Myers said...

Andrew: thanks for the compliment!

Anon: thanks for the tip on Bruce Cockburn. I'm pretty sure I've got one of his albums around here somewhere, so I'll have to dig it out and have a listen.

Peter: thanks for the tip on this Over the Rhine song. I didn't know about it, but I've now downloaded it on iTunes, and it's really great stuff.

Arni: I reckon his best album is the recent 3-disc set, Orphans (2006) — an absolutely astonishing album, but it might be too expensive to start out with. There’s an excellent 1998 compilation called Beautiful Maladies (this was my own first taste of his music, and it really got me hooked). Apparently the most popular album he’s ever released is Mule Variations (1999), which is definitely one of my own favourites — it’s magnificent, very bluesy, very accessible.

Anyway, I can’t give any expert recommendations, since I still haven’t heard all his albums (especially the stuff from the 70s). But at the moment, I’d say his other best albums include Small Change (1976), Rain Dogs (1985), Franks Wild Years (1987), and Bone Machine (1992). And I agree with those comments above: I reckon Bone Machine is definitely his most theologically profound album — an extraordinarily confronting, harrowing, apocalyptic, and also beautiful experience. Oh, and there’s some splendidly dark and unsettling theology on the gripping 2002 album, Blood Money — especially the songs “Misery Is the River of the World” and “God’s Away on Business”.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I recommend Bruce Cockburn's album 'Humans' for your listening and theological pleasure!

adamhill said...

Very cool. I've often thought Tom was the best gospel song writer on the planet.

Anonymous said...

Ben, can i recommend a book to you and your readers for the new year? It is Brown Like Coffee. Kind of wacky but real challenging. I found it at

Anonymous said...

Speaking of apocalyptic in Bone Machine, here's my favorite song from that CD:

All Stripped Down

Well, the time will come
When the wind will shout
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
And all the sinners know
What I'm talking about
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
When all the creatures of the world
Are gonna line up at the gate
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
And you better be on time
And you better not be late
All stripped down

Well, you know in your heart
What you gotta bring
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
No big mink coat
No diamond ring
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
Well, take off your paint
And take off your rouge
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
And let your backbone flip
And let your spirit shine through
I want you all stripped
All stripped down

All the men we got
Well, they're goin' down the drain
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
And when I see your sadness
On a river of shame
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
You got to raise up
Both the quick and the dead
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
With no shoes on your feet
No hat on your head
I want you all stripped
All stripped down

Ain't nothin' in my heart
But fire for you
(All stripped down
All stripped down)
With my rainy hammer
And a heart that's true
All stripped down
All stripped down

Anonymous said...

Fascinating piece. I forwarded it to my 14 year old son, who disdains all things theological but worships Waits. He's been raving (positively, that is) about it. So well done indeed!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Kerry — that's very high praise! And it sounds like your son has his priorities sorted out: good music is infinitely more important than mere theology!

John Mark said...

Sorry to be the wet blanket here, but I find the line about God being drunk offensive. Perhaps some of my betters can explain why this is ok. I do find Mr. Waits poetic gifts impressive, but.....

Ben Myers said...

Hi John Mark. No, you're not a wet blanket. You're absolutely right: it's completely and utterly offensive, shockingly offensive. And that's precisely the point!

Anonymous said...

Hi John Mark,

To add to what Ben has said ...

He refers to Rowan Williams' remark on the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Although a committed Roman Catholic, O'Connor has no equals at giving her readers a smack in the face with grace through stories that teem with the grotesque, the monstrous, and the violent. She believed that such over-the-top hyperbole is the only way of breaking the good news to a culture that is either spiritually indolent or religiously sanctimonious. As she put it: "You have to make your vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

But the Bible itself can be theologically quite offensive. After all, the Psalmist accosts God for sleeping on the job, and Jeremiah goes so far as to accuse him of rape.

Aleks said...

John Mark said...

Sorry to be the wet blanket here, but I find the line about God being drunk offensive. Perhaps some of my betters can explain why this is ok. I do find Mr. Waits poetic gifts impressive, but.....
Friday, January 04, 2008 1:32:00 AM

So be offended, that's ok too. I find many of the things God did in the Bible and has at least allowed to happen in modern times very offensive. The Thai tsunami, Burma cyclone and Chinese earthquake just within recent years. The human relationship with God is not an easy one, and that line provides one explanation for the undeniable horror of the world created and ruled by a benevolent Lord.

Anonymous said...

Another article on Waits: October 2007.

Unknown said...

This article is very interesting. I must say that, even though I myself am not religious, I enjoy Waits' lyrics about faith and Christianity.

"Down There By The Train" certainly takes the piss out of the message delivered by hellfire and brimstone evangelicals, ie, "act like I think you should or else risk eternal damnation". I find the idea of universal salvation to be comforting, even though I can't say that I subscribe to it.

Also, I love the line in that song about seeing Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Boothe. Great stuff.

kevinlyfather said...

If any of you read his books, you would realize that Tom Waits is not religious.


you still have Bono

Mark said...

From most of the quotes from Waits (and then again it's pretty hard to know when he's pulling the audience's leg or not), he seems to be a little like Nick Cave circa mid 80s (or actually current David Bazan) - probably agnostic but obsessed and grappling with this entity some call God.

BTW, Mr. Waits latest release Glitter and Doom is more than a worthy listen. His voice has got even more decadent and sublime. Great blog too

Brian said...

Two years later, thank you for this. LOVE it.

Kevin - thanks for that link. Hearing it from Tom himself is priceless. I'm not too sure if I follow the purpose of the sarcasm in your comment though? Did you not read the words behind the link you posted? Like Mark said, he's not someone you can put in a box...

Brian said...

Two years later, I'm fortunate to have found this blog. Thank you. And I must say - for the first time, I equally enjoyed reading the comments as much as the insights that inspired them...

Kevin - thanks for the link. To hear it straight from the man himself is priceless. But I'm not too sure what the purpose of your sarcasm was? Did you not read the words behind the link? Like Mark said, he's not someone you can put in a box. Regardless, money.

Thatjeffcarter said...

Recently I spoke at a theology conference on this same theme. I wish I had read your blog before hand, but I'm glad to have found it now. Thank God for Tom.

thatjeffcarter said...

Recently I spoke at a theology conference on this same theme. I wish I had read your blog before hand, but I'm glad to have found it now. Thank God for Tom.

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