Music’s cookie-monster contrarian gets his Peter Pan on
“Now, when I was a boy
my daddy sat me on his knee
and he told me, he told me many things.
And he said, ‘Son,’
he always called me son,
he said, ‘There’s a lot of things in this world, son, you’re going to have absolutely no use for,’
and he was right.”
-Tom Waits, “Lucky Day”
Although you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler old dude in the universe, and despite all the rather geriatric trappings he’s happily embraced over the years (fedora hats, a propensity to ramble, etc.), 60-year-old Tom Waits really is young at heart, waxing hilarious between songs, starring as an oddball character in a movie every few years, and maintaining a perpetually puckish outlook on life.
Glitter and Doom marks Waits’ third live album in his 35-plus-year career. For 1975’s Nighthawks at the Diner, a small audience decamped to a Los Angeles recording studio where Waits set up shop, spitting stories, jokes and brand-new songs over a legit jazz band. The opening act was a stripper named Dewana. At the other end of the spectrum was 1988’s Big Time, a more standard-issue live record with a pair of previously unreleased tracks and, unfortunately, no interesting back story of which to speak.
Glitter and Doom Live is more like the latter, but that’s not meant as a put-down. The record is culled from Waits’ 2008 tour (which covered mostly the Southeastern U.S. and notable European locales), and is split between two discs, one boasting songs and the other containing a monolithic 35-minute track of Waits doing standup comedy, tossing off fun facts and cracking wise over spare piano accompaniment. Both discs are edited so they feel like one cohesive slab, despite the fact that they’re very clearly not. This is nice, in that the song selections are cherry-picked, but the listener still gets an experience that feels like Waits’ legendary live show.
Like many of his musical contemporaries—Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, etc.—Waits has a voice that’s seen better days. He started cultivating his signature rasp decades prior to these live recordings, and while he can’t quite replicate the sweet-voiced love songs of his lonesome 1973 debut, Closing Time, he doesn’t need to (nor does he try on this release); his gruff vocals give new life to tender ballads and increase the scruffy charm of his already-brutish selections. It’s as if the perennially ornery songwriter has played the ultimate prank on Father Time. “You’re going to try and take my voice away someday, huh?” he seems to say. “Well, I already took it myself!”
Like any good live record, Glitter and Doom has something to teach the listener. The Black Rider, Waits’ 1993 studio album of songs from a stage production he put on with playwright Robert Wilson and legendary beat writer William S. Burroughs, is generally hailed as a bizarre and difficult record—the type of album even Waits completists will excuse you for skipping. And yet Waits plays two songs from that record on Glitter and Doom, including a heart-wrenching rendition of “Lucky Day” that stands as one of the greatest performances in Waits’ extensive oeuvre. Far from a live greatest-hits offering, this new set serves as more of an odds-and-sods compilation, sprinkling forgotten tracks amongst well-known favorites.
For those who self-identify as Tom Waits Fans, Glitter and Doom Live succeeds on pretty much every level. A petty argument could be made that perhaps the tracklist skews a little too obscure/modern-day, ignoring myriad great tracks from Waits milestones such as Rain Dogs (one song included), Sworfishtrombones (none) and others. Because of this, the record might be a little intimidating to those unfamiliar with Waits’ catalog. Then again, newbies who start with Glitter and Doom will find hours and hours more to love once they dig in. After all, Waits has always had a contrarian streak in him. He’s a musical Peter Pan, doing exactly what he wants when he wants, and, damn what anyone thinks, he’ll never grow up.