Profoundly Horrifying Song Lyrics: “In the Colosseum” by Tom Waits

Music Features Tom Waits

It’s Thursday, which means it’s time to marshal the forces of goodness and seek out profoundly horrifying song lyrics wherever we find them in the musical universe. Today’s song comes from loyal Paste reader and lyrical watchdog Matthew Chase, who writes:

“I would like to nominate the song “In the Colosseum” by Tom Waits for your series Profoundly Horrifying Song Lyrics. I pasted the lyrics below, but would like to add that this is my 3-year-old son’s favorite song. We hear it about four times a day.”

Thanks, Matthew! If YOU know a profoundly disturbing song that requires immediate analysis, send it in to [email protected]. And as always, check out previous installments at the bottom of this post.

On to Tom Waits! I’m already excited for this one, since the Colosseum in Rome was home to some seriously disturbing activities in real life. I can’t even fathom where that history will go when re-imagined by a man who actually gargles with gravel to produce his unique vocal style. I won’t be looking up any back story or explanation until we’ve reached the end. Lyrics in bold, my commentary after.

The women all control their men

Hey, I’m married, so I know what that’s like, am I right, fellas?! The ol’ ball and chain! Tom Waits seems like just a normal Joe with normal problems I can relate to. I bet the rest of this song is about him asking if he can go golfing, and then his wife nags him about leaving the toilet seat down. Just your typical average American stuff, like the classic sitcom All in the Family.

With razors at their wrists

Oh. Um, I guess…I guess that’s not exactly like “All in the Family” at all. I wonder what this line means. Are the women the ones with razors on their own wrists, so they can just slash at the guys wrist-first whenever they please? Or do they walk around holding a razor to the men’s wrists? The latter option actually sounds pretty cumbersome for everyone involved. Playing piano is one activity that would be pretty tough under that system.

And the princess squeezes grape juice
On a torrid bloody kiss

(Trying to imagine it…)

(A princess kissing someone passionately, but there’s blood, and then she squeezes a grape everywhere…)

(Am I into that?)

(I mean, I guess I’d have to try it before I ruled it out, you know?)

What will you be wearing there
The lion or the raven hair?

I’m not sure what world we’re in now, but it’s clearly not ancient Rome. As far as I know, the Romans wore their own hair, and they never really got more exotic with their headpieces than olive wreaths and those feathered centurion helmets. In Waits’ world, apparently there are only two options; you wear the hair of the lion, or you wear the hair of the raven. We’re now at the point in the song where I’m pretty sure this is a psychopath’s fever dream.

The flesh will all be tearing
But the tail will be my own
In the colosseum tonight

No, not a psychopath’s fever dream…a psychopath’s journal. Tom Waits is transcribing this from the words that sit between the drawings of a woman giving birth to a demon in the pages of a tattered composition notebook.

This one’s for the balcony
And this one’s for the floor
As the senators decapitate
The presidential whore

Whoa whoa whoa…a senator and a president and a princess? Now I definitely know we’re not in ancient Rome. And that’s my only concern with those lines.


Sorry, I wanted to use the exclamation “not” like little kids used to do in the early ‘90s. Just once more, to see how it felt. Honestly? Didn’t feel great. I don’t think it’s coming back. Anyway, back on topic, here we have senators murdering either the president’s main prostitute, or perhaps the president him/herself, who is being called a “presidential whore” rather than the more traditional “whorish president.” Or it could be just a normal whore who has presidential qualities but is entirely unrelated to the president. Either way, some senators just took a person’s head off for the public amusement.

The bald-headed senators
Are splashing in the blood

That line inspired my first real shudder of the song. Great image by Waits of gross little bald men flailing about the in the blood like kids at a municipal pool. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think I would prefer not to live in this world, ever.

But I am curious: What are the senators with hair doing?

The dogs are having someone
Who is screaming in the mud
In the colosseum tonight

When you say “having someone,” Tom, do you mean…

Nope. Not going to ask. Not going to ask, because I don’t want the answer. But if it means what it could mean, and I think we all know what I mean, Tom Waits just out-horrified every horrifying song in this entire franchise.

By the way, if you’d like to make an illustration of this song, so far we’ve got a bunch of women leading men around with razors, a weird princess biting and squeezing grapes as she kisses someone, senators decapitating someone and splashing around in her blood, and dogs…having…a person. In the mud. And all of it in this one colosseum.

Now it’s raining and it’s pouring
On the pillaging and goring
The constable is swinging
From the chains

I bet the rain makes running colosseum events a logistical nightmare.

I like to imagine that the “goring” involves bulls, so add that to your tableau, and don’t forget the constable in chains. I’m sort of running out of things to say here, readers, because this is the maddest fucking thing I’ve ever encountered in song.

For the dead there is no story
No memory no blame
Their families shout blue murder
But tomorrow it’s the same
In the colosseum

If I was a family member of the dead, I’d actually be pretty scared to speak out at all, much less shout. I’m not sure what it takes to merit a colosseum invite, but in general I’d want to stay pretty well under the radar. Maybe an anonymous letter to the editor, at most.

A slowly acting poison
Will be given to the favorite one

Ahhh man, not the favorite one! He was our favorite!

The dark horse will bring glory
To the jailer and his men

I think the song actually gets more disturbing when I have no idea what he’s talking about. Those lines sound like some vague Nostradamus prophecy, after which people are like, “look, he predicted Hitler!” No, he didn’t. He just strung together some words when he was high on poppy-flavored mead, and now you’re reading into them whatever you want. But still, Nostradamus gives me the willies, just like this couplet. I don’t think the jailer deserves glory, especially after what you bastards did to the favorite one.

It’s always much more sporting
When there’s families in the pit

Guys, I’m scared. Tom Waits has actually scared me, and I know coming in every week that I’ll be dealing scary material. I thought I was immune. I was Johnny Good-Time, just laughing at some weird lyrics. Now I’m going to have real nightmares. If you don’t hear from me for a couple days, it’s because I’m locked in my shed holding a pitchfork toward the door and trembling.

And the madness of the crowd
Is an epileptic fit
In the colosseum

I imagine NFL fans would be the modern group most likely to love the colosseum. And if some reformer came along trying to reduce the number of decapitations or get rid of the rapey dog element altogether, they’d be like, “THIS IS A SPORT FOR MEN! GET YOUR NANNY STATE CRAP OUT OF THE COLOSSEUM!”

No justice here, no liberty
No reason, no blame
There’s no cause to taint the sweetest taste of blood

There is glory, though. But only for the jailer and his men. Because apparently that doesn’t taint the taste of sweet, sweet blood. Glory is the salt of the blood-eating world; it just heightens the flavor.

And greetings from the nation
As we shake the hands of time
They’re taking their ovations
The vultures stay behind
In the colosseum, in the colosseum
In the colosseum tonight.

I think Tom Waits tried to turn this whole thing into a metaphor at the end there, but I have to say, Tom, you were way too late. You don’t spend 95 percent of a song just hammering the listener with your darkest, most violent/erotic fantasies, and then sneak in at the end and go, “oh, by the way, this is commentary on our current political system!” It’s a little like if Lee Harvey Oswald survived and tried to say the JFK assassination was a performance art project. IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY, YOU SICK BASTARDS!


And that’s that! Another week down, another wacko exposed. To our reader Matthew who sent the song in, I have to say I’m slightly worried about the fact that your three-year-old listens to this three times per day. But hey, I’m no parent, so have at it! As far as back story, I’m not seeing anything to mitigate the terror I feel right now. Context can’t rescue this one.

Official Horror Rating: 9.4

Check out our previous installments:

Don’t You Want Me – The Human League
Fake Palindromes – Andrew Bird
Young Girl – Gary Puckett and The Union Gap
Dance Hall Days — Wang Chung
Art Lover – The Kinks
Possum Kingdom — Toadies
Excitable Boy — Warren Zevon

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