Happy 30th Anniversary to Tom Waits’ Franks Wild Years, originally released August 17, 1987.
If a road trip doesn’t start with “Hang on St. Christopher,” did you ever really put your foot on the gas pedal? I think not. It’s a prayer of sorts, an offering that whatever journey you take might be wild and wonderful.
People approach Tom Waits from one of two directions—you either start at Closing Time (1973) or The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) and this all sounds like noise, or you come in here (or with 1999’s Mule Variations, for which he won a Grammy) and the earlier stuff is too simple. I’m in the former category; it wasn’t until I got a little older that I could really appreciate the weird wonderfulness of Franks Wild Years. It’s not an easy album to get into. It is, at times, musically unwieldy. But, like all journeys, worth muscling through until you can get a foothold.
Released in August 1987, Franks Wild Years is the final piece of what is loosely considered the Rain Dogs trilogy, marking his third collaboration with wife Kathleen Brennan and a final departure from the hobo bar ballads that marked his earlier efforts, firmly cementing him as the deranged carnival barker we know and love today. But unlike 1983’s Swordfishtrombones (which featured the song “Frank’s Wild Years”) and 1985’s Rain Dogs, this was presented as a stage play, opening at the Steppenwolf Theater as an “opera in two acts” following the eponymous Frank along an ill-fated odyssey.
“Blow Wind Blow” is one of those songs that gets better as you age. It’s somehow traditional and like nothing else, New Orleans by way of Tin Pan Alley, a sound that will stick with Waits for the remainder of his career (“Table Top Joe” on Alice could be a musical sequel). It’s hard to digest upon early listens, but, like a beautiful meal, it’s full of nuances and complexities.
Contrast that with “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)” with a merry-go-round melody and mug-swinging vocals. Noisy as it may be, it’s the real gut-punch of this act. A subdued rendition of this tune is the last track, and while “Franks Theme” tries to go for this later on, it falls just a tad short. The latter version is my favorite. (“Innocent While You Dream” is also the moniker given to a wonderful collection of interviews with Waits, published in 2005).
And for being as weird as it is, the album gets plenty of pop culture love. “Cold Cold Ground” has been covered many times and in Jean-Claude Lauzon's Léolo to Homicide: Life on the Street, while “Temptation” and “Straight to the Top (Vegas)” were played in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Unlike an album such as Rain Dogs, the brilliance of this album is that it holds together for a full, straight play-through, but this is also its downfall. Parts of it meander and blend into each other without standing on their own (“Yesterday is Here”), while others are simply too much to casually listen to (“I’ll Take New York”). It’s an album that requires a very specific listening experience, which may be off-putting to the more casual fan.
But, like all trips, Franks Wild Years is worth taking for the experience alone. It’s a fantastic start to a sound that would later encompass works like 2002’s Alice and Blood Money, both of which streamline and strengthen what is already here. At 30, the album hasn’t aged a day. It's still new and wild and fresh as a ramble of tiger lily alongside the highway.