Happy 15th Anniversary to Tom Waits’ Alice and Blood Money, both originally released May 7, 2002.
“If it was a good idea, I guess I’ll take credit for it. And if it turns out to not be a good idea, I guess I’ll blame somebody else.” – Tom Waits on Late Show with David Letterman, May 8, 2002
When I was a child in the backseat of my father’s Cadillac Silverado (silver exterior, red leather interior—pretty boss), I’d ask my parents to put on “the Cookie Monster tapes” and they knew exactly what I meant. I wanted to hear Tom Waits. My mother somehow became a ninja of the fast-forward button every time “Pasties and a G-String” rolled over on Small Change (1976), because heaven forbid I hear a song about strippers, even though I’d already seen the album cover (featuring a young Elvira in pasties) and the rest of the songs were about drinking and heartbreak.
I might grow up to be a guy who dates exotic dancers. (Oh, wait...)
I might grow up to be a guy who gets drunk with carnival side-show performers (Oh, wait…)
I might grow up to be a guy whose singing voice is often compared to Tom (Oh, wait…)
Tom was a part of my childhood. Ever since I was a wee lad, his songs poured from the speakers of my parents’ stereo, and I embraced all of the beauty, sadness, mirth, and poetry in all of his lyrics. Tom was a bohemian genius who liked the filth and inspired me to make mistakes and leave the “happy accidents” in every artistic endeavor I started. He may not drink or smoke anymore, but I’d gladly buy him a shot and let him slyly sneak smokes out of my pack while we’re talking about the anatomy of sea urchins and listening to a Captain Beefheart record. But, I digress. The point is that the man is a saint and savior to me.
So on May 7th of 2002 when he made the wildly bold choice of dropping two albums on the same day, I was incredibly excited. Oddly enough, I was actually excited to go to work because I knew I’d be in a quiet dark room full of graphic designers and my headphones were exquisitely expensive (plus, I was WAY ahead of schedule for my project, so I could dive into both discs).
Now, he has been asked why he didn’t just release a double album, but the truth is that while the albums have similarities, there’s no way they could share the same space on the shelf because they conjure wildly different emotions.
As I stared at the covers (which I do, and I was working as a graphic designer at the time), I thought, “The blue-ish one (Alice) is gonna be somber and gentle while the red one (Blood Money) is gonna be rough and tumble.”
I couldn’t have been more right.
While Tom is wildly opposed to having his work used in commercials, he is no stranger to providing music for film and television (his IMDB page lists 166 credits). He has also been known for working with the theater, beginning with his 1986 collaboration with the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, IL. So it comes as no surprise that both Alice and Blood Money were both written to be soundtracks for theatrical productions. Alice was a stage play directed by Robert Wilson, who had originally collaborated with Waits on The Black Rider with William S. Burroughs. Blood Money was for a production of Woyzeck, an unfinished play by Georg Büchner (which I have seen three times and it’s only gotten slightly better each time and the first time was like dental surgery without novocaine). Regardless, both albums are cinematic in their own right.
Thematically, Alice synchs up with the themes of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Songs about roses and oddities (a common staple for Tom) and titles like “Watch Her Disappear” and “We’re All Mad Here” resonate, yet it somehow lacks the whimsy of the original story I remember from my youth. Sorrowful songs in minor keys are backed by large, weeping string sections—a musical device Tom all but abandoned before 1983’s Swordfishtrombones if not 1980’s swamp-blues slab of crawfish Heartattack and Vine.
Essentially, this is not a happy album. It’s somber, brooding painfully, but completely cinematic. With the exceptions of “Table Top Joe” or “Everything You Can Think,” this is not an album to which one breaks the speed limit on the interstate. This album is a scented candle in a dark room and a lot of introspection in the mirror, just as Alice had gone through the looking glass.
Blood Money however, is just what you would think: bold, brash, dangerous. A friend who works in odd areas of legality has asked me, “Do you know a house painter?” which I know is code for a hit-man (because the walls will be red). This album does not disappoint with its red cover. This is the Tom I love: growling, banging on crap he found in a junkyard, and distorted calliopes.
If you’re not familiar with Woyzek, it’s about a soldier who loses his mind, humiliates his wife’s lover and then stabs his bride and drowns her. Funny stuff, right?
But, “Coney Island Baby” is a beautiful waltz (my cat apparently doesn’t know how to waltz but I tried), “Another Man’s Vine” is about the betrayal, the instrumental “Knife Chase” sounds just as it should (the evil twin of West Side Story), and “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” brings in a biblical aspect while incorporating the drowning motif amidst Tom’s barkings.
Without argument, both albums are worth a bit of your paycheck. Alice will lull you into a comfortable depression and Blood Money will make you want to kill. Personally, I think Blood Money is the better of the two, but we all have opinions, don’t we?