The Dark Stage
The theatre is empty and dust motes hang in the dim yellow light. There are shufflings from behind the heavy curtains, a marimba rattles, a heap of broken metals shifts and an army of skeletal marchers begins to perform a rhythmic stomp. As the curtain rises a voice mixing weariness and rage intones 'Misery's the river of the world'.
Tom Waits latest missives come from the barely lit territories he has made his own. In this case they are also based on a play he and partner/wife Kathleen Brennan wrote the songs and music for. 'Woyzeck', by German poet Georg Buchner , is a tale well suited to Waits since it tells the story of a soldier driven crazy by an army's bizarre medical experiments and infidelity. Perfect material. It is easy to see and hear the theatrical element as each song's character steps forward to relate a story of rage, loss, revenge and contempt for the world :
'Life's a mistake all day long
Tell me, who gives a good goddamn
You'll never get out alive...'
This bleak view of humanity is relentless though often wrapped in some of Waits' most haunting melodies, as in 'Another Man's Vine' a doleful story of infidelity as the soldier having 'gone to war' leaves his young wife behind. The slow stately tune makes the narrator's question all the more poignant, 'Will she be steadfast everyday?' And even the mother's words on 'Lullaby', though couched in a simple but heart-rending melody, contain no messages of comfort for the child on the verge of sleep.
The voice on 'Coney Island Baby' presents his girl as a 'rose' and 'pearl' but these romantic clichés are far from joyful. His words are soused in bourbon and fatigue, an outsider clinging on to something because it is all he has left. He could as easily be the flinty misanthrope of 'God's Away On Business' :
'If you're looking for someone To pull you out of that ditch You're out of luck, out of luck.'
While these melancholy vignettes are being enacted the troupe of ragged musicians contribute ramshackle tangos and out-of-kilter waltzes. A plaintive clarinet resounds through the auditorium and an ancient calliope howls as its player lets out a manic laugh. Finally, as the last song tells anyone who'll listen that , 'A Good Man Is Hard To Find', a trumpet cuts clear through the maudlin air and a ghost couple shuffle mechanically in the darkening aisle.
© Paul Donnelly 2002