Notable Tracks: Tom Waits

Post by 
Matt David
Published 
6.15.2020

I decided to make a playlist based off my record shelf at the onset of shelter-in-place. That turned into picking one song off each album on the shelf (that is available on Spotify). It's either the song I most associate with the album, or in the case of some absolute classics that can't be parsed, the first track. The next challenge was to write a bit (~200 words) on each selection. This is an entry in that chronicle. This is a link to the playlist.

“Step Right Up” | Tom Waits | Small Change [1976]

The first turntable I set up was my dad’s old table from his college days and I set it up where I was more or less living—the basement of my parent’s house. I was pulling myself out of a bad few years and access to his turntable and records was one of the stitches that mended our relationship. 

Small Change is one of the first few records that I put on that table—for sure the first by an unfamiliar artist. There was a hint of Tom Waits’ legend floating in my mind and it was absolutely the roguish character in the foreground and not the pasties in the background that had me pulling the vinyl out of the jacket. 

If not for the bouncing bass and immediate vocal power of “Step Right Up,” I may not have made it through the record. With the opening track (“Tom Traubert’s Blues”) as my only point of reference, this knocked me on my ass. The demonic circus barker, sex-fueled corner salesman, skillful, emotive, insightful, unhinged vocal performance utterly intoxicating. 

There are too many lines to keep up with or recall in whole, but every listen allows for new surprises—”you need perfume? we got perfume, how bout an engagement ring?” In my early 20s, I was infatuated by the writing and performance that went into the body of this song. In my early (fine, mid) 30s, I’m gobsmacked by the ending:

How do we do it how do we do it how do we do it how do we do it
We need your business we're going out of business
We'll give you the business
Get on the business end of our going-out-of-business sale

Anyone barking at you for business has some small print ready to take away all their promises. Anyone listening to you and then has an offer is probably dubious, too, but maybe there’s a chance. Anyway, we should go play some bocce.

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