A week of songs: day four

OK, so thanks to the Facebook chain post doing the rounds, I’m doing that song-a-day-for-a-week thing where I post a song I like and write a bit about it. You should do it too, eh? (Seriously, if you like the post, go write your own, and tell me in the comments, as I’d like to read your picks.)

This is day four. My pick for day four is a song that I have for years kind of thought was a personal anthem: Tom Waits’ “Goin’ Out West”.

This is, as with many others, a song I’d heard on Rage one late evening. This wasn’t the first Tom Waits song I’d heard. I had some of his earlier stuff, I think perhaps the two Early Years albums which were very acoustic, and much more singer-songwriter. But this. This. Look at the filmclip – a guy who looks kind of like a monkey plays a midget guitar with a brakeman’s glove, in a world where everything is on fire. He high-kicks, singing about some kind of pornographic Big Rock Candy Mountain life that’s better out west, in the land of suntans. He’s not a bit player, baby – he’s a leading man, a lover man, a ruler and a fighter. Power chords fade in and out beneath tremolo guitar, while the percussion sounds like (and probably was) someone beating the shit out of furniture.

Later on, he gets devil horns. What the fuck was this?

I had absolutely no idea, but I wanted to hear more. The bravado, the seediness, the feeling of sweat and hope in the face of some kind of rapidly-emptying gas tank amphetamine burnout spoke to me. Which is pretty funny, as I was a schoolkid still.

At the time I discovered this tune, I was spending school holidays working at the colour graphics department of publishers ACP. This was when layouts for magazines were shot to film, and a lot of my time was spent stripping film from masking and backing so that the silver nitrate inside the film could be recycled. My lunchtimes were spent pounding the streets, and I distinctly remember buying the slimline CD single of this song from the Brashs store around the corner. I remember the industrial, blue-grey cover then the mystery I heard after putting it on. B-sides spoke of nautical suicides, girls who run off in vans, and, well, being dead. It was some kind of super-enhanced Americana which sounded of dust and Bad Things Happening Just Over There.

I scored my copy of Bone Machine, the album this song comes from, after I called the local arm of Waits’ record company because my copy of Frank’s Wild Years had a terrible case of disk rot which had set in after not too long. (It was a ‘gold’ CD, prone to this kind of thing.) I don’t remember the name of who it was who spoke to me, but she asked me whether I’d heard his new album, and when I said I hadn’t, said she’d include a copy of the new album in the mailer she was sending with my replacement for the rotted CD. I had no idea the good things coming my way in a mailer. It remains one of my favourites for its dedication to perversity, for its love of death and the fact that it’ll terrify you and make you weep within its bounds.

I have, for years, come back to “Goin’ Out West” as my go-to song. If I were some kind of wrestler, I would want it as my walk-out music because it’s so stupidly primal. The bestial drumming kicks a hole in my forehead every time I hear it. But the kicker is how the narrator’s characterisation is so completely bad-ass, yet completely flawed. The dude isn’t tough. He just thinks he is. He’s making plans that we know will never come to fruition, but the chugging of the instrumentation recalls the rhythm of the road and part of you thinks well, fuck, maybe he’ll get there, and his travel will end in some kind of “Diamonds On My Windshield” late-night get-there epiphany. Deep down, though, I know the guy’s too full of himself and his ability: he’s probably drinking from a flask as he barrels across desert wastes, on course to a gloriously forgotten wipe-out.

Having said that, for many years my email signature (and general interpretation of myself) was the line

“my friends think I’m ugly; I got a masculine face”

Initially I think it was kind of self-deprecating, but now I kind of think it’s admirable. I don’t think I fit the line (for I suspect my friends wouldn’t call me ugly at least, but nor do I have a hugely masculine face) but it’s still something that speaks to me. It’s a kind of reminder that we make the power out of our flaws, whether others believe us or not – to me that’s something vital. Take your flaws. Make them work for you. Learn karate, voodoo too.

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