There’s a particular pool of adjectives from which any Tom Waits review is bound to draw. In it are words like boozy, gravelly, gruff, strange, and carnivalesque. There’s no avoiding them, so I might as well come out and say it: Big Time—Waits’ 1988 album of hyper-energetic, belted-out live recordings—is as boozy, gravelly, gruff, strange, and carnivalesque as they come.
Big Time was released as both an album and a film; an unusual piece of musical theatre made mostly from live concert footage. Spliced in with it are brief scenes of Waits in character as Frank O’Brien—his alter-ego from Frank’s Wild Years, the one who torched his house along with his mundane suburban life and headed off on the Hollywood Freeway to follow his dreams (“Frank’s Wild Years” was first a song, then a short-lived musical play, then an album). The closest Frank ever gets to fame, Big Time suggests, is a job selling tickets and popcorn in a movie theatre. When he dozes off, he dreams of taking the stage. Waits’ real-life performances become, mind-bendingly, a figment of his own creation’s dreams.
None of this is particularly explicit, mind you. It’s more a strange mish-mash of footage used as a vehicle for delivering an album of live recordings. What’s clear is that, with Big Time, the narrative was built to fit the songs and not the other way around.
The album itself, divorced from the visuals of the film, is therefore best listened to without any narrative in mind. That’s when it becomes what it is: an 18-track distillation of Waits’ live energy. All the shrieking and pounding and grumbling and growling; all the preaching and purring and snarling and howling; immortalized, for those of us who couldn’t be there.
Most of the songs on Big Time are live versions of songs from the albums Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years. The thing about live versions is that they’re often inferior carbon copies of their studio originals: fun to listen to, but with nothing new to add. Big Time is not like that. It gives us the same songs, but in different flavors we haven’t tasted before.
Take “Red Shoes,” for example. The original had a bass line that slinked beneath the spoken word like a smoker under a streetlamp, all dark, rain-washed noir. On Big Time it’s reinvented as a hand-clapping, shoulder-shimmying track with a middle eastern influence and a fluttering Klezmer-style clarinet.
“Rain Dogs”—Waits’ anthem to the lost, the ones who have nothing, the ones who huddle in doorways but still find ways to dance and dream—becomes more urgent, the rhythmic twanging guitars engulfed by his barked-out vocals and heated growls. The live version hurtles towards its conclusion like a chaotic gypsy folk dance, twirling faster and faster each time the theme repeats. In the film version, Waits kicks his legs like a Cossack dancer, winklepickers slapping the confetti-covered floor while a fez-wearing accordionist (Willy Schwarz) goes into overdrive behind him. The whole thing is raucous, abrasive—and strangely delightful.
“Way Down In The Hole” takes the original song to a fever pitch. Waits, in character as a hellfire preacher on a mission, condemns the devil with a fire in his guts and a voice that’s drawn from every fiber of his being. “Just see if you can come up with a figure / That matches your faith,” he urges atop an ensemble of funky bass and syncopated horns that make you want to join his imaginary congregation.
Not all the songs on Big Time get you in the hips. Others are slow and heartfelt. There’s the stripped back piano and plaintive solo horn on “Ruby’s Arms”; the croaky-voiced sadness of “Train Song”; and the close-your-eyes-and-lose-yourself melancholy of “Time.”
My favorite from the album is “Cold, Cold Ground,” a song about the simple life and a riff on the familiar theme of death as the great leveler. “The piano is firewood / Times Square is the dream,” sings Waits over a major first to minor sixth chord progression that makes the harmony particularly bittersweet. Between the studio version and the Big Time version, the Mariachi-style accordion softens and melts into something more wistful. The bellows sigh, the music sways. Like the life-to-death theme, the song’s beauty is simple and devastating.
If you’re not a Tom Waits fan, your maiden voyage into Big Time might be an experience akin to having gravel poured in your ear. Waits has a voice that takes warming to; the instrumentation is unconventional, the tracks filled with clangs and sirens and whistles and clatters. Waits also happens to revel in imperfection. Bill Schimmel, a band member with the Franks Wild Years musical stage play, once recounted how Waits would urge the musicians to make deliberate mistakes, to prevent the songs from becoming too rehearsed or polished. “He’d want tricky little train wrecks in the textures,” Schimmel said.
Like the music, and like Waits’ sandpaper voice, Big Time as an album is imperfect. It’s cut together in nonsensical ways. It’s punctured by cliches and contrivances. The music is often rough and raw. The concept lacks cohesion, the narrative created for the film is fractured and forgettable. But, weirdly, Big Time’s flaws are what makes it so magical.
Why? Because imperfection invites curiosity. Because it’s the bumps in the texture that make it interesting to touch. Because to find yourself amidst a carnival of chaos—especially one of the boozy, gravelly, gruff and strange variety—is the most fun you’ll ever have.