Rain Dogs, Beautiful Maladies and Songs From A Drunken Piano

All photos by Andre Gagne.

“The Earth is not my home
I’m just passing by.”

-Tom Waits

A three-legged, raven-black mongrel scavenges through the sludgy soup bowl they call Bank Street. He looks at me like I were a plate of prime rib leaning up against a flickering street light, decides I’m not worth the battle and moves off. I watch him until the mange of black fur blends in with the darkness and disappears into this night of ice and rain. Safe travels you Rain Dog, I think, and then step into Irene’s where a drunken piano awaits the beautiful maladies of the man with the bourbon drenched voice.

The man? Well, he’s like a drunken sailor on shore leave playing the smoky Stardust Lounge with a voice that growls like a werewolf that’s gargled with vodka and razor blades. He’s the carnival barker in a stained pinstriped suit next to the one-armed drifter, crooked smile, beckoning you with calloused hand to “Step Right Up”. He’s the guy on the block the kids tell stories about, strange noises coming from his shed around midnight causing the neighbours to wonder: “What’s he building in there?” He’s breaking the heart of a “Gun Street Girl” on a “Downtown Train” to nowhere. He’s the beatnik troubadour with Bukowski blemishes racing down siren-painted alleyways with Chuck E. Weiss. He’s been called “the Jackson Pollok of song.” He’s the Jitterbug Boy. He’s the Black Rider and if you think you know him by now you’re wrong, friends.

He’s Tom Waits and tonight as it pours rivers of gruel onto the street outside Irene’s they have come to pay tribute to him. They have come with cheese graters and tambourines, with wooden spoons and a trombone. They have come with accordions, sandpaper and a power drill. The kitchen sink? Ya’, buddy, they brought that too. Now, you may not need this eclectic array of stage accoutrements to pay tribute to the music of Tom Waits but, let me tell ya’, it sure as hell helps.

Born in 1949 in Pomona, California, the day after Leadbelly died, Tom was the son of two schoolteachers getting his first taste for music by self-teaching himself on a neighbour’s piano. He was part of a little soul band called The Systems in the mid-sixties but landed his first real job sweeping up over by the cigarette machine at Napoleone’s Pizza House. Before being signed to Asylum Records in ’72 and releasing his first album Closing Time, Waits had served in the Coast Guard, worked the door at a nightclub and drove an ice cream truck. The debut received rave reviews and Waits started touring with Frank Zappa before moving into an L.A. hotel and turning to the drink. The albums flowed out of him like the booze flowed into him and, by the 80s, his lounge lizard bluesy-jazz sound took an abrupt about-face into a more experimental style that included tangos, rhumbas, waltzes and a collection of instruments that could fill a museum. 1985’s Rain Dogs has been listed as one of the greatest albums ever to hit a turntable. He dropped the bottle in the early 90s, eased up on touring and his last release was 2011’s Bad as Me.

The Ottawa Waits Revue was birthed one New Year’s Eve in the mind of Christine Fagan. The Citizen will tell you her voice is “sweet, slightly husky.” The Wig will whisper that it’s like velvet. Your ears will let you know it’s not quite sharing the same time zone as a Tom snarl as smooth as she sings. However you describe it, Fagan, Ottawa born, has been sharing that voice as a soloist for over 15 years. Discovering a mutual love of Waits’ music with singer Missy Burgess, the two found it easy to bring other local musicians into the fold. Along came Steve Berndt, a man with a trombone and somebody who sports a Poor Boy Cap as well as he does a fedora. He’s a member of the swing band The Jivewires and ska group Rudeboy, and if that’s not interesting enough for you, he has also worked with the legendary Motown hit-makers The Funk Brothers. With the group formed, the trio started to shape the arrangements.

“What would be the point of trying to accurately cover someone like Tom Waits anyway?” asks Berndt.

Agreed! It’d be like handing a toddler the sheet music to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, dropping down a Fisher-Price Kick & Play Piano Gym with two broken keys and saying: “Have at ‘er, Schroeder!”

Burgess left Ottawa last year and pianist Megan Jerome wandered into the party carting along a love –which she accentuates by multiple exclamation points- of Wait’s 1999 album Mule Variations. Jerome also shares a personal connection to the Waits’ tune “The Fall of Troy”, his addition to the soundtrack to the film Dead Man Walking.

“There’s a reference to sitting at a dinner table after someone in the family has died – I had a brother who died in a motorcycle accident when he was 22 and I was 12,” she says. “I totally remember moments just like that – setting a place for him by accident or us sitting at the table and it feeling so empty. That gaping emptiness in such ordinary moments, such a feeling of the magnitude of your loss being so much more than you know how to bear, but still you have to make dinner, you watch TV you do normal things. And they’re okay. But the song is about finding our way home. Despite being totally hurt or sad or tragically human doing really normal things. There’s something so empathetic in the way scenes are set up in his songs. The music is understanding. It’s healing. It’s connecting.”

The group, along with Ken Kanwisher (Bass/Guitar/Cello/Accordion/Banjo), Mike Essoudry (Drums/Clarinet/Vocals) and Chris Breitner (Guitar/Bass/Saw) arranged and rehearsed in Kanwisher’s studio as well as online. Seeing the cluster of potential instruments the band brought with them to Irene’s, the studio was a perfect testing ground.

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“It’s chock full of objects to bang on! Curtain rods as drum sticks, things to shake, blow in, wind up so we just keep trying things and passing them around,” says Fagan.  “Apparently, Tom used to shop for musical instruments at hardware stores so there has been a little of that, too.”

Hence, the addition of the drill. Waits also once cut a two-foot hole into a dumpster, laced seven piano strings across the thing and named it a Dumpstalele, but I guess the trio had to draw the line somewhere. The audience didn’t mind as eyes widened, some pausing beer mid-swig, in utter fascination over what might be brought out next.

For the trio, instrument selection wasn’t as difficult as choosing what songs to select from Waits’ vast and unique collection of dusty sea shanties, heartbreaking wailers, side show circus melodies and tunes Rod Stewart guts the way a Fulton fishmonger would dig into a Halibut with a chainsaw.

“Obviously coming up with a final choice of songs for this show is like asking a group of kids to choose only 25 different candies in a candy store supply warehouse,” said Berndt. “It was not easy and the original list was, well, most of Tom’s song. We realized there were only six of us and we only had so many years to live.”

“Chris brought us a lesser known album called “Alice,” and I think Megan and I both fell in love with the very heartbreaking “Fish and Bird,”” adds Fagan. “It so obviously had Megan Jerome written all over it. I think the song choices of all three singers end up reflecting who we are.”

Choices included “I Don’t Want to Grow Up”, “Come On Up to the House”, “Jersey Girl”, “Ruby’s Arms” and a spirited, both in voice and drink, sing-a-long to “Ol’ ‘55”. For a musician that doesn’t hit the road much, this might be the closest you would get to a Tom show and the performance hit all the right notes, even the slightly broken ones.

The night was getting on, the weather getting worse and there was no sign of that Rain Dog on the street. Was he ever really there? Those inside Irene’s should have been three sheets to the wind and headed towards the warmth of their bed sheets before the storm got really nasty. But they weren’t going anywhere. Let it pour. Let it flood. Encase the joint in ice. There was still another set and, as the man with that bourbon drenched voice sings: “How do the angels get to sleep when the devil keep’s his porch light on?”

For those at the tables and those on the stage that light could stay on all night.