The first time I heard a Tom Waits record I wasn’t prepared. In fact, I distinctly remember not liking it.
It was 1988.
I was working the late shift at the Empire State Building, shuffling tourists around the observatories, trying to keep the peace between the Excitable Italians and the Pleasant Australians. Every once in a while I’d spend the day riding the elevators, just to get away from the madness and the questions about why there weren’t any public toilets on the lower floors of the building.
Why were there no bathrooms down there?
I made friends with a fellow tourist-wrangler who was a music obsessive like me. Bo was about ten years older than I was, so his frame of reference was broader, deeper. We bonded over the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, and he’d routinely lend me tapes of bootleg Beatles sessions, or Hendrix jamming at Electric Ladyland with Band of Gypsies. We spent the dead hours of our shifts discussing the venom in Lennon’s voice on “Mother” and the sting of Jimi’s guitar on “Machine Gun.”
After my shift at The Building I’d take the 12:15am Metro North train to Pelham, stopping first at the platform bar-cart to grab a few Foster’s Oil Cans for the ride home, and the come-down after a long day of banging heads with tourists. Once home, I’d head up to my attic room where I’d commence a nightly ritual that involved drawing, playing guitar and finishing off the remaining Aussie lager.
I was doing my best to live the life of an art school student.
One day my buddy Bo hands me a cassette and says “check this out, give it a few listens.” I guess Bo felt I was ready for something a little different.
So I’m digging into my routine—I remember this moment very clearly—and I load the cassette into the tape deck, pop that second oil can, dip the crow quill pen, and…
While the rest of the world is asleep…
Bang, boom, clank.
I thought the cassette was damaged—the tempo seemed off, the sound garbled—so I popped the tape out and stuck my finger in the tape ring to tighten it up. The tape wasn’t shredded, it seemed fine. After another whirl I realized this is what this guy sounds like.
I was annoyed, uncomfortable, a bit creeped out.
The next day Bo asked me what I thought. I honestly didn’t know what to say. After years of listening to music and analysing every aspect of it, I had no way to describe how this cassette made me feel.
But I kept listening.
All that stinking, hot summer, cramped in an attic with no A/C and no fans, I listened to Swordfishtrombones. Just me and the bleeding oil cans and my shittly little tape deck and an album that sounded like a guy rumbling around a garbage dump talking to himself.
What kind of world was this, and who the hell was this guy?
I got hooked on its primitive surrealism, its blacker than black humor, and its back from the grave instrumentation.
It was a revelation.
I still listen to Swordfishtrombones regularly. Mostly when I need a jolt from the everyday. It reminds me of that feeling when you stumble across something essential, something you knew you needed but had no idea what it was, or where to find it.
And I still have no idea what a Swordfishtrombone is.
Photos by Michael A. Russ