Friday, 28 November 2014

Secret Heroes

“Some guys got it down … secret heroes…Tom Waits… I listen more to that kind of stuff than whatever is popular at the moment, they’re not. Just witch-doctoring up the planet, they don’t set up barriers…”
 - Bob Dylan interviewed by Cameron Crowe for the Biograph boxset, 1985.

I half-remembered this quote recently when listening to Tom Waits and wondered what being a 'secret hero' might mean.
He's a ‘secret hero’ perhaps because he's too intense or eccentric for a wider audience, but the power of his music ripples through the art form by way of covers and  the respect he's gets from other, much more famous, practitioners. 
He’s a master of his craft, content to wander the back roads looking to the past for his inspiration; to the blues, folk, the music-hall and beyond. If you know it, his voice is instantly recognizable. It can be a mighty roar, a tender croon or a wild man's howl he uses to bring the misfits, loners and losers of his songs to life. 
Possibly Tom Waits’ songs are better known than him. Most people know Rod Stewart's cover of DowntownTrain’ or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jersey Girl’ cover or some may be familiar with Scarlet Johansson’s entire album of Tom Waits songs.

My favourite Waits album is Swordfishtrombones(‘83)  With this album Waits started to get more adventurous with his songs and broke with the jazzy-bluesy gin/whiskey/beer-soaked nighthawk image that he’d built up through the 70s.


Waits become more of a shapeshifter, more of a restless explorer with this album. He got more adventurous with the instruments he used; the arrangements of his songs; the stories he told. He could still conjure a heart-breaking piano ballad like Soldier’s Things,  when inspired. But there are also songs like Shore Leave which uses avant-garde instruments and traditional African and Balinese percussion to forge an eerily beautiful tale of a sailor wandering the streets of Hong Kong missing his wife.
After this followed an incredible run of albums for Waits: Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years culminating in the brilliant, wild Bone Machine.
And he’s still kicking - with Bad as Me (2011) Waits finds new ways of exploring old themes and inhabiting a rich array of characters, still impossible to pin down, to predict but somehow always Tom Waits. Or as Neil Young described him when Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame in 2011…

Thinking about Tom Waits and some of the enduring themes of his work, the affinity with outcasts, the formal mastery and experimentation made me think of another ‘secret hero’; Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismaki.

Kaurismaki’s films often deal with society’s most downtrodden members and like Waits, he displays a deep compassion for the suffering for those on the fringes of society.He has a common fan in American film-maker Jim Jarmusch who has paid tribute to Kaurismaki directly in his wonderful film Night on Earth (soundtrack by Tom Waits) His influence can also be felt in the work of Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade amongst others.

A good place to start, if new to his work, is Le Havre  his most recent film. The film is the tale of a young African illegal immigrant who hides out in the French port town of Le Havre  after escaping Police. The film weaves threads of prisoner-on-the-run-thriller with wry social commentary all shot-through with Kaurismaki's  extraordinarily deadpan wit and minimalist style.
The rhythm of his films can seem a little jarring at first, as listening to Wait’s music can too in a different way, you need to be patient for the rich rewards that will come if you give them a chance.



 William T Volmann was someone else that I thought of when thinking about the idea of a‘Secret hero’ He doesn’t fit so nicely into place next to Waits as Kaurismaki does. I'd be hard pressed to really liken anybody to him.
Vollmann’s  books plunge headlong the deepest, darkest corners of America and other parts of the world. Vollmann writes fiction and non-fiction often blending both. Vollmann frequently crosses boundaries that other journalists or writers would never go near. He deeply immerses himself in the lives of the people he chooses to write about.
He’s explored the lives of freight-train hopping hobos, meditated on poverty, drug use and prostitution and published a seven volume essay on violence, (usefully collected into a single volume.)
One of my favourites The Rainbow Stories mixes his experiences with ‘boot-woman’ the girlfriends of neo-Nazi skinheads, prostitutes and drug-addicts in his neighbourhood with strangely beautiful fictional stories.
Vollmann’s  output is vast and far-reaching (I’ve barely scratched the surface).  While there is a level of accessibility to Waits and Kaurismaki’s work, Vollmann’s asks a bit more of the audience.
But like Waits and Kaurismaki he is a 'secret hero' to more popular writers like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow Interesting! :D Have a new Author to look up and a new Movie. Thanks!