On the majesty of a rich, genuinely interesting voice: Gil Scott-Heron and Tom Waits

Though DJs the world over (of which I am one, thank you WKNH Keene, NH) know the importance of a voice that’s as distinct as a face, thanks to “I Prefer Their Old Stuff,” I’ve come to remember and appreciate the greatness that is Gil Scott-Heron and his newest, I’m New Here. Tom WaitsOrphans, with its Bukowski-penned “Nirvana” is the other end of this.

I love the gravelly, low, smoker/ diseased-node vocal stylings of Mr.s  Scott-Heron and Waits. I love Bukowski, too, but have always felt that Waits was the best reader of his poems (interestingly, much moreso than Bukowski himself).

I’m New Here is, like Orphans, full of different types of works: some spoken word, some songs, some just snippets of somehow-recorded conversations, much like, say, Monk and Coltrane’s “Live at the Five Spot” (allegedly surreptitiously recorded by Coltrane’s wife and muse Naima). It’s in these unaware-we’re-being-recorded talks that sheer truth, vitality, seems to emerge:

Ever dreamt about being a fly on the wall when Famous People talked? This is pretty much as close to that as you’re gonna get. (Barring some supernatural powers on your part, I mean.)

I’m New Here is bookended by two parts of Scott-Heron’s poem “On Coming From a Broken Home,” in itself very worth putting on repeat.

Track two, “Me and the Devil” a track with a distinct Robert Johnson debt/influence, is still its own creature, and doesn’t sound (miraculously) contrived at all. If Gil can’t utterly identify with Faust, he can fake it like no one I’ve ever heard.

“Being Blessed” is 12 seconds, but is just wonderful to hear, somehow reassuring.

It reminds me We Have No Leaders now.

“New York is Killing Me” is another tune that will lodge itself in your ears, as are “Running” (“Because if I knew where ‘cover’ was, I would stay there and never have to run for it.”) and “The Crutch,” an eloquent diatribe about junkies, and a particularly great series of sounds that I identify with.

And Mr. Waits…?

At 2:13, “Nirvana” is a brief reminder of the sheer beckoning vitality of Waits’ voice: to sound that beaten, that weathered, he must have Something of Importance to say.

It’s a reminder, as is Scott-Heron, of the soothsayer, the shaman, the magician, the village elder, even of the jester– in that its very sonic properties compel you to listen. It’s a welcome artifact –an atavism– of generations long past.

The fact that it’s just Waits reading one of “Hank”‘s poems (itself about a brief, though mystical, layover on a bus trip), I think, further testifies to its importance. It’s not really about much at all– and yet, maybe only because of the voice– it seems crucial.

The cover over there seems particularly well-chosen: Waits surrounded by seeming ghosts, all, to judge by their body language (if that even applies post-mortem), eager to say something.

Isn’t that what Art is: eagerness, necessity, to Say Something?

Paraphrasing my dead mother: “I could listen to Tom Waits read the phone book.”

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