“I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth” This is Tom Waits’ picture of heaven. And he doesn’t put these notorious men there in his “Down There By The Train” just to thumb his nose at the pious (although...), he puts them there because, in his own words, “they’ve been washed by the blood of the Lamb”.
Tom Waits has been warbling his late night ballads about the down and out for four decades. He is at his best when he is singing about the guy who lost the girl and ended up with the bottle. He writes about the outsider and the ne’er-do-well. His compilation of B-sides “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards” aptly sums up the characters that haunt the back tables of his late night piano bars and the alleys behind them.
That he would name a track “A Good Man is Hard To Find” fits the morose tone of the Flannery O’Connor short story after which it is named. But rather than the anonymous “other” that commits the heinous crime in O’Connor’s story, Waits writes in the first person:
"I always play Russian Roulette in my head It's seventeen black and twenty-nine red How far from the gutter; how far from the pew I'll always remember to forget about you"
Waits wants to pen the songs with beautiful melodies and lyrics dark as sin. Whatever his church background, he sings “the big print giveth, and the small print taketh away”. Waits sees the free cheddar, but he’s felt the spring of the trap. He knows that a world that looks like Disneyland is Las Vegas waiting to grow up.
His anti-heroes have bad livers and broken hearts. When Waits sings the blues, it’s not about losing a woman, it’s about being stabbed by her. (In “Tom Traubert’s Blues” his protagonist ends up without the girl and an “old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey”.)
Waits is not a saint, but neither are his friends...
"If there's one thing you can say About Mankind There's nothing kind about man You can drive out nature with a pitch fork But it always comes roaring back again"
But redemption comes in the blood. One of Waits' most haunting songs, “Jesus' Blood never Failed Me Yet”, is a duet he recorded with a homeless man singing, looped it, and sang along with the minimalist orchestra of Gavin Bryars swelling at just the right moments.
But getting back to Judas and Booth, surely he doesn’t believe that the kingdom of heaven is such a place for them? Well, he croons in a voice textured by years of smoke:
"there's room for the forsaken if you're there on time you'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes"