Real Gone

Tom Waits
Anti (2004)

realgoneThe first time I saw Tom Waits in concert was on the 2004 Real Gone European tour.

I belong to a now semi-defunct group called the Zornlist, which back then was a pretty lively discussion and information sharing forum which allowed people from all over the place – mostly Europe and the US – to post stuff about John Zorn and the various genres of music his output crossed. Which is a lot. From free-improv to cartoon scores, hard bop to hardcore, modern classical to radical Jewish music. His roster of regular collaborators is a tower of talent that would make you giddy and includes the guitarist Marc Ribot, a regular collaborator with Tom Waits since Rain Dogs.

One of the guys on the list posted about a ticket that he was selling for the upcoming Tom Waits tour. I was lucky and got in first. I could have high-fived the sky. I was going to see Tom Waits. If I could get to Antwerp for Saturday 13th November, the ticket was mine. The seller was honest with me, said he he was going to ask twice the ticket price, which meant the gig was going to cost me €200 before I had even booked a flight or thought about a hotel room.

But fuck it. This was Tom. Fucking. Waits. The only other musician I would travel to a different timezone to see was John Zorn. It was totally worth it. A bargain, even…

There was just the tiny detail of the transaction to take care of.

At the time of the gig, back in 2004, Paypal and the whole business of paying for things online was a bit unclear to me and still considered to be plenty risky. Before the ticket seller and I had worked out how to handle the transaction, I asked around – a few friends, a couple of business savvy pals, some guys I knew who worked on web stuff – about how to go about securing a concert ticket from a guy who lived in Belgium whom I’d never met. Everyone basically sucked their teeth and narrowed their eyes. They were all like, “So, how exactly did you meet him? An email list? Right. And how much is he asking?  Wow, really. And what’s his name?”

They all thought I was winding them up.

“Rob Alert”.

Guy with a comedy rip-off merchant name (tho spelled in a Flemish way with many more letters than syllables) whom I didn’t know, couldn’t vouch for, who could’ve been a bullshitter, could’ve been a scammer, lived in Belgium wanted to sell me something online that I could only redeem by travelling about 800 miles.

Basically, you can probably guess, I was on my own.

Happily, however, we came to a pretty straightforward agreement. No Paypal, no Western Union, no bank transfers. If I was willing to make my way to Antwerp, he was willing to sell me the ticket. We just agreed to trust each other.

Call me sentimental but I wish there was more of that in the world.

I remember depressingly little about the gig. I think he maybe started with Make it Rain? I couldn’t tell you much more than that. I don’t even think reading the setlist on the Eyeball Kid blog could help shake loose a few memories. No wonder people make bootlegs.

I remember quite a lot of detail either side of the gig, though. The early morning flight to Amsterdam, reading the Saturday Guardian from cover to cover on the train to Antwerp. I had to buy razors from a Turkish man in a Spar because I’d forgot to bring one and he only sold packs of cheap shit Bics. There was the market. The place was scented with vanilla from the waffle sellers. I had a pretzel. I scouted the venue. I walked around Antwerp and found it familiar/strange. The accents sounded like home, full of hard consonants. I had a really quiet room in the hotel I checked into, then fell asleep watching Monk on BBC2 in my room with the volume on low.

Then I met Rob and there was the whole rigmarole of getting the ticket. Tom Waits and his management made an admirable effort to beat the re-sale market. You could only get the ticket itself on the day of the gig. The buyer had to have ID that matched the details supplied at the time of purchase. You could only buy a maximum of four tickets for the gig and your guests had to be in attendance at the time of collection in order to have a wrist band strapped to you. It meant that everyone in the audience was a True Fan, not just a bunch of schmos on a corporate jolly.

So I met Rob at the theatre, gave him his €200, got my wristband. We went in like a couple of kids on a blind date.

toneelhuisI remember how beautiful the venue was. I was amazed it was in a theatre. Waits could have sold out any stadium, any mega venue. I couldn’t believe how tiny it was. This is what they mean in the music press when they talk about an intimate venue. We were sat in the 6th row from the front, a few seats in from the left hand aisle. I was a bit overcome by the whole experience, safe to say.

The gig passed in a blur. I knew I was having a “bucket list” kind of night. I wanted to hang on to every note, to be able to quote every ad lib quip, to mime every contortion, to recall every single signal from Waits and his band that meant I wasn’t listening to a recording but watching and listening at close range.

But I couldn’t. This stuff slips away like liquid soap. I do remember the incredible bar we went to afterwards, next to the cathedral, that was full of religious statues from old churches and that sold beer in these weird test tube looking glasses. I remember enjoying myself a lot and enjoying Rob’s company.

But I don’t really remember much about the show. Nor do I remember the busker singing Tom Waits songs outside the venue, but two friends of mine knew for a fact that there was one. These friends didn’t know each other but they both knew Raymy. I had met him, briefly, years before at a jam session, through the first of these friends, a fellow sax player and improviser. He was a bit mad, carried a box of musical toys with him, had albums worth of songs on cassette that he tried to sell to people. I met him again, years later, through the second of these friends, a girl I was seeing at the time, when I got to hear about his adventures on the Real Gone tour.

Basically, the story goes that Raymy couldn’t get a ticket for any of Waits’s European shows, so he decided he was going to follow the tour schedule and busk outside each venue before the gig in the hope of attracting the band’s attention and a) gaining admission. b) acquiring memoir material, and c) actually meeting the Man himself.

When I met Raymy I learned that he had written a book about it and was totally outraged that no-one wanted to publish it – so he published it himself. You can read about it here.

I had a day in Amsterdam the next day which I spent walking in circles for about eight hours. It was my favourite time of year. November. Cold, clear, crisp evenings. Blue skies. I walked until the sun went down and everyone’s windows were lit up like mini tableaux, scenes from a thousand lives.

I bought a book in a beautiful big busy bookshop called What Should I Do With My Life? which, as much as I enjoyed it, failed to give me the momentous epiphany I realised I’d been seeking when I bought it. It was the same when I answered the Zornlist post from Rob. I felt then, as I kind of still do from time to time, that my life had gone wrong somewhere, taken a wrong turn, and I was looking for the way back.

I had booked an early flight home which I managed to miss. It wasn’t to be for the first time, either. I literally arrived at the check-in desk as the flight was leaving. The airline sales woman couldn’t believe I had been so stupid and contemptuously took €100 off me for the next flight back to Glasgow. I had an awkward conversation with my boss too, as I was going to miss my two classes that afternoon that I was timetabled to teach at the college I worked at.

I saw Tom Waits again when he played in Edinburgh in 2008. I had a new job by that time, and a new girlfriend. I hadn’t answered Po Bronson’s question, but it felt like I was making a reasonable attempt.

The Edinburgh gig was in a theatre again, albeit a much, much bigger one. The same security measures applied, and then some. Tom was exceptional, as he always is, but don’t ask me to remember anything from the gig.

I wonder if he’ll ever tour again.


BrelI have loved Jacques Brel deeper and longer than I have loved any singer, with the possible exception of Tom Waits – whose lyrics I can understand but still perversely choose not to really pay all that much attention to. I did try to get into Brel’s words – a book of his lyrics sits on my shelf, pretty much untouched from when it came home with me from a trip to the Gibert Jeune bookshop in Place St Michel – but it’s always been about the music for me, his emotional content (as Bruce Lee might have put it). And I didn’t just listen to Brel’s music, but to every nuance in his voice, to every breath, to every rolled or growled or clipped or popped consonant, to every hushed or barked vowel, to the lively universe of characters that he invented for you and the drama he invested them with.

More than any other singer, he made me want to sing. He made me want to find and give voice to the well of otherwise inaccessible, inexpressible emotions – the kind that language always disappoints. In Brel, they found their way into the world with an immediacy and a clarity that was utterly astonishing, frequently breathtaking, rarely less than moving. It still thrills me to hear the intensity of feeling in that voice carried by the beauty of the melodies he invents. I still want to sing. And to sing like that.

The closest I got to manifesting my love for the man and his music was, well, I made a bust of him – a canny unlikeness – for my proposed pantheon of personal gods that never really evolved beyond a trinity. He sits on my shelf, coarse hewn and tragically earnest but permanently on song, like a Hogmanay drunk.

Amsterdam: I listened to Jacques Brel for the first time in my flatmate’s bedroom in Spain some time in 1996. V- thought I’d quite like him. And she was right; I loved his voice instantly. I’d never heard anything like it. Which is because there is no-one like Jacques Brel. V- had French; I hadn’t a clue what he was singing. Then, I’ve never been big on words in songs. Never been big on songs. But whatever that man was feeling when he put that track on record, I was feeling every single shred of. V- translated but it didn’t really go in. Something about drunks and whores and accordeons.

Au Suivant: Once you’ve heard The Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing this, you kind of want to hear Brel bite a bit harder. Which isn’t to diminish Brel’s version, rather to underscore the sensational ferocity of Alex Harvey’s.

La Chanson de Jacky: Singing the English version unaccompanied at a New Year party to a room full of mortified strangers, relatives of my brother’s then-girlfriend, who had demanded that everyone sing a party piece. I listened to myself, in a kind of disembodied horror, as my already quite shaky grasp of the melody modulated into a lost continent of uncharted harmonics and unattainable registers. The host, an insufferably smug woman with a nasty streak, smirked uncontrollably throughout.

Not sure which is worse: that memory, or the recollection of the first time I heard the song  – before I’d even heard of Brel – in an abominable, unforgivably flaccid, version by Marc Almond. If you need to hear it in English, Scott Walker sings it like he at least means the camp insincerity.

Many years later, trying to shoehorn karaoke versions of Jacky and Jacky Wilson Says into a failed play about Jocky Wilson playing darts with himself in a nightclub in hell.

Les Coeurs Tendres: In maybe 1999/ 2000, I was in a band of sorts with my brother that existed for maybe four or five rehearsals and possibly only two performances. We played Jacques Brel songs and Serge Gainsbourg songs and a song by Charles Trenet.

And the band was definitely born in Oblomov on Great Western Road, on a snowy winter’s night early in the new year. Graham and I were out with his flatmate A- and his pal, who were both busy gigging jazz musicians and fancied a bit of the exotic. Graham was just about to graduate in French and could also sing. I could play accordeon (a bit). We called ourselves Jacquesattaques – or Jacques Attack, I don’t think we ever wrote the name down.

We played our first gig at a graduation party for Graham’s French class at a pub in town for which he earned much respect from his – mostly female – classmates. This was one of the songs. The slow and loping rhythm insinuates itself into your ear. It’s coarse rather than tender, I think, and fails to take on much of a shape. I prefer Mary Coughlan’s version to Brel’s, unusually, though I fancy we treated the song with equal tendresse.

Tenderness of a brotherly kind was missing from our second and final gig at the old Uisge Beatha in Woodlands. We had a set-to about something that felt very important to Graham at the time, and a punch was thrown. But time heals these lesions and we all learn our lessons. A- still calls us the Gallagher Brothers.

Mathilde: Playing the Scott Walker version full volume in the car and singing “Matilda’s coming back to me!” at the top of my voice, full of excitement and longing heading to the airport to pick up my (long-distance) girlfriend (not called Mathilde) trying to drive away the bitterness and sadness of the realisation that the end of our relationship was inevitable and drawing closer, as she drew closer, temporarily tethering our diverging paths.

Ne Me Quitte Pas: Brel recorded two studio versions I know of, one with a weird annoying musical saw intro, and one that sounds like they raised Ravel or Debussy from the dead to record the piano accompaniment. Both will shatter your stone hard heart into innumerable pieces and cast them into the coldest corners of your life where they will bleed for Eternity.

Vesoul: Judith’s party. Playing DJ with the less popular CDs in the collection at an age when these things really mattered (to me). My stint on the decks resulted in a snack fight, throwing cheez puffz around the room, mostly at a girl who wanted to get off with me. Ended up getting off with her better looking pal. The song has that kind of frantic madness about it. And accordeons.

Voir un Ami Pleurer: For every friendship squandered, for every love lost, for near souls once so dear to us but never again to be encountered. “Of course our hearts lose their wings.”