On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, one pair of soiled knickers and about a pound of lung butter. Sadly, the soiled underpants were my own. Yes, it’s true. We’re all down with the sickness. Badly. But despite this I did manage to put on my best war face this afternoon and braved visiting some department stores over the border today in an effort to procure something other than disappointment for my family come Christmas morning. Also on the agenda today – besides hand-to-hand combat in the aisles of Target that is – is to officially decorate our Christmas tree. And Christmas Tree decorating is serious business in this house worthy of special tunes, so tonight’s special tunes were none other than the ‘Blue Valentine‘ album by Tom Waits.
I know, I know: “but that doesn’t sound very Christmas-y”. Yeah, well, it does have a track called ‘Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis’ on it, so that counts as “festive” in my books. Deal with it. Anyway, ‘Blue Valentine’ is the sixth studio album by Waits recorded over the course of six sessions from July to August 1978 with producer Bones Howe. At the time, the album was pretty much dismissed and forgotten by just about everyone other than the Australians where the album peaked at #42 on the Aussie album charts.
Among true Waits fans, however, this album is notable for two reasons. First, Waits alters the instrumentation, bringing in electric guitar and keyboards and largely dispensing with the strings for a more blues-oriented, hard-edged sound. Second, though his world view remains fixed on the lowlifes of the late night, he expands beyond the musings of the barstool philosopher who previously had acted as the first-person character of most of his songs. The result is a broadening of subject matter, a narrative discipline that makes most of the tunes story songs, and a coherent framing for Waits’ typically colorful and intriguing imagery; the small-time gangster dies in a movie-theater balcony with a bullet in his heart and Cagney on the screen (‘Romeo Is Bleeding‘), the tough whore writes from jail that she wishes she had all the money she’d spent on dope because then she’d buy a used-car lot and drive a different car each day (‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis‘), and the barfly gets valentines he can’t cope with every year from an old girlfriend (‘Blue Valentines’). Par rum pa pum pum.
But when it comes to Christmas tree decorating it’s not so much the subject matter that counts but the sentimentality and ambiance that it provides. And in that respect, this album is a complete winner. Though while being about gangsters, whores and barflys, the album literally drips with tenderness…seriously. Shit, the album literally opens with a wildly unsuccessful anomaly, ‘Somewhere‘, his cover of a schmaltzy song from the film ‘West Side Story’, which is rasps in a combination of his deepest gurgle and his Louis Armstrong impression. And that just sets the pace for everything to come. ‘Red Shoes by the Drugstore‘ tells the sad tale of L’il Caesar and his failed attempt to steal a diamond ring for his girl, who is left standing outside the drugstore waiting for her lover. Sure there are some desperate characters here, but they’re all portrayed with a certain respect and admiration (says the guy who shat himself in his sleep last night). Just try and listen to this album and not be moved or touched in some way. I dare you.
On a completely separate note, the woman depicted on the back cover is Rickie Lee Jones with whom Waits was having an affair at the time. I know, I’m a wealth of useless information.