Tom Waits: “Jockey Full of Bourbon”
To say that there’s no one like Tom Waits is a bit of an understatement. Sometimes in fact it feels like there shouldn’t even be a Tom Waits — he’s just such an unusual character, with so much depth, that the idea that he was able to successfully crawl his way through the ugly creature known as the music industry seems unlikely. He’s not the kind of performer that the music biz usually takes to. But then again, that really just says more about Waits’ talent and tenacity, and the loyalty of his fans, than anything else. He may seem like nothing more than a weirdo to those who haven’t taken the time to get to know his music, but he is a true chameleon with a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration, representing the flip side of the glossy, all-surface/no-substance nontalents that the industry churns out on a weekly basis.
I first discovered the greatness of Waits in college, when I heard “Jockey Full of Bourbon” in Jim Jarmusch’s hilarious 1986 movie, Down by Law. Waits also plays one of the main characters in the movie, and Jarmusch’s aesthetic is the perfect setting for Waits, for both his music and his persona (which is why casting him in this, his first movie role, was an inspired choice — although he has since gone on to act in a number of other excellent roles). Waits’ dark theatricality, completely inhabiting characters within his songs — either as the seen-it-all, grizzled narrator, or the crazed and/or drunken, down-and-out loser singing in the first-person — was the perfect match for a black-and-white movie about down-and-out losers.
“Jockey Full of Bourbon,” originally from what is possibly Waits’ greatest album, 1985’s Rain Dogs, has a cool, film-noir vibe that nonetheless seems able to fill in the color missing from Down by Law itself. The haunting guitar line, played by the eclectic guitarist Marc Ribot (in one of his first big recording gigs — he’s since gone on to play with Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett, Sam Phillips, and many others), is the song’s lynchpin, threading its way through the Latin conga beat as Waits grumbles the seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The lyrics truly seem to be nothing more than a stream of images that sound great together; one can only take wild guesses as to what it’s all supposed to mean. But it works, grooving along like a dark force of nature — there are few songs cooler than this.