I have a favorite crime writer. I bet you’ve heard of him. But you may not be able to come up with his name. Here, have a sample and see if you can guess who it is:
Well it’s 9th and Hennepin and all the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes and the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky like a tarp thrown all over this. And the broken umbrellas like dead birds and the steam comes out of the grill like the whole goddamned town is ready to blow.
Did you guess? Was it Chandler? Hammett? Cain? Nope.
One of the best crime story writers—ever, if you ask me, and you didn’t—has never been on any best of lists, has never won an Edgar or an Anthony or any other award, has never been anthologized. But he’s written so many concise and poetic crime stories and noirs and done it all this time right under our noses.
I’m talking about Tom Waits.
Space doesn’t permit me to reprint all the lyrics here, but let’s start off with some of the titles (and follow the links to read full lyrics):
- Romeo is Bleeding
- A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun
- 16 Shells from a Thirty Ought Six
- Murder In The Red Barn
- Gun Street Girl
All could be titles of Cornell Woolrich stories.
Waits has always been an artist out of time. When he first started releasing albums in the early 70s he was entirely different from the L.A. troubadours he shared the scene with. Most of them were permanently in the bright sunshine of southern California while Waits stuck to the shadows. His voice and the atmosphere of his songs seemed better suited to the 1940s as the soundtrack to a film noir. His stories of longing and loss on those first few albums were sad and lonely, meant to be sung at midnight with a half empty bottle at your side.
He didn’t turn to crime stories until the late 70s, and while darker subject matter turned up from the start, genesis for Waits’ best noir tales came with his 1976 album Small Change, and the title track “Small Change (got rained on with his own .38)”.
Go read it. I’ll wait.
To me, this is a near-perfect encapsulation of noir . If anyone asks you to define noir but doesn’t have time to read Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep, have them glance at the lyrics to “Small Change”.
A sad sucker, dead from the start, no one really caring. Damn, that’s so dark the French had to name it.
The follow up, Foreign Affairs (1977) built on Waits’ love of classic Hollywood and that boulevard of broken dreams. Burma Shave is a bleak couple-on-the-run story where Waits goes as far as to mention Farley Granger in an obvious nod to the couple-on-the-run movie They Live By Night.
Mister, anywhere you point this thing
has got to beat the hell out of the sting
of going to bed with every dream that dies here every mornin’
and so drill me a hole with a barber pole
I’m jumping my parole just like a fugitive tonight.
Also on that album is Potter’s Field, an ode to dying alone after squealing on a pal. Less prose and more poetry, it features this line that could have been lifted from any great pulp novel of the fifties: “Hell, I’d double-cross my mother if it was whiskey that they payed.”
In 1978 came Blue Valentine, an album almost entirely filled with enough noir pathos to fill ten David Goodis novels. The tone is more broken dreams than broken noses, but some of the most downbeat, rain-soaked lyrics of his career are seen here.
, Romeo is Bleeding (a great example of Waits’ way of writing a song that is as much a piece of prose fiction as a lyric), Wrong Side of the Road. All great stories of desperate men in various stages of escape, death or denial.
Then there comes a duo of stories from a female point of view. $29.00 is one of the saddest accounts of a tragic young girl you’ll ever read. Reminds me of Donald Goines’ Daddy Cool. If you read only one set of lyrics all the way through as a short story, make it this one.
Fighting for the spot of my favorite Waits song of all is Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis. Not a crime story per se, but a story about the down and out, the fringe dwellers. And told in such a sad and breaking way that by the end of this 4 1/2 minute song your heart is cracked open, you know this girl too well and you know things aren’t going to be any brighter for her come New Year’s Day.
The 1980s brought Waits’ experimental side. The songs grew odder, more out there. Some say it is his best stuff. It’s hard to disagree, and at the very least it established Tom Waits as an artist who had a singular sound.
His tiny unpolished diamonds of story and characters continued, though more obliquely than before. ‘Til The Money Runs Out is a crime story at heart, but one that needs to be parsed out through the poetry. Frank’s Wild Years proved so visual and narrative-strong that an entire stage production grew out of it.
The darkness in Waits’ tales persisted, and persists today. His noir world view comes through in later works like God’s Away On Business or his version of a Lullabye. (Note to self: don’t let Tom Waits babysit your daughters.)
Then there are the lyrics we started with from 9th and Hennepin off Rain Dogs (1985). It should be noted that Sean Doolittle, who knows a thing or two about noir, used Rain Dogs as the title for his 2005 novel.
9th and Hennepin could be the first chapter of a great novel. You could teach a class in metaphor using this one song. It just is noir. No crime is committed, no blood is spilled. But, the longing and the loss is palpable and deep in a way that most 300-page novels are not.
And there he was this whole time, Tom Waits, crime writer, hiding out in plain sight inside a song.
Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, and Grimm Tales.