The shifts on the barge ran contiguously, seven days a week, rotating between 12- and 18-hour intervals. There was no true separation between night and day; there was only working and not working. It was a nasty gig. Everything was glare and noise and the stink of fish, bad food, and gut-rot moonshine. It wasn't long before I was existing in a stuporous limbo between sleep and wakefulness, strung out on soul-numbing repetition. I spent most of my downtime lying in my bunk, eyes closed and listening to music, trying to escape the assault of an endlessly manufactured daytime. What I felt most deprived of was not so much sleep as the whole idea of night: the promise of freedom in nightfall, night's seductive threat of infinite possibility, the necessary progression from agitation to dreaming that is night's truest movement. The night cap. Night life.
One of the tapes I'd packed into my beat-up duffel was Tom Waits' Franks Wild Years. Honestly, I have no idea what compelled me to bring this particular Waits album along. I hadn't listened to it all that much; I found it sort of contrived and fusty-sounding. Something about my circumstances, though--something about the absolute spiritual desolation of life aboard an Alaskan fishing boat--had opened me up to the album's wonderful idiosyncrasies and warped hyperbolism. It wasn't long before I was listening to Franks Wild Years every chance I got. Falling exhausted into my bunk, my whole body aching, I'd wrap the headphones around my ears and disappear into the album's deep, lush sound. It became my prayer before sleep, my mantra.
Musically, Franks Wild Years plays out like a bittersweet, if slightly demonic tribute to the era of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley revues. The orchestrations are deeply textured and strangely anachronistic (anachronistic even by Waits' standards), a woolly combination of Captain Beefheart carnivalesque and the moody contextualizations reminiscent of old silent film scores. The cumulative effect is gorgeous, moody, and nebulous--dreamlike. Waits employs a variety of meandering carousel rhythms and all manner of circus honking and Coney Island clanging and plucky strings to create an atmosphere of sepia-toned nostalgia for some vague, cinematic idea of America's lost innocence. Every odd and unlikely instrument--from the Mellotron and optigon to the accordion and pump organ to the marimba and baritone horn--is used evocatively, as a means of heightening the feeling of both timeless yearning and irrevocable loss.
I suppose Franks Wild Years can be considered something of a concept album; though for me, stuck in Alaska, mired at the ass-end of civilization, the album became more an abiding sentiment than a conceptually integrated work. It came to represent every emotion contained in nightfall: a journey through the hypnotic qualities of darkness, full of hope and delusion and heartbreak. Not just any old darkness, though; it's the rarefied, raffish, spectacular darkness of urbanity that Waits evokes--the lit-up, sexy, sad, drunken nightlife of New York City.
Throughout Franks Wild Years, Manhattan is envisioned as the mecca of all dreaming, the final destination of every profane pilgrimage through the unholy ether of the American night. In song after song--from the glitzy hubris of "I'll Take New York" to the melancholy lament of "Yesterday Is Here"--this fantastic dream of bygone Americana is presented as a demotic abstraction of wild success and immanent failure folded inside a velvety mirage. The dream, as with all dreams, has no discernible center, nothing of solid substance, only periphery and permanent twilight. It's a limitless, endless Gotham swimming in an endless, limitless midnight, a vertiginous skyline sequined by a million neon lights. Waits seems to gaze up at these lights and see both temptation and salvation. He also sees a bit of damnation. It's all there for the taking.
I went to Alaska to get rich, I suppose. What I got instead was a mouthful of futility. It was like a prison sentence. Every minute felt like an eternity. It didn't help matters that the sun set only two hours every day. I longed for darkness, while simultaneously mourning the slow, relentless march of hours, of lost time. So Franks Wild Years became my blues as well as my prayer to night. Beneath the album's extravagant poetry and exquisite, often buoyant instrumentation, there lurks a voluptuous sadness, a sense that such grandiose dreams come to nothing but dust. If Waits construes the mythological idea of New York at night as the sum total of all human desire--a mythic dream that accepts all meaning, every hope and fear and aspiration and perversion of the human soul--he also gives the city an equal and opposing power to crush the spirit. This is the flip side of night's promise, when lost opportunities are inventoried and time becomes an unendurable weight.
"If you want money in your pocket,
and a top hat on your head,
a hot meal on your table,
and a blanket on your bed,
well today is gray skies,
tomorrow is tears,
you'll have to wait till yesterday is here.
Well I'm going to New York City,
and I'm leaving on a train,
and if you want to stay behind and
wait till I come back again,
well today is gray skies,
tomorrow is tears,
you'll have to wait till yesterday is here."
I could certainly relate to those lines during that long, long summer in Alaska. I still can. No album I can think of so perfectly captures the feeling of night, in all its hopeful, rueful, meditative moodiness, as Franks Wild Years. Waits' artistic genius resides, I believe, in his uncanny ability to re-imagine America's dystopic past as a labyrinthine, fin-de-siècle New York nightclub--a smoky, smoldering lounge packed with all sorts of gamblers, con men, fanatics, bleary-eyed romantics, would-be millionaires, whores, drunks, and derelicts. It is a place of sadness and shadows, lit up by effervescent moments of gaiety, lustfulness, and drunken braggadocio, where old dreams are preserved in the amber glow of cheap whiskey. In Franks Wild Years, night is the swampy medium through which dreams are both conceived and killed. Night itself becomes a dream of love, or loneliness, or even death. Waits' gravel-coated crooning does more than make this bearable. It makes it beautiful.