When I first wrote about the influence that Tom Waits had on me as a songwriter (Introduction to Alchemy), I had one thing on my mind: publicity. When the idea for the second article (Applied Alchemy) hit me like an epiphany (or maybe a migraine), I knew this would lead to something much deeper and meaningful: notoriety. Once I had achieved my minor notorious status (“If you can’t be famous, be infamous”), I felt it best to turn my focus back to my own songwriting.
I had received several emails of warm admiration from readers who learned of Tom Waits from my articles and found them informative. Also, in the fine tradition of necessary contradiction, I received a few comments from people who didn’t agree with my choices for the artists I chose or the subject matter in general (and to you few, I paraphrase comedian Katt Williams; “If you got haters in your game, you know your doing something right”). But the most surprising email I received was from Terri Smith, the wife of jazz musician Carlton J. Smith.
Terri asked me to review her husband’s latest CD, Skinny Bone Tree, (a reference to a lyric from Waits’ song “Sixteen Bullets From A Thirty-Ought Six”), and I must admit, I was overwhelmed. Honestly, I had no idea who Carlton J. Smith was (my jazz influences end with Charlie Parker). But someone had asked me to review a CD, like I was an authority, and this led to a new thought pattern: a trilogy of Tom Waits articles. I would be famous!
Oh, but such fates carry a profound price, as I was to find out. After listening to the CD several times through, I stalled; yea, I balked at the task that lay before me. I was stumped. What was I to do? After several months, that’s right ladies and gentlemen, months, I wrote Terri the following letter:
I come to you with my head hung low, my tail between my legs, and my humblest apologies. I have many excuses, not limited to my personal procrastination habits, but I won’t bother you with those. I will say I’m sorry. What you asked me to do was a simple thing and I failed to do it in a timely manner. Now here’s the part where I tell you WHY I’ve delayed communicating with you: I’m not qualified!
Ah, the shame! The misery this has brought to me! You husband is a jazz/soul performer and composer, and to be honest I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on anything beyond the fact that I liked the CD and would recommend it to any Waits fan. Sadly my expertise (if I can call it that) lies in the Pop/Rock/Metal genre, and I really felt I would be inadequate in expressing in a review what your husband accomplished. He holds a mastery of reinvention it seems to me, able to mimic Waits’ spirit and channel it into new lyrics and new compositions, sometimes funky, sometimes Latin dance, but always new, strange, and wonderful, something I’m sure Mr. Waits would appreciate.
In particular, I enjoyed “I Can Only Be Me;” just something about that song kept drawing me back. Maybe because I was trying to identify the song Mr. Smith was influenced by. I listened to the song again and again, trying to decipher what Waits’ song he could have possibly heard this from, that produced this brilliant display of lyricism and musical structure. Ultimately I think what continued to draw me back to “I Can Only Be Me” was the fact that it is simply stellar, out of this world good, and it really speaks about real life, just like Mr. Waits does. I could see it competing on a Top 40 station if that were ever Mr. Smith’s intention. I can’t talk about structuring or composing (as mentioned before, I’m not educated enough), but I do wonder how much he freehand improvs and how much he writes out on sheet before playing; it’s very interesting to think about.
I know this isn’t much in the way of what you wanted from a review, and probably lacking in a formal apology, but it is the best I can do, and I really hope you and Mr. Smith continue to do well. I ask that you please consider me again when you wish to be delayed and disappointed by a writer; that is my forte.
Mrs. Smith was actually happy with this review, as meager as it was, and when I expressed my interest to presenting it to the wonderful publisher at Empty Mirror Books, she gave her blessing. To this, I would also like to add these notes:
* This is not a “covers” album. This is one man’s reinvention of something close to him, a continuation of the songs, not a repetition. Think of it in the sense of pilgrims on their way to Mecca: everyone makes the same trip, many use the same roads, but everyone brings with them, and takes back, something different.
* Carlton Smith does not sound “just like” Tom Waits; he never tries to. He sounds like Carlton Smith. Do not expect a copycat lounge singer.
* This really is jazz: freestyle, yet composed, raw and cultured, melodic and soulful, all the while maintaining that “what’s coming next” vibe common in good jazz.
* Carlton’s material is often named after the songs he’s drawn them from, but not always. Some are obvious, some not as such. If you want to figure out what songs are drawn from what sources, I recommend brushing up on the Waits’ discography, including Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards.
With this latest installment in the “Alchemy” series behind me, I will now push forward with my own music, and wait for my Nobel Prize in Literature to be presented at the next event. Until next time, stay loose.