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Jon Boden on Tom Waits

Mike Harding | 17:08 UK time, Wednesday, 6 May 2009

My guest blogger this week is the inimitable Jon Boden.

You can hear an interview with Jon as well as tracks from his brand new solo album Songs From The Floodplain on the Mike Hardind shownext Wednesday, 13 May at 1900.

Jon Boden writes:

It is with significant effort of will that I am prising myself away from the excellent new biography of Tom Waits, 'Lowside of the Road' by Barney Hoskyns in order to write this blog.

I first came across Waits aged 13 or so and since then his presence in my life has been as constant as that of traditional music, which I began to discover at around the same time.

Despite knowing 90% of his music inside out I was only dimly aware of the details of his life and was more than a little nervous that reading a biography would somehow undermine the magic of his music - particular given Waits's own objections to the biography being written.

In fact, coming to see that the God-like genius of the Waits output comes from a real, in some respects quite ordinary human being, is really inspiring.

"Ordinary" I say - and that may be the case now but I hadn't quite realised the extent to which Waits created a "Jazzbo" image for himself and lived the character 24/7 for getting on for a decade during the Seventies.

I'm always interested in the question of "self-fashioning" since it is such a central part of being a pop or rock musician, and yet is anathema to the folk musician.

Audience members who are new to the folk scene are always amazed to see the artist out front flogging their own CDs, yet acclimatised folk fans would probably be faintly put-out if the artists didn't do so.

I guess this lack of self-fashioning may be a by-product of a greater contradiction at the heart of the folk-scene.

The music is social music at core, and the 60s scene was built on a desire to restore social music-making to a more healthy level.

This largely failed and the scene instead became a range of performance venues, from the folk club to the concert hall.

Yet we all still hanker for a less formal arrangement and I think we all, artist and audience alike, conspire in a fiction that somehow we are not in a concert venue with the ever present "fourth wall" but sitting around a table in a front room or a pub somewhere, singing and playing and listening for the fun of it, not as a financial transaction.

This mutual conspiracy is what makes it such a joy to perform folk music to folk fans and what keeps folk fans shelling out hard earned cash to sit in the audience.

Any whiff of pretension on the part of the artist and this unspoken contract is threatened - the artist begins to elevate him or herself into the role of pop star and that ain't the deal.

Perhaps that is why the "nu-folk" performers often don't immediately hit it off with the established folk audience, coming as they do from a more pop-performance aesthetic.

Although I think the scene should congratulate itself for maintaining this admirable balance of suspended disbelief and constrained ego, that feeling is mingled with a faint anxiety that the greatness of an artist such as Tom Waits is maybe facilitated in part by the freedom to create an alter-ego for himself, then to become that person, then to reject that person and reinvent himself, as many times as his "art" requires it.

Maybe being a folk singer - being a story-teller rather than a performance artist, limits the scope of creative achievement in the way using only watercolours can limit the visual artist, or only writing short stories can limit the writer.

I don't say this as a criticism or offer any solution; I think it's just a limitation we have to live with. But it does make the greatness of the achievement of Waits and other self-fashioning adventurers (Kate Bush, Bowie, Dylan, Tull, Bjork etc) all the more poignant to those of us who inhabit the grounded realism of folk music.


  • Comment number 1.

    I also "discovered" Tom Waits aged about 13, and have followed him since, waiting with great trepidation for his newest offerings, but the greatest piece of work for myself, was his interpretation of the haunting melody "Waltzing Matilda". Apart from a sad memory or two at the time of the release, it has stayed a great favourite with me. He seems to be more listened to in the emerald Isle's for some reason, not too popular in Wales, but he has one follower with a massive collection of his music.

    Mike Doyle.

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice, thoughtful piece, Jon.

    Fee x



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