Tom Waits – In the neighborhood

Tom Waits leading a procession of odd characters through his Los Angeles back alley is an image that could define a lot of his career. In the neighborhood  is a song from the seminal 1983 album Swordfishtrombones. The strange, beautiful video for it seems feels like a nice send off to his time in Los Angeles and to the murky, gloomy events detailed in the songs on the album.

In the video Tom Waits, singing in his Captain Beefheart gravelly growl, leads a parade of circus like characters to the streets of Los Angeles. As the camera pans out, it is revealed they are actually just walking down a back alley, while the neighborhood inhabitants look on. But most of them look on as if familiar to these kind of public exhibitions of otherness. Below is a version of the video, where someone mixed the original video footage with the studio recording.

Creatively it was one of Waits’ best periods in his career. By now any simple categorization of his style of music was practically impossible. Tom Waits had begun to experiment with odd sounds, coming from theater music or simply from using unusual instrumentation. Lyrically, he continued to have a passion for characters on the very margin of society, writing about them with humor and empathy .Where as early in his career Waits was presented as a classic singer-songwriter, performing his songs while sitting behind the piano, his recent output had made a simple definition of his work impossible.

As for the lyrics of In the neighborhood, they deal in what was familiar territory for Waits at that point, combining the dreary details of life in an ordinary neighborhood with the dark mythology that Waits introduces. The freaks parading around the alley way in the video are like a metaphor for that. The common and the strange engaged in mournful celebration. Those characters are the neighborhood legends, whose misfit stories are set to become part of Waits mythology.

Well, Big Mambo’s kickin’ his old grey hound
And the kids can’t get ice cream, cause the market burned down
And the newspaper sleeping bags blow down the lane
And that goddam flatbed’s got me pinned in again

In the neighborhood
In the neighborhood
In the neighborhood

Tom Waits had this to say about the song in a 1983 interview promoting the album “It has that salvation army feel. All things signed. Have a drinking song. I was trying to bring the music outdoors with tuba, trombone, trumpets, snare, symbals, accordian. So it had that feeling of filinesque type of marching band going down the dirt road. And with glockenspiel to give it a feeling of a kind of a demented little parade band”.

The video also seems to borrow some inspiration from the movies of Italian director Federico Fellini, especially seeming to reference the ending scene in the movie 8 1/2. 

 

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