Tom Waits and song structure – A sweet little bullet from a pretty blue gun

Tom Waits

Tom Waits employs many styles of songwriting. In terms of accolades and success few figures, like Dylan, Cohen or Neil Young, have received the same level of consistent critical praise. “A sweet little bullet from a pretty blue gun” is an example of incredible song construction by Waits, one that includes many of the elements that define his early career.

The song shares a lot to his first few records. Waits sings almost like a narrator hiding from the rain, watching out of a bar window a group of characters going about their business. “The business” that his characters engage in usually includes illegal, immoral or dangerous activities, but which Waits presents with humor and wit.

“Well it’s raining, it’s pouring” is the first line as Waits sets the scene in a tone of voice that was getting ever more gravelly with each album release. “You didn’t bring a sweater/Nebraska’ll never let you come back home”, he sings as he describes the small town dreams of a Hollywood refugee. We’re left to assume that the “young girl with sweet little dreams and pretty blue wishes” has been forced to derail her ambitions for something more sinister.

Tom Waits seems to play the joker on this song, like a salesman selling a machine that doesn’t work, but talking it up. There’s a “sweet little bullet”, “pretty blue gun” and “young girl with pretty little dreams”. As she’s being soaked by the rain she thinks of Marilyn Monroe and chrome dreams. While her dreams are tossed out in the streets, she has no way of getting back home, but it’s alright because “the rain will make ’em grow”.

As is common with some other of Tom Waits’ songs of that period, this one has no chorus or rising peak. The “hook” is the line “It’s raining, it’s pouring”, which seems to be a stationary image. Like a city continuously getting hit by rain. Like a scene repeating itself forever. The story does however come to a conclusion with the entrance of a “scarecrow wearing shades” and holding a “pretty blue gun”. Here Waits gives the impression that whatever happened to the girl (most likely murder) is something that will go largely unnoticed by the city and it’s inhabitants. It will be just another dashed dream out of so many.

Waits makes use of nursery rhymes and children’s prayers. The young girl dreams seem to come out of the mind of someone too naive, or perhaps too innocent to realize what she is really getting involved in. In this live performance Tom Waits describes the song as “This is a story about Hollywood Boulevard. And uh… Now you know there’s all these young girls from the mid-west. Still pick up a Modern Screen magazine, get on a Greyhound bus, come on up looking for Clark Gable. And uh… they end up down on uh Wilcox Avenue. And uhm… there’s a pimp feeding icecream to a dog. You know? It’s uh… “Oh How The Mighty Have Fallen”. This is about any night, when it’s raining and it’s pouring… “.

The theme is similar to a previously recorded Waits classic. The title song of the 1976 album “Small change”. (That’s the album that has “Tom Traubert’s blues” and “The piano has been drinking (not me)” on it). The song describes the frantic pace of the city streets, following a murder. He refers to the person having been shot “with his own .38” as “Small Change”. The people who were either involved in the murder, witnesseses or just happen to be around the scene of the crime just go about their normal lives following the murder. As Waits says in one of his definitive lines “Dreams ain’t broken down here, they’re walkin’ with a limp”.

Tom Waits is a remarkable character actor. This is something seen not only in the movies he’s played in, but especially in his songs. It always feels like he is playing a character of the song. Or if not, he is the narrator, who is almost always somehow involved in the story. In this song the way he sings the lyrics and the words he uses, sound like the lines a naive pretty young girl would be fed just after setting foot in the large city by someone promising to help her. While everything should be sad and miserable, what with all the rain pelting the streets without end, the burned out signs of the hotel and the strange characters walking around, to the naive Nebraska native this must all seem new and exciting. And at least for a moment, her new surroundings feel like she is getting closer to living her Marilyn Monroe dreams of stardom.

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