Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Waits - The One That Got Away

Like Foster the People’s "Pumped Up Kicks," Fun's "We Are Young" manipulates a catchy hook as decoy for a song that's fundamentally dark, disturbing, and un-Top 40. "Give me a second, I need to get my story straight," Fun singer, Nate Ruess, proclaims in the first line. It's a line that summarizes the song — a disjointed tale of a night at a club that scampers through loaded verses to focus on its drunken sing-along chorus. His friends are in the bathroom "getting higher than the Empire State," while his lover waits for him "just across the bar." Our narrator glosses over a confession of abuse and the lover's scar: "I know I gave it to you months ago/ I know you're trying to forget." The first verse isn't even over, and we already have lies, drinking, drugging and domestic abuse. 

Tom Waits, on the other hand, was never one to mince words. His instead is a bitter realism that doesn't rely on allusion, glossing over nothing. Both are effective, but Waits, like poet Ezra Pound, expects that his listeners are more culturally literate. Pound expected one to know Latin and French, if not metaphysics; Waits needs you to know the streets, or more specifically the seedy back alleys of L.A. "The One That Got Away" is a drunken dirge, like a jazz funeral, slow and breathy; there's a cancer out there on these streets that eats away the souls of these friends and acquaintances:

The One That Got Away

Well, this gigolo is jumpin' salty (1), ain't no trade out on the streets
Half past the unlucky (2), and the Hawk's a front-row seat
Dressed in full orchestration, stage-door Johnny's (3) got to pay
And send him home and talkin' about the one that got away

Could have been on Easy Street (4), could have been a wheel (5)
With irons in the fire and all them business deals
But the last of the big time (6) losers shouted before he drove away
'I'll be right back, as soon as I crack the one that got away'

The ambulance drivers they don't give a shit, they just wanna get off work
And the short stop (7) and the victim already gone berserk
And the shroud tailor measures him for a deep six holiday (8)
The stiff is froze, the case is closed on the one that got away

Now Jim Crow's (9) directin' traffic with them cemetery blues
With them peculiar looking trousers, them old Italian shoes
And a wooden kimono (10) was all ready to drop in San Francisco Bay
But he's mumblin' something all about the one that got away

Costello was the champion at the St. Moritz Hotel (11)
And the best this side of Fairfax, reliable sources tell
But his reputation is at large, and he's at Ben Frank's (12) every day
Waiting for the one that got away

He's got a snake skin sports shirt, and he looks like Vincent Price (13)
With a little piece of chicken, and he's carvin' off a slice
Someone tipped her off (14), and she'll be doin' a Houdini (15) now any day
She shook his hustle, and a Greyhound bus'll take the one that got away

Andre's at the piano behind the Ivar (16) in the Sewers
With a buck a shot for pop tunes (17), and a fin for guided tours
He could've been in 'Casablanca', he stood in line out there all day
Now he's spillin' whiskey and learnin' songs about the one that got away

Well, I've lost my equilibrium and my car keys and my pride
The tattoo parlor's warm, and so I hustle (18) there inside
And the grindin' of the buzz-saw, 'What you want that thing to say?'
I say, 'Just don't misspell her name, buddy, she's the one that got away'

St. Moritz Hotel
Notes:

"The One That Got Away" is a snapshot of what goes on outside what one can assume is a diner, extending the theme established in Nighthawk's. It's a carny of street creatures on the seedy side of town. The song is in essence a pastiche of L.A,'s underbelly in the mid 70s. What follows may focus in on the debauchery, on an L.A. that I was only witness to and not a part of.

(1) Jump salty - v: To become angry; enraged; to become malicious; orig, jive and teenage street-gang use. (2) "Half past the unlucky": Midnight on Friday. (3) Stage-door Johnnie/Johnny - n. [late 19th C.] a man who hangs around theater stage doors hoping to meet his female idols. (4) Easy street - n: 1. Financial independence 2. A way of life characterized by wealth and luxury; a pleasant and successful life; successful business dealings. (5) Wheel - n: A person in authority; also Big wheel: n. [1930s] an important, influential person, esp. in business. (6) Big Time - adv: [1950s] (black slang) very much, completely, absolutely, e.g. she loves him "big time." (7) Short stop: [60s-70s] a fool, a dupe, a coward [baseball imagery]. (8) Deep six - n: [1920s-40s] a grave (six feet under); - v. [1940s] (orig. US) to get rid of, to abandon; - v: [1950s] (orig. US) to ruin, to destroy From the phrase "give (something) the deep six," an extension of the nautical term "deep six," a burial at sea, probably in six or more fathoms of water.


Our attention is drawn from one ring of the circus to the medics outside whose compassion has waned; the victim flipping out, unruly, dies on the spot (the implication that he didn't have to); the next allusion references a funeral director (?) who Waits calls the "shroud tailor."

(9) Jim Crow: 1. [early 19 C.] a complaisant, subservient Black person. (10) Wooden kimona, wooden kimono - n: A coffin. ("I'd like to see the term wooden kimono return to the lexicon. Means coffin. Think it originated in New Orleans, but I'm not certain..." (11) St. Moritz Hotel: a notorious hotel on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, just down from the Palladium near Sunset and Vine. (12) Ben Frank's: Coffee Shop in Los Angeles, 8585 Sunset Boulevard. Until 1965 this was a famous gathering place within the bohemian scene. Circa 1966 it was populated by the rising hippie-generation. (13) Price, Vincent: Born: 1911; St Louis, Missouri. Died: 1993. Vincent Price is best remembered for his roles in horror movies, specifically the Roger Corman adaptations from Edger Allan Poe. In his later years, Price became involved with the rock industry, he was involved in music videos with performers including Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr, and Michael Jackson. (14) Tip off - v: To warn of something impending; to inform, to forewarn. (15) Do a Houdini/pull a Houdini - phr. [20C] (US) to escape, to vanish suddenly i.e. Harry Houdini, American magician. 

(16) Behind the Ivar in the Sewers - phr: Ivar is a street name in Hollywood and the name of a venue, again near Hollywood and Vine. Cosmo Alley is an offshoot of Ivar and housed Cosmo Alley (see Zappa, Love), later to become a gay bar known as The Sewers of Paris, "A burlesque house in Hollywood, right next door to the library. It was originally a legitimate theatre. Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce played there. Now it's just a strip joint, full of transsexuals. Behind the Ivar is another nightclub called The Gaslight. Used to be called the Sewers Of Paris" (Waits). (17) One dollar tip per song, five dollar tip for a medley. (18) The One That Got Away: Waits was able to capture the subterranean L.A. scene by blending in. He was a casual observer: "You go down there on Thursday afternoon, "walk into the rec room downstairs. All these old cats smoking cheap cigars, checkin' out the billboard, playing snooker, and telling stories about the one that got away"

Well, on this one I bit off more than I could chew. Sometimes you look too deeply into something, you find out you know even less.

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