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Grand Weepers and Grim Reapers: Tom Waits and Vancouver

October 16, 2008

“All weather is strange when you’re strange.” So observes Tom Waits while introducing Strange Weather for his album, VH1 Storytellers.

Vancouver can be a dreary place of strange weather.

Someone once described the city to me as claustrophobic. There’s the rain. The clouds hang low in the sky. Hedges shoot up and out. The mountains and hills clog the horizon. In recent days, grey, green, and glassy condos are popping up everywhere. Everything conspires to enclose you, to suffocate you.

Today was a typical Vancouver day. But I stood tall and refused to get bogged down. My reason: Tom Waits VH1 Storytellers album.

“Songs have to be anatomically correct,” Waits tells his audience while introducing his gorgeous Picture in a Frame. “You’ve gotta put a change of clothes in there. You have to put the names of towns and it’s good to put something to eat in there as well. And some weather.”

With all of its weather, Waits is a perfect companion in Vancouver. His repertoire is full of rain, and not just in Strange Weather or A Little Rain. His songs are full of sonic humidity, breezes, and precipitation.

While I crossed the Granville bridge into downtown Vancouver, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something especially fitting about the moment. The gravelly torch ballads, minor keys, and the sheer randomness of Waits’ world seem congruent with this one. I love Waits’ “Grand Weepers and Grim Reapers,” as his wife calls them; or as one of my friends once commented, they’re “awfully good.”

As I listened to this album on the bus, the crackling, nonsensical yarns in between songs cracked me up more than once (hopefully, no one noticed). “There are 35 million digestive glands in the human stomach,” he points out in his introduction to I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work. “I’ve used each one of them.”

The world’s a little stranger when you’re listening to Tom Waits. But it’s a whole lot better.

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