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25 Years Ago: Tom Waits Gets Apocalyptic and Dark on ‘Bone Machine’

Tom Waits always sounded like he was getting ready for the end of the world, even when he was doing that jazzy beatnik thing in the ’70s.

But on 1983’s transitional Swordfishtrombones he looked outside of traditional instruments for the first time to make music that didn’t sound anything at all like what you’d hear in the coffeehouses and jazz clubs Waits seemed so at home in before. He also produced himself for the first time, giving the album a sort of dance-until-doomsday haze that would dramatically change his music here on out.

That was just the start. Almost a decade later, things really got apocalyptic.

With the arrival of Bone Machine on Sept. 8, 1992, Waits made an album that literally sounded like it was recorded as the planet crumbled around him. It’s right there in the very first song, “Earth Died Screaming,” but carried over for another 50-plus minutes as Waits and his collaborators (including his wife Kathleen Brennan, a chief architect behind Swordfishtrombones‘ creative turn, and Keith Richards, who co-wrote, sang and played guitar on one song) apparently banged on anything they could find in the studio and generally made a racket to scare up the dead.

In a career filled with dark, scary albums, Bone Machine may be Waits’ darkest and scariest. It’s certainly his most death-oriented one.

It had been five years since Waits’ last studio album, Franks Wild Years, and the first written and recorded specifically for record since 1985’s landmark Rain Dogs. (Franks Wild Years was a companion to a play Waits had co-written that was staged in 1986.) Waits and his assembled musicians — including Los Lobos‘ David Hidalgo, Primus‘ Les Claypool and ace session guitarist Waddy Wachtel  — made the most of this occasion, crafting a disorienting and uneasy album about death and growing old.

Fittingly, most of it was recorded in a cement-lined basement at California’s Prairie Sun Recording Studios (it’s now referred to as the Waits Room). Waits has said the space basically consisted of a cement floor and a water heater, but it was great for capturing the haunting echo sound that’s one of the album’s defining elements.

That echo, along with the trashcan percussion and Waits’ end-of-the-world howl, is the thread that ties Bone Machine‘s planet-scorching vision together. Freed from the single-minded concept that plotted out Franks Wild Years, Waits was able to toss off lyrics like “The ice man’s mule is parked outside the bar where a man with missing fingers plays a strange guitar / And the German dwarf dances with the butcher’s son” and “Are you pretending to love? / Well, I hear that it pays well / How do your pistol and your Bible and your sleeping pills go? / Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?” as if they were all part of an all-encompassing arc.

Death is a central theme here, settling in as a main subject of at least two-thirds of the album’s songs — “Earth Died Screaming,” “Dirt in the Ground,” “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me,” “Jesus Gonna Be Here” — and that’s not even the first half. Eight years before Y2K scared the crap out of everyone, Waits had the apocalypse on his mind. (Even the album cover, a blurry shot of Waits sporting goggles and a horned skull cap — taken by Bob Dylan‘s son — is nightmare fuel.)

And the music was right there with him — from the let’s-bang-on-this percussion style that characterizes the record to the honking, bleating saxophones that signal end times to Waits’ pained yowls that have no time for the vocal niceties preferred by other more refined but way less interesting singers.

Not so surprisingly, with all this doom and gloom going for it, Bone Machine wasn’t a huge seller; it made it to only No. 176 on the Billboard album chart. But its impact and presence over the years has been profound. Its songs have been featured in classic movies (Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club, for starters) and sung by characters on hit TV shows (Beth Greene, played by Emily Kinney, on The Walking Dead), emphasizing the apocalyptic dread that’s so associated with the album.

Many of its songs have been covered over the years, too, by the Ramones (“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”), Queens of the Stone Age (“Goin’ Out West”), Squeeze (“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” again) and even actress Scarlett Johansson on her 2008 Waits tribute album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. By the time Waits got around to making another proper album, 1999’s Mule Variations, he steered, and fine-tuned, Bone Machine‘s dissonance and chaotic order into less dark, but no less thrilling, territory.

Actors Who Sing

Next: Revisiting Tom Waits' 'Franks Wild Years'

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