Did you have those I Spy books as a kid? The ones where every turn of the page was a double-wide spread of odds and ends spread about on a table, or across a dusty set of shelves? These were children’s books so, yes, the majority of them wore bright, cheery colors accompanied by nursery-rhyme couplets, but they weren’t all that way. There was the Hallowe’en one – which held the most interest for me – but that wasn’t the first one to get weird. Of the eight in the original series, only the first three (Riddles, Christmas, Fun House) seemed purpose-built for little kids. After that it was Mystery, Fantasy, Spooky Night. Treasure Hunt. Uh, School Days.
So they didn’t all get to have compelling names. Honestly Fun House is pretty menacing, too.
If this were a creepy-pasta in disguise, this is the point where I’d start using your nostalgia against you to summon something nasty from those Scholastic pages. I’d write about a murder weapon hidden amongst the items strewn on the table, or a message in the folded linen of the dusty, thrift-shop tablecloth. I’d write that there was a secret, unpublished book where the hidden items were thrown across a OUIJA board or in the whorls in the hardwood floor of a sea-washed cabin, the killer just off-camera. Arranging the items one by one.
God, if only.
If you remember those old books you know they had no problem getting spooky all on their own. Chances are if you’ve held on to any childhood books at all, you’ve got one somewhere. Go take a look, they’re breathtaking. The photography is by an award-winning photographer named Walter Wick and the writing by Jean Marzollo, who authored over 100 such books in her lifetime. Her riddles accompany broad, airless dioramas of hundreds of tiny items frozen in time, as if in amber. The earlier books emphasize shapes and toy soldiers and so on, but they get stranger and more intensely themed as they go. By the time you get to Spooky Night and Treasure Hunt you’re pawing through glowing treasure chests filled with beads and globes or scouring the cobwebbed shelves of a witch’s hearth, packed with tiny, mysterious artifacts. It’s all so still. You couldn’t help but imagine what stories these items must long to tell, how they all got there, who must livein such an uncanny place. There was a story there, you were sure, but there was no making out the start or finish of it. As a kid, it was like getting to explore a Gothic manor with no one else home. It was thrilling.
As an adult I think it mostly just informs my interior decorating style.
There are other bits of art I can point to that make me feel the same exhilarating mix of exploration, wonder and fear (Dave McKean, Elizabeth McGrath, Mark Ryden come to mind, Beksinski), but those thin, laminated Scholastics got to me first. I would sit with them for hours, or go through them over and over, hoping to suss out the story behind the images – knowing in the back of my mind that there probably wasn’t one, or at least one I would never hope to understand. The blurring of the ‘fact’ of the photography and the ‘fiction’ of the setting was more than good enough for me: I knew I was looking at the middle of a story (not the beginning, not the end), and that made it feel alive in a way that made it thrilling to behold. Even though it was disconnected from narrative, those books were a form of storytelling all the same. Everything is.
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise, but if you want to count I Spy Spooky Night as a bonus Long Hallowe’en entry you can.
The next part is a Tom Waits review, but the stuff above was, too.
“I think what I try to do is write adventure songs and Hallowe’en music.”
The first time I ever heard Tom Waits sing I thought something was wrong with my speakers. Have you ever tried to source a Tom Waits quotation? It’s tricky. No one’s sure what Tom means by ‘Hallowe’en Music’ because no one is ever quite sure what he means by anything, apparently including himself. In interview, Tom Waits approaches his own songwriting with the same mix of curiosity and indecision that he inspires in others. He is angular, strange, challenging and absurd – he’s at once a rambling blues man and a winking, self-aware caricature of one, and he’s been this way for the better part of 50 years. Moment to moment it is incredibly difficult to tell whether Tom Waits is a genius or the world’s greatest and most consistent accident, perpetually rolling forward. His music gives us clues to who he is, but not many. His fascinating and bizarre interviews don’t reveal much more. Honestly it’s difficult to believe he’s a real person at all, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s an act. Some of it.
It’s just that no one’s sure quite how much is real.
Not even Tom, it seems. Maybe it would help to see him in motion. If you never hear Tom Waits sing, which I can forgive, you should at least see him speak: this clip is from a television interview in 1979. If this is method acting, he’s been keeping up the act for half a century. There’s a reason people think he inspired Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Tom lilts as if held up by marionette strings. His voice is a whisper until he sings, when a bullfrog’s croak erupts from his throat. Or an eerie, goblin whisper, or an operatic and scraping drunkard’s waltz. Or a bark like a dog. This describes all of his music, song to song, as much as it describes his character in those early interviews. My favorite Tom Waits albums are Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, which feature water rushing through pipes and a dresser beaten with a two-by-four as a drum kit. Both of these were produced after he married his wife, Kathleen Brennan, to whom he remains married 42 years later, and who brought in much of the vaudeville that’s become Waits’ calling card. I say all this because the man has had a strange and interesting life, whatever we can learn about it. His secrecy is a part of the appeal. And, of course, part of the fiction.
This brings us to Alice – originally recorded in ‘92 for a musical. Then, it was stolen from the trunk of a car, bought back in a briefcase for two-thousand dollars after becoming a legendary bootleg, then re-recorded in 2002 for the version we have now. Everything about Tom Waits and his music has to go this way, settling into fact only after flying into myth first.
Is it something about the way he lives his life, or just how he tells the story of it afterwards? It’s hard to say.
Alice is a collection of songs from a play you’ve never seen, and likely never will see. It has a story, though you’ll never suss it out from the lyrics alone. The characters, of which there are many, are all inhabited by Waits with the full range of his voice on display, from whisper to belch. It opens with a song written from the perspective of Lewis Caroll, obsessed with Alice Liddell – although again, it’s hard to know for sure. There’s a blues number dedicated to Johnny Eck, a real-life circus performer and orchestral conductor born without legs or a torso. There’s “Poor Edward” about Edward Mordrake, born with a laughing, weeping face on the back of his head – or so they say. There are love songs from mystery figures and carnival barks in German. There’s a heartbreaking instrumental number simply titled “Fawn” for a reason we’re never told. There’s “Barcarolle”, where trumpet, piano and saxophone each solo over one another in discordant keys, as if reality were falling apart. At other points a train whistles by, the rails ringing out. A bell rings in the distance, a man sings up from inside his own grave.
Even when Waits himself is silent, there’s a shifting, unpredictable energy behind every track. There’s a world in there, straining at the borders between fact and fiction. It feels alive.
Each song changes direction and introduces us to a new character who fades away just as quickly, disappearing into the rear view as we turn a corner into some new part of the dream. It is all like this, all 48 minutes of it. Alice is a carousel of unbelievable tall-tales and flickers of unbearable intimacy told back-to-back without a moment to breathe. The effect is an album in which it is extremely difficult to know what’s fact, what’s fiction, and what’s meant to be taken as metaphor. In other words, it’s a soundtrack divorced from it’s source material. The focus is too fine to know what, exactly, we’re meant to be seeing – though we know exactly what to feel.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Think back to the I Spy book.
In both cases, we’re given stories without proper beginning or end. We’re given a vertical cross-section of a narrative left to stand alone. With I Spy it’s the story we’re missing, with Alice it’s the frame, but the effect is largely the same: the work projects itself onto the audience’s mind and begs us to answer these questions for ourselves or to let them float, preserved in amber. A moment in time does not need resolution to have meaning, nor does it require specificity to speak to an audience. It’s the feeling of the thing that’s powerful, the emotion it can evoke in a moment – whether that’s the innocent, morbid curiosity of a child or the detached longing that haunts Alice. The ambiguity doesn’t just act in favor of the art, it’s the point. The power is in the secrets it keeps.
A massive catalogue like Tom Waits’ seems as if it demands a proper entry point, and maybe that’s not a terrible idea. Or you could ignore that concept completely and start in the middle. Start with the feeling, the fiction, and work your way backwards to the fact. Or don’t.
Maybe that’s what Hallowe’en Music means.
This has been entry 3/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!