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Tom Waits stages a comeback

Promoting his best-selling record ever with a national tour, the poetic songwriter visits Manhattan

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Tom Waits
Sung Park

When Tom Waits signed with Epitaph Records last June, many in the music industry saw it as simply the latest oddball move by the artist formerly known as ”extremely talented but unable to sell any damn records.” Well, no more: The union of L.A.’s disconsolate Dylan and the indie label that gave us the Offspring has resulted in the best-selling album of Waits’ career: More than 210,000 copies of ”Mule Variations” have been ponied up, and thanks to the rejuvenating effect of the project, Waits has embarked on his first national tour in 12 years.

At New York City’s Beacon Theater last week — where four shows sold out in hours, despite a Streisand-like top ticket price of $85 — Waits displayed his evolution as a performer. Two decades ago, he’d growl out the lyrics to such favorites as ”Ol’ 55” slumped dangerously over a battered piano, a half-empty whiskey bottle in easy reach. But at the Beacon, he was a born-again showman, announcing his arrival through a blaring megaphone like a God-afflicted street preacher and tossing handfuls of glitter as he strolled though the audience to the stage.

The show was as much cabaret as it was a concert. Waits donned a bowler hat adorned with broken shards of mirror — which reflected light like a misshapen disco ball — and pantomimed loose-limbed dance steps as his band played behind him. He told jokes: ”You’ve heard of the three ages of man? Youth, middle age, and ‘You look GOOOOOD.”’ And he ruminated weirdly, as only Waits can: ”When it comes to death there’s cremation and burial. I’m suggesting a new approach. What’s wrong with being creamed? It works for corn…. you end up in a can, with the ingredients listed on the back…. ”

But it’s the songs, of course, that make Waits a singular talent in an industry rife with copycat tunesmiths. The older compositions he performed — like the gorgeous piano dirge ”Invitation to the Blues” — use stripped-down chords and are populated by back alley lotharios, loquacious barflies, and other doomed romantics. The later songs (such as ”16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six” from 1983’s ”Swordfishtrombones”) are musically much more adventurous — rhythmically complex soundscapes incorporating trumpet, trombone, banjo, and even bagpipe.

Also among the highlights of the two-and-a-half-hour show were several tunes from ”Mule Variations,” including ”What’s He Building,” an eerie spoken-word piece about a suspicious suburban neighbor á la Columbine or Oklahoma City. Like a great monologue in a play, Waits’ language gave paranoia a human face and lingered in the mind long after his second set of encores was done and the lights had come up:

”What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines.
Never waves when he goes by.
He’s hiding something from the rest of us.
He’s all to himself.
I think I know why.
He took down the tire swing from the pepper tree.
He has no children of his own, you see.
He has no dog.
He has no friends.
His lawn is dying.
And what about those packages he sends.
What’s he building in there?”