David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 41: Tom Waits (I Don't Wanna Grow Up)

June 6, 2020

Despite my best intentions to be pure (ha!), I resort the next two days to a gimmick. It won't be fully revealed until tomorrow.

Probably the greatest thing my wife turned me on to was Tom Waits.  Granted, my wife had a limited album collection when I met her in 1987.  A couple of Elvis Costello albums and a couple of Elton John albums were about all we had in musical common. After that, her collection was comprised of Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, Rickie Lee Jones (I would also grow to love Rickie), Nigel Olsson (yes, the guy who played drums for Elton and who, believe it or not, had a solo album) and this guy, Tom Waits.  Slim pickings, eh?

Nighthawks At The Diner and Small Change, the two albums that Pix owned by Waits, were cooler versions of what Harry Chapin got famous doing: narrative-style songs, but stylistically closer to jazz or blues than straight rock and roll, and occasionally veering off into the bizarre, all sung by one of the most cigarette-laden voices I had ever heard.  Waits was funny in a dry, droll, literate, weirdly charismatic way (heck, it wasn't long before he was showing up in Jim Jarmusch movies, and eventually landed a plum role in the supporting cast to Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed). I quickly realized that Waits was greater than just a marginalized musician.

Interestingly as I got more into Waits, Pix got into him less. He experimented, especially with instruments on later albums, wrote more bizarre lyrics, dabbled in other musical styles, and basically redefined himself from beat poet to avant-garde artist. So by 1992, when I was bringing home Bone Machine, Pix was rolling her eyes at me more than welcoming me with open arms. Certainly any album that begins with "Earth Died Screaming," with its apparent un-rhythmic percussion and turn-of-the-century radio vocals segueing to half shout/half moan chorus, isn't making it easy for a listener to engage with the work. The cover was a frightening blurred vision of Waits in apparently Mad Max headgear, and he was proud to admit that the album was recorded in a basement, nothing but concrete and water heater. The record seemed more in line with a serial killer (this is the guy who would pen "What's He Building In There" a couple of years later) than a rock and roll musician. For many, this would be an album for laying down and avoiding.

However, I quickly noted some tunes that stood out, ones that didn't completely sacrifice a core listen-ability for whatever post-modern point Waits might be making. Among those shines the all-too-short "I Don't Wanna Grow Up."

Featuring hard strummed guitars, one with crisper chords, one with buzzing feedback, "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" engaged the listeners from the get-go. The music is straightforward without much alteration, as if it is the obstinate musical backdrop to the singer telling us all of the things he doesn't want to do that represent growing up:

"When I see my parents fight/I don't wanna grow up/

They go out all night drinking/and I don't wanna grow up/

I'd rather stay here in my room/nothing out there but sad and gloom/

I don't wanna grow up."

In many ways, the song is a 2 1/2 minute character study of a man who would never have wanted to "live in a big old tomb on Grant Street." He'd probably prefer to live in a cardboard box on Grant Street.

Meanwhile, Waits' voice, which has already sounded like a 60-year old man's, makes the refusal to grow up all the funnier, especially when at the end, he confesses "how did I get here so soon/I don't wanna grow up."

It should be no surprise that other musicians fully embedded in stages of arrested development would want to cover the song, most famously The Ramones for their last album. They may be the most famous act to cover this song, but what if someone with some serious musical credentials covered it, how would that turn out?

I don't want to get there so soon.

"I Don't Wanna Grow Up." Tom Waits. Bone Machine. Island. 1992. Link here.

Day 40: The Jam "Town Called Malice."

Day 42: Holly Cole "I Don't Wanna Grow Up."

See complete list here.