Tuesday, December 7, 2010

December 7: Tom Waits, "San Diego Serenade"

Artist: Tom Waits
Song: "San Diego Serenade"
Album: The Heart Of Saturday Night
Year: 1976

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CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (LIVE) (will open in new tab)

While it is perhaps the most common theme throughout the history of recorded music, it is impossible to argue that writing a good love song is an "easy" task.  Furthermore, to write from an original perspective may appear as almost a laughably difficult task, as one can argue that over the decades, the subject has been approached from every angle.  Thankfully, there have always been musical visionaries and other such performers of great stature that have built their careers on their unique perspectives, and this is much the reason that Tom Waits remains one of the most highly respected and truly brilliant performers in all of music history.  Whether it has been due to his gruff vocals, his mind-bending lyrics, or the unmatched musical creations he puts together, there are few artists in history that have shown as wide a range of sounds with as consistent a level of superior sound as one finds in the Waits catalog.  As the decades passed, Tom Waits has pushed the boundaries on what can be achieved musically, and yet on his early records, he cemented his name as one of the most talented writers in history, bringing a unique beauty to characters that lived on the "other side" of the tracks from the traditional subjects of more melodic songs.  This was never more clear than on his 1974 release, The Heart Of Saturday Night, and the pure genius and beauty that makes Tom Waits so extraordinary can be experienced in the song "San Diego Serenade."

Though the studio version of "San Diego Serenade" is a brilliant moment in music history, it is in the live performances of the song where one can truly understand the deeper facets of the song.  Just a few short weeks after the albums' release, Waits appeared on a New York radio station for a stunning, intimate performance, and it circulates as a bootleg called, Nighthawks On The Radio.  With little more than a piano, his voice, a hi-hat, and a few bottles of beer, the version of "San Diego Serenade" found here stands as one of the most beautiful moments in all of music history.  The key musical phrase around which the entire song is built brings with it a sense of movement and imagery that is rarely found within such a sparse musical arrangement.  Even without the lyrics, the music conveys the scene of a late-night walk down a city street, and one can feel a light rain falling as the song progresses.  The fact that these images are so vivid is a testament to the talents of Tom Waits, and the way in which the song seems to move slowly, yet never lulling, only adds to the fantastic mood of "San Diego Serenade."  Furthermore, one can hear the notes as being played by the stories' protagonist at a dingy piano, either in an empty bar of in a run-down apartment.  It is this beauty in "urban decay" that makes Waits so unique, and also serves as proof that even an idea as "sacred" as love can be approached from any angle.

If there is one aspect of the career of Tom Waits that has become more distinctive over the decades than his music, it is without question his amazing singing voice.  Few artists from any time period have been able to capture as much emotion in vocals as Waits does on nearly every song, and his gritty, gruff voice is instantly recognizable.  While the studio recording of "San Diego Serenade" offers a fantastic vocal performance, on the live take, Waits sinks deeper into the character, and the true spirit of the song becomes more clear.  Waits also sings in a lower octave on the live version, and in retrospect, it seems a far better fir for the overall mood of "San Diego Serenade."  Regardless of how he is singing, the lyrics of "San Diego Serenade" are stunningly beautiful in a manner unlike any other song in the entire history of music.  Though at first glance, the words may seem a bit harsh for a "real" love song, once one experiences how Waits delivers each line, it is clear that this is perhaps the most sincere and honest love song ever written.  Leaving the cliché, romanticized ideas of love behind, few cannot relate when Waits sings lines like, "... I never spoke 'I love you' 'til I cursed you in vain...," and it is more honest and "real" observations such as this that set "San Diego Serenade" far apart from nearly every other song.  Capturing the true emotions and frustrations of an undeniable love, and combining it with a bit of an edgier, grittier mood, "San Diego Serenade" stands as what one can see as the love song for "everyman."

As the decades have passed, Tom Waits has pushed the envelope on what is capable within recorded music, often times making songs that are so eccentric, they defy any type of musical classification.  Yet in his early days of recording, he penned darker, more realistic portraits of characters that were far easier to relate to than the subjects of most other songs to that time.  It is this sense of realism that defines the music of Tom Waits, as he is a story-teller like none other, and it is due to this that one can easily argue his place among the greatest writers and performers in all of music history.  His 1974 album, The Heart Of Saturday Night, captures the romance of late-night in the city in a way unlike any other artist, and one can only assume that the songs come from people he saw firsthand, if not his own personal experiences.  With "San Diego Serenade," Waits created what can be seen as the "ultimate" love song in terms of the deeper, more honest realities of love, and one cannot help but be moved when he croons lines like, "... I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face..."  The song captures the struggle of coming to terms with "true" love, and though it may be surprising to some, a similar approach to the subject has rarely been attempted anywhere else in music.  Yet the song remains romantic in its own, sweet way, and it is this ability to craft non-traditional musical moments that serves as proof of just how fitting the term "genius" is for Tom Waits, and his 1974 song, "San Diego Serenade," remains nothing short of a musical masterpiece.

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