Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

Frank’s Wild Years
Tom Waits

You think you know weird?  You don’t know weird till you’ve heard the albums from Tom Waits’ Island Records period.

Famous for his raspy vocal delivery, Waits was mostly a piano-based lounge act before the 1980s.  His lyrics have always been exceptional– on par with Bob Dylan and Patti Smith– and his 1974 concept album the Heart of Saturday Night will be covered in another article of this column.

When he signed a recording deal with Island Records, however, he took his music in a very, very different direction.   Frank’s Wild Years is the third of five albums recently remastered and re-released by that company, and it  features obscure instruments– a Mellotron, for example– intense rhythmic patterns, and bizarre harmonies and chords that put the most experimental prog bands to shame.

How weird?  We’re about to find out.

The lyrics of Frank’s Wild Years are highly abstract, much in the vain of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti “Coney Island of the Mind”, or the Leonard Coen song “Avalanche”.  Lyrics such as theirs are best received in bits– let the words wash over you, then focus on a bar or three that pop out, that stick in your memory.  

Yet under thorough analysis, the album does tell a cohesive story, the story of Frank and his accordian, his ambitions as a musical superstar, his success in New York City, and how it was all taken away.  Indeed, the songs were performed as a stage play starring Waits at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1986.

Frank’s journey begins with “Hang on St. Christopher”–  Saint Christopher being the Catholic patron saint of travelers.  These are some of the weirdest lyrics of the entire album, but they form complete sentences, with concrete images and with a sustained motif of travel.  Two lines that pop for me, “hang on St. Christopher with the hammer to the floor, put a High Ball in the crankcase, nail a crow to the door.”  Let’s break that down with some close reading.  Hammer to the floor is an expression for pressing the accelerator of a car all the way down, a High Ball is a strong alcoholic drink and a crankcase is a part of an engine, so we appear to have some very fast, intoxicated driving here.  What nail a crow to the door would signify only Tom Waits knows, but the image is strong and concrete, moody and evocative.  And the sentence makes literal sense, we know what is happening there– a black bird is nailed to an entrance way– it’s just weird as hell.  

So Frank is praying to St. Christopher, praying for a journey, praying for something, anything, to shake up his tepid life.

Actually, the character of Frank has already been developed in another song written by Waits on the first of the Island records, “Swordfishtrombones”.  The song Frank’s Wild Years tells a fully fleshed out story of a man in the throes of a mundane, upper middle-class existence.  At the end of the song, Frank burns his house down with his wife and her chiwawa in it.  That’s our Frank.

Song two on the album is “Straight to the Top (rumba)”, and a different version of this song– though with exactly the same lyrics– will appear again later in the album.  It is the driving rumba beat of ambition in this song: “I’m going straight up to the top, oh yeah, up where the air is fresh and clean. I just know that I will never stop, no no, until I’m wild and free.”  The idea being that not only is success liberating, but even the air is better to breathe at the top of the success ladder.

Calming down the narrative and the album significantly, next comes the banjo-led “Blow Wind Blow”.  It is a slow song, and a melancholy one, and with “take me away, you gotta take me on into the night”, Frank’s journey has lyrically begun.  “There’s a husband in the doghouse” suggests to us the motivation for his longing for change, longing for adventure.  Frank is in the midst of some spousal strife.

By track four, “Temptation”, Frank is drunk and ruminating: “Rusted brandy in a diamond glass, everything is made from dreams, time is made from honey, slow and sweet, only the fools know what it means, temptation, temptation”.  There doesn’t appear to be very much that is actually overly tempting in the entirety of the song– indeed, very little that makes sense at all– so we must rely on the song title and assume that Frank has encountered temptation early on in his journey.  Of note, only the fools know what it means might refer to those of us fools who dare to analyze these lyrics.

Next up, “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)” is, again, a song that will reappear at the end of the album with the same lyrics.  The song has some concrete vignettes, for once, and several ideas that do actually make sense.  “I made a golden promise that we would never part, I gave my love a locket and then I broke her heart”.  It’s an incredibly concise episode, striking an immediate mood of ennui and loss.  Then, there are plenty more lyrics that make little sense– at least without the full context of the album behind it: “it’s memories that I’m stealing, but you’re innocent when you dream”.  When this lyric returns to close the album, it becomes the crux of the concept of Frank’s Wild Years.

Time to get weird: track six, “I’ll Be Gone”, begins with a rooster crowing– which would reference the male sexual organ, a cock, as well as a wake-up call very early in the morning– but that’s the least weird part of the song.  At this point I think we should get a full taste of the weirdness, let’s really let the complete lyrics of “I’ll Be Gone” wash over us, then examine whatever stands out.

“Tonight I’ll shave the mountain,
I’ll cut the heart from Pharaohs
I pull the road off of the rise
Tear the memories from my eyes
And in the morning I’ll be gone
I drink 1,000 shipwrecks
Tonight I’ll steal your paychecks
I paint the sheets across my bed
The birds will all fly from my head
And in the morning I’ll be gone
Take every dream that’s breathing
Find every boot that’s leaving
Shoot all the lights in the cafe
And in the morning I’ll be gone
I bet 1,000 dollars
I have a french companion
I tie myself below the deck
I pull the rope around my neck
And in the morning I’ll be gone

[instrumental break]

It takes a life to win her
There is a drum of bourbon
800 pounds of nitro
His boots are thunder as he plays
There is a stone inside it
Tonight his bones will ride it
I’ll need a tent to hide it
And in the morning I’ll be gone”

Well then.  Tear the memories from my eyes calls back to the line from the previous song, “it’s memories that I’m stealing”.  And there’s more about dreams in “I’ll Be Gone”, also: take every dream that’s breathing”.  Does I have a French companion reference the “Temptation” song– for it is surely not Frank’s spouse who is referenced here.  “Temptation” does mention a she character, “I know that she is made of smoke but I’ve lost my way.   She knows that I am broke, so I must play”.  I argue that those last two lines from “Temptation” do not mean play as in play around sexually, but to play a musical instrument.

Before going any further, we must examine the cover art of the album.

The image features a picture of Waits with his greaser coif in the upper left corner, a martini glass in the upper right, but the cover is dominated by a large accordion with the NYC skyline superimposed upon it.

Our buddy Frank is now associated with musical ambitions– dreaming of going straight to the top of New York City as… as an accordian player.

The next song, called “Yesterday is Here”, slows us back down again.  “If you want money in your pocket and a top hat on your head… well, today is gray skies, tomorrow is tears, you’ll have to wait till yesterday is here.”  The suggestion appears to be that Frank must wait until time reverses.  The city of New York appears again in verse two, “I’m going to New York City and I’m leaving on a train”– Tom Waits has a thing for trains, and references to them appear on most of his albums.  The verse continues, “if you want to stay behind and wait till I come back again… you’ll have to wait till yesterday is here.”  So, now Frank is definitely on his way to the Big City, and whomever is being addressed here must wait a long time before Frank’s return.  Yet the title of the song is “Yesterday is Here”, to which I will add the emphasis to is here.  Yesterday has arrived in the song title, and all of the waiting is over.

The bridge section has one more lyric of interest, “it’s out where your memories lie”.  That is an unusual phrase.  Dreams are frequently said to lie, as in where dreams lie in wait, and fortune might lie ahead, or hopes might lie down to die, but memories don’t usually lie in a certain place.  I would interpret the where memories lie lyric as, a place where memories do not tell the truth.  This reading harkens back to “it’s memories that I’m stealing” from “Innocent When You Dream”.  We will delve more into these disappearing memories in the second half of the record.

The first half, or the first act, has two more songs– both with intensely weird music, indescribably weird music.  The lyrics, however, are actually fairly relatable.  The chorus of “Please Wake Me Up” hits us with a wonderful sentiment: “if I fall asleep in your arms, please wake me up in my dreams”.  Yet the second verse has a bittersweet taste: “when our divorces are final, she’ll fit right into my scheme.  Next to the pawnshop’s a chapel… and if I fall asleep in your arms, please wake me up in my dreams”.  Let’s close read those lines.  The pawnshop would refer to the divorce, Frank is hocking his wife.  But next to the pawnshop where one gets rid of one wife, there is a chapel, where one might be married again.  Frank yearns for another spouse, yet the title of the song politely requests that he be awoken from such a dream.

Next comes “Frank’s Theme”, in which Tom Waits uses his harshest, grittiest, weirdest singing voice over accordion accompaniment.  The song can be summed-up in one line: “Dream away your sorrows”.  There is one truly inspired line that sticks out: “just like before the band starts to play, they always play your favorite tune.”  It is simultaneously a statement of disappointment– once the band does start to play, they don’t play your favorite tune, it is only before they start to play that this happens– yet also of extreme hope and whimsy– before the band starts to play, you imagine them to be playing your favorite song.

The second act of the album opens with “More Than Rain”, and rain is another omnipresent motif of Waits’ lyrics.  But Frank’s journey is clearly stuck in the mud,  “none of our pockets are filled with gold, nobody’s caught the bouquet, there are no dead presidents we can fold, nothing is going our way.”  But his plight gets worse on the next track.  

“Way Down in the Hole” includes much talk of Jesus and the Devil, “you got to keep the devil way down in the hole”, but hole is frequently used as a term for heroin use.  Frank is broke, caught in the rain and potentially strung out on hard drugs.

It is at this point that the album, and its story, take a strong turn.  On “Straight to the Top (Vegas)”, Frank does appear to be back on top.   The lyrics are exactly the same as the second track on the album, but the musical style is back to Tom Waits’ lounge act years– in the sleaziest, lounge-iest way.  Frank’s got a band, now, it would seem, and is lounge-singing his way to the success he has been dreaming of.

The lounge act continues into “I’ll Take New York”, and the musical sleaze gets even sleazier– kind of like soft-jazz meets acid jazz, some sort of soft-acid-jazz.  “I’ll tip the newsboy, I’ll get a shine, I’ll ride this dream to the end of the line. I’m goin places… I’ll take NY.”  Has Frank now achieved his dream of success?

Let’s break down the syntax.  I’ll take New York is still in the future tense, and the I will, far from a statement of certainty, implies a strong sense of conditionality, and the presiding sentiment is would-if-I-could.  So, no is the answer, he has not achieved his dreams.

Far and away the greatest statement of ambition I’ve ever heard comes in the last two lines: “I know someday they’ll have to name a street after me, right next door to old Franklin D.”  Now that is how you dream.  Forget the tophat, forget the shoeshine, forget the new wife and the french companion– Frank wants to get so famous, so influential, that he ranks with presidents in popular memory.

Needless to say, Frank burns out fast.  The vocals on “I’ll Take New York” trail off into whining vibrato, ending in a hard smokers’ cough.

Somehow, “Telephone Call from Istanbul” brings us back to reality.  For we have truly arrived at the weirdest lyrics on the album, lyrics such as, “never trust a man in a blue trench coat, never drive a car when you’re dead.”  Do you have any thoughts on what that might mean?

For there is indeed some portion of meaning in the oddness, in the absurdity.  “I got to wear the hat that my baby done sewed” might be a reference to spousal fidelity– hat being something that encompasses a man’s head, or the head of a penis, this could be a very obscure reference to Frank’s wife’s vagina.

Regardless, the song ends with, “I got a telephone call from Istanbul, my baby’s coming home today”.  The eponymous telephone call comes from far away, seemingly out from nowhere, letting Frank know that his wife is coming home, and soon.

On “Cold, Cold Ground” we are definitely back to reality.  Though the lyrics are still weird and more evocative than they are sensical, Frank is titularly waking up, finding himself on the ground, cold and alone.  Lyrics of note: “never slept with a dream before it had to go away”.  We are approaching the final reveal of the album.

First, though, Waits wants to sing about trains some more.   The song is important as a musical resolve to the album, but not much more is said of substance other than “it was a train that took me away from here, but a train can’t bring me home”.

The final song is another version of the fifth song on the track list, now called “Innocent When You Dream (78)”.  As with “Straight to the Top”, the lyrics are exactly the same.  However, at the end of the album, with the entire record in context, the lyrics can take on a new meaning.  

This time, when Waits sings “it’s memories that I’m stealing, but you’re innocent when you dream”, we have already figured out that Frank’s journey is a somnambulist’s one, a drowsy, sleepy-headed fantasy– yes, it was all a dream, he never actually took a train to New York to play jazz accordion with a lounge band, he never really got a street named after him.  Though no surprise, this is also no cliché.  For two highly insightful statements are made in that one lyric.

The first relates to memory, though I’m not sure I agree with what is said.  Waits is stealing Frank’s memories in the sense that, once it is revealed Frank was only dreaming, the memories don’t exist, they aren’t real memories, only memories of a dream.  I’m inclined to disagree.  A memory from a dream is entirely a real memory, the faculty of memory in your brain is still engaged, how could it be called anything other than memory?  Closer to an accurate statement would be the line from “Yesterday is Here”, “where your memories lie”– and I have established that, in that song, memories are lying to us.  The dream memories are certainly still memories, they are just false memories, memories that do not accurately depict reality.

The second insight is in the very title of the song: when you dream, you are innocent.  No matter how tempted, how adulterous, or how depraved, as long as you are only dreaming about such things, you are still innocent– for you did not do those things.  Even if you did those things in your dreams, you only did those things in your dreams.

Well, I’m certainly confused enough now to have discussed this album thoroughly.

Weird, huh?

More Concept Albums Explained,
including The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,
and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, Revisited

!Winners of the 2024 FLASH SUITE Contest
are now announced!

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