Spanish class during my junior year of high school was exceedingly bland. The classroom had no windows, and the decorations on the wall with Incan and Aztec ruins stood watch over our upper-middle-class bourgeoisie selves.
An unfamiliar man was sitting at the desk one Monday as our class sluggishly stumbled in.
"Hi, I'm Mr. Waits, and I'm your substitute teacher for the day," he said as the bell rang.
I scoured my memory. I had seen this face before.
My substitute teacher was a young Tom Waits, apparently.
Being taught by a replica of one of the greatest modern vocalists made Spanish much more interesting. His voice was calming, like releasing Vicks VapoRub in the classroom as he spoke. After class I cautiously approached him.
"Is your first name Tom?"
"No, It's Mike. Why do you ask?" replied the Spanish substitute.
"You look exactly like Tom Waits. Everything you do is just like Tom Waits."
"Who's Tom Waits?"
I didn't even bother to explain. I just backed out of the room, already late to Physics. I never saw him again.
Alas, I've never met the actual Tom Waits, but after listening to Orphans, Waits' 56-track, three-disc epic, I feel like I'm a little closer to the man. Orphans is divvied up into three different sections, one per disc. Brawlers, the first disc, focuses more on up-tempo grinding blues, making a riot and good ol' rock 'n' roll. Bawlers, the second, spins lonely tunes woven artfully in Waits' lyrical and musical prowess, and Bastards, the last disc, explores his experimental side, beat boxing and wheezing in time.
The first disc opens with "Lie to Me," a rockabilly-esque stomp shaking its way up from the graveyard. The dark intensity of "Lie to Me" stays strong through the first disc with other numbers like "Fish in the Jailhouse," "All the Time" and a fuzzed-out version of The Ramones' "The Return of Jackie and Judy."
Bawlers best demonstrates Waits' awesome ability to skew language. On "Long Way Home," he croons, "Money's just something to throw off a back of a train/ Got a head full of lightning and a hat full of rain."
A much different side of Waits comes through on Bastards. The first track, "What Keeps Mankind Alive," booms with only horns, a banjo and a drum. Waits shouts like a ringleader, sings like on Broadway and holds your attention.
The instrumental aspect of this disc is much more experimental, sounding like a junkyard come to life, with a pounding of pans and drums, and a whirlwind of odd instruments such as bamboo flutes and the Chamberlin.
The most prominent on each of the albums is, of course, Waits' voice. He chug-a-lugs, weeps, croons, whines, scats and booms. His voice is the key instrument on Orphans, whether it sounds like a whispered lullaby or shouts after gargling with razorblades.
Orphans, however, might be too long. Fifty-six tracks of any artist is a little much, but in Waits' defense, the massive variety of the music more than compensates for this.