Tom Waits: Rain Dogs – [Record 103]
Rain Dogs is the eighth album by American singer-songwriter Tom Waits, released in September 1985 on Island Records. A loose concept album about “the urban dispossessed” of New York City, Rain Dogs is generally considered the middle album of a trilogy that includes Swordfishtrombones and Franks Wild Years.
The album, which includes appearances by guitarists Keith Richards and Marc Ribot, is noted for its broad spectrum of musical styles and genres, described by Rolling Stone as merging “Kurt Weill, pre-rock integrity from old dirty blues, [and] the elegiac melancholy of New Orleans funeral brass, into a singularly idiosyncratic American style.”
The album peaked at #29 on the UK charts and #188 on the US Billboard Top 200. In 1989, it was ranked #21 on the Rolling Stone list of the “100 greatest albums of the 1980s.” In 2003, the album was ranked number 397 on the magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
Pitchfork Media listed Rain Dogs as 8th best album of the 1980s. Slant Magazine listed the album at #14 on its list of “Best Albums of the 1980s”.
2. Clap Hands.
3. Cemetery Polka.
4. Jockey Full of Bourbon.
5. Tango Till They’re Sore.
6. Big Black Mariah.
7. Diamonds & Gold.
8. Hang Down Your Head.
10. Rain Dogs.
12. 9th & Hennepin.
13. Gun Street Girl.
14. Union Square.
15. Blind Love.
16. Walking Spanish.
17. Downtown Train.
18. Bride of Rain Dog.
19. Anywhere I Lay My Head.
Composition and recording: Waits wrote the majority of the album in a two month stint in the fall of 1984 in a basement room at the corner of Washington and Horatio Streets in Manhattan. According to Waits, it was:
“kind of a rough area, Lower Manhattan between Canal and 14th street, just about a block from the river … It was a good place for me to work. Very quiet, except for the water coming through the pipes every now and then. Sort of like being in a vault.”
In preparation for the album, Waits recorded street sounds and other ambient noises on a cassette recorder in order to get the sound of the city that would be the album’s subject matter.
A wide range of instruments were employed to achieve the album’s sound, including marimba, accordion, double bass, trombone, and banjo, indicating the many different musical directions spread across Rain Dogs. Coming as it did in the mid 1980s—when most musicians depended on synthesizers, drum machines, and studio techniques to create their music—the album is notable for its organic sound, and the means by which it was achieved. Waits, discussing his mistrust of then fashionable studio techniques, said:
“If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I’ve chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it. Most things you can get with a button nowadays. So if I was trying for a certain drum sound, my engineer would say: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, why are we wasting our time? Let’s just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something (take a drum sound from another record) and make it bigger in the mix, don’t worry about it.” I’d say, “No, I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard.”
Waits also stated that
“if we couldn’t get the right sound out of the drum set we’d get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and bang it real hard with a two-by-four,” such that “the sounds become your own.”
Rain Dogs marked the first time that Waits worked with guitarist Marc Ribot, who was impressed by Waits’ unusual studio presence:
Rain Dogs was my first major label type recording, and I thought everybody made records the way Tom makes records. … I’ve learned since that it’s a very original and individual way of producing. As producer apart from himself as writer and singer and guitar player he brings in his ideas, but he’s very open to sounds that suddenly and accidentally occur in the studio. I remember one verbal instruction being, “Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah.”
Ribot also recalls how the band would not rehearse the songs before going to record; rather, Waits would play them the songs on an acoustic guitar in the studio.
He had this ratty old hollow body, and he would spell out the grooves. It wasn’t a mechanical kind of recording at all. He has a very individual guitar style he sort of slaps the strings with his thumb … He let me do what I heard, there was a lot of freedom. If it wasn’t going in a direction he liked, he’d make suggestions. But there’s damn few ideas I’ve had which haven’t happened on the first or second take.
The album marks the first time Waits recorded with guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. As to the reasons for getting Richards involved, and concerning their working relationship in the studio, Waits said:
There was something in there that I thought he would understand. I picked out a couple of songs that I thought he would understand and he did. He’s got a great voice and he’s just a great spirit in the studio. He’s very spontaneous, he moves like some kind of animal. I was trying to explain “Big Black Mariah” and finally I started to move in a certain way and he said, “Oh, why didn’t you do that to begin with? Now I know what you’re talking about.” It’s like animal instinct.
The album has been noted as one of the most important musically and critically in Waits’ career, in particular to the new direction which he undertook from 1983’s Swordfishtrombones onwards. As Rolling Stone put it, With Rain Dogs [Waits] dropped his bedraggled lounge-piano act and fused outsider influences—socialist decadence by way of Kurt Weill, pre-rock integrity from old dirty blues, the elegiac melancholy of New Orleans funeral brass—into a singularly idiosyncratic American style.
The reviewer goes on to describe the music as “bony and menacingly beautiful.”
The album is notable for its many different musical styles; among the album’s 19 tracks are two instrumentals (“Midtown” and “Bride of Rain Dog”), a polka (“Cemetery Polka”), a “kind of a New Orleans thing with trombone” (“Tango Till They’re Sore”), ballads (“Time”), pop music (“Downtown Train”), and “a gospel thing” (“Anywhere I Lay My Head”). “Blind Love” marks Waits’ first fully-fledged attempt at the country genre. As Waits said on the Rain Dogs Island Promo Tape (which consisted of taped comments on songs as sent to radio stations, circa late 1985):
“Blind Love” is one of my first country songs. I like Merle Haggard. Most of those other guys, though, sound like they’re all just drinking tea and watching their waist and talking to their accountant. This one I think subscribes to some of that roadhouse feel.”
The song “Hang Down Your Head” is loosely based on the folk song “Tom Dooley”, with the lyrics altered but the melody remaining mostly intact.
Rolling Stone called Rain Dogs Waits’
“finest portrait of the tragic kingdom of the streets.” The album’s title comes from an expression which suggests such an atmosphere. Waits cast further light on the metaphor by stating that the album was about “People who live outdoors. You know how after the rain you see all these dogs that seem lost, wandering around. The rain washes away all their scent, all their direction. So all the people on the album are knit together, by some corporeal way of sharing pain and discomfort.“
According to Barney Hoskyns, the album’s general theme of “the urban dispossessed” was inspired in part by Martin Bell’s 1984 documentary Streetwise, to which Waits had been asked to contribute music.
Rain Dogs includes “9th and Hennepin”, a spoken word piece which concerns the inhabitants of 9th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Waits described the inspiration for its lyrics in an interview,, revealing that while the street itself is in Minneapolis, most of the imagery is from New York. It’s just that I was on 9th and Hennepin years ago in the middle of a pimp war, and 9th and Hennepin always stuck in my mind. “There’s trouble at 9th and Hennepin.” To this day I’m sure there continues to be trouble at 9th and Hennepin. At this donut shop. They were playing “Our Day Will Come” by Dinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pimps came in chinchilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladles and they started throwing them out in the streets. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth. And I knew “Our Day Was Here.” I remember the names of all the donuts: cherry twist, lime rickey. But mostly I was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with The New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn’t have to be a part of.
Artwork: The cover photograph is one of a series taken by the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen at Café Lehmitz (a café near the Hamburg red-light boulevard Reeperbahn) in the late 1960s. The man and woman depicted on the cover are called Rose and Lily.
The cover-text resembles – in placement and font – Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album, as well as The Clash’s London Calling. The European version of the cover features red rather than blue text, as in the former albums.