24 November 2009

Falling In Love With A Gun Street Girl, and Other Tragicalamities

Every so often I get it into my head that I want to write songs. Or even just one song. This is not one of those times...and its all Tom Waits' fault. Unintentional, I know. 

Falling James in the Tahoe mud
Stick around to tell us all the tale
He fell in love with a Gun Street girl and
Now he's dancing in the Birmingham jail
Dancing in the Birmingham jail

I love music, all sorts of music. I listen daily, I am getting on more artists' mailing lists, and I think I may be getting a Christmas card from iTunes. Sort of like the year I got a card from my mechanic, after I brought him a couple of boat payments worth of repairs in the space of about two months.

Took a 100 dollars off a Slaughterhouse Joe
Bought a bran' new Michigan 20 gauge
Got all liquored up on that roadhouse corn,
Blew a hole in the hood of a yellow corvette
Blew a hole in the hood of a yellow corvette


Clarification: Tom Waits alone is not entirely responsible for this dilemma of mine. Pearl also had a small but important part to play. In one of her delightful posts involving music (this one) she mentioned '16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six' by the aforementioned Mr. Waits.

Bought a second hand Nova from a Cuban Chinese
Dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco
With a pawnshop radio, quarter past 4
Well he left Waukegan at the slammin' of the door
He left Waukegan at the slammin' of the door

The song I am quoting is not that song. However, '16 Shells' played a crucial part in getting me to "Gun Street Girl", which I am liberally quoting without permission, 'cause I like the song so damn  much. It was after reading Pearl's post that I ventured over to iTunes to do a little research, and in the process I made a withdrawal from the memory bank. This withdrawal stirred up some things, it sure did.

Sitting in a sycamore in St. John's Wood
Soakin' day old bread in kerosene
He was blue as a robin's egg brown as a hog
Stayin' out of circulation till the dogs get tired
Stayin' out of circulation till the dogs get tired

When I saw the title to '16 Shells' on Pearl's playlist o' the day, I had a flashback to my days in college, listening to the school station ('WUVT' for anyone curious or keeping score) on my old turntable/cassette deck/stereo combo. It was a fairly low-tech number, tethered to a pair of Radio Shack speakers clad in that 'trying-hard-to-be-classy-but-uber-fake veneer' by skinny wires of the strip and clamp variety. It was outclassed by the block-rockin' stereos that many of my fellow dorm rats shoehorned into their rooms. Still, it was mine and it worked.

Shadow fixed the toilet with an old trombone
He never got up in the morning on a Saturday
Sittin' by the Erie with a bull whipped dog
Tellin' everyone he saw
They went thatta way
Tellin' everyone he saw
They went thatta way

The scene I was flashing on was early Friday or Saturday night, I think, and I was sitting in my dorm room wrestling with the eternal dilemma of laundry money or beer fund. Prepping for a night out was easy for me, because I was such a dork that my expectations were pretty low. I was listening to WUVT, I forget the name of the "show", but it was a pretty typical for a station trying hard to be hip and cool. To its credit, they aired a lot of what would now be called 'alternative', and some just plain bizarre. In short, it was perfect for me.

Now the rain's like gravel on an old tin roof
And the Burlington Northern's pullin' out of the world
With a head full of bourbon and a dream in the straw
And a Gun Street Girl was the cause of it all
A Gun Street girl was the cause of it all

It was then I heard Tom Waits for the very first time. It was a slow tempo song, that started out with what I thought was a banjo, accompanied by the rhythmic clank of a stick hitting a bottle, or soft blows on an anvil. Then Tom Waits started singing in that whiskey-soaked growl of his. I was transfixed. I hadn't heard anything quite like that, ever, and I was so caught up in it that I missed the DJ saying the name of the song. As it happened I heard another song sort of like it the next weekend and had the presence of mind to call the station and ask. the song was "16 Shells", which was on a different album than "Gun Street Girl". There were enough similarities in an aural sense that I figured that 16 Shells it must be. Funny, after that I forgot to track down the album and it slipped my mind for years and years, until the irrepressible Pearl brought it up in the post I mentioned earlier. Weird, how that works.

Riding in the shadow by the St. Joe Ridge
He heard the click clack tappin' of a blind man's cane
Pullin' into Baker on a New Year's Eve
With one eye on the pistol and the other on the door
With one eye on the pistol and the other on the door

So it was that when I went to look it up on iTunes, eager to hear some good stuff from my semi-misspent youth, I was quite surprised that it wasn't what I thought. I was confused, because I could still hear the song in my head, after all those years, and yet it didn't match. Chagrined and a little nostalgically melancholic, I riffled through the discography for a bit until I came across the title 'Gun Street Girl'. The sample played and I was immediately back in my room, 20+ years ago, feeling like a real hipster and looking like a dweeb and wishing I could play or sing something as cool as all that, even if not like Tom Waits. Why do I bring this up, you may ask? Because it was exhilarating and humbling at the same time and I had no idea at the time how a song like that would affect me so many years later...

Miss Charlotte took her satchel down to King Fish Row
And she smuggled in a bran' new pair of alligator shoes
With her fireman's raincoat and her long yellow hair, well
They tied her to a tree with a skinny millionaire
They tied her to a tree with a skinny millionaire

So it was, just this past Sunday, I was meditating on my so-called writing career, listening to some tunes and thinking big thoughts when the lyric bug bit me again. I like writing prose, but poetry and especially songwriting fascinate me. Similar ends, different methods, between writing a story and writing a song. My fingers and my brain were beginning to twitch as I thought back to some of the haiku and song snippets I had experimented with in my journals. "Some great stuff" I told myself, "I could do this" and I just as I reached for a pen, "Gun Street Girl" comes on the iPod. My train of thought immediately came to a screeching halt, as I sat there transfixed by the song and the gritty story it was telling. I drew my hand back from the pen, figuring songwriting would have to wait a little bit longer.

Tom Waits beat me to it, the glorious bastard. I'm in love with a Gun Street Girl, and I don't know how to tell her so.

I said, John, John he's long gone
Gone to Indiana
Ain't never coming home
I said John, John he's long gone
Gone to Indiana
Ain't never coming home
Bangin' on a table with an old tin cup
Sing I'll never kiss a Gun Street Girl again
I'll never kiss a Gun Street Girl again


  1. That is a fantastic friggin' tune. Thanks for dialing my station to it.

  2. So what you're really trying to say is that you have bought yourself a nice gun and are off shooting millionaires?

  3. Probably true that the best sort of people are a careful combination of dweeb and hipster.
    My son writes songs. It is cool to read about your process.

  4. now I HAVE to go listen to that.

    I loved this post. It's like a peek inside your heart.

  5. From the same album, "Jockey Full of Bourbon"; One of my all time favorites. Cool post, Irish.

  6. I didn't discover Tom Waits until I was in my mid-30s; I was dating the Canadian Mennonite Chemist who had very similar taste in music to yours, and he was a huge Waits fan.

    I don't have any of his music on my iPod, and I don't think Beloved (die-hard Dead Head that he is) has ever heard of him. I must remedy this post-haste.

  7. Love Waits, and always love you, and these posts...I too write songs, in my head, sing them out loud and then when distracted for a moment; it is all lost...till the next tune strikes! Sing on brother, sing on...

  8. I love Tom Waits. One of my longer tattoo sessions the aritist listened to him solid for the whole session so now I associate Waits with extraordinary pain, but I still love him.

  9. I've got to say a big thank you for this post Irish.
    Tom Waits is an artist who I've always been aware of and yet have found myself listening to him on various very early mornings when I couldn't quite take it in!
    You've put me on track now with this passionate tribute and he shall be growling at me and my booze very soon indeed!

  10. I don't write poetry (okay I don't write poetry well...)and I am definitely not a song writer. But I can't write without music. I've blogged that a lot in the past. Something about having a playlist that matches into my characters or theme I am writing really helps put me in the place I need to be to write.

    Maybe someday I'll write to one of your songs. You never know.

  11. You gotta love Tom Waits. He is one intense and interesting dude. Thanks for the suggestion. I have lots of Tom Waits on my IPod. Now I'll add this one too.

  12. Cool post, my dear Gumbo Man! Tom Waits rocks and so does your writing! Cheers, cher!

  13. Well I don't know Tom Waits (you cannot be shocked at this...) but I do know you and you need to write some music...

    You rock Gumbo!

  14. Come back, Irish....I'll put the gun down....

  15. you should have the Halloween CD any day now - i hope you enjoy it....and if your songs are anything like your prose, I'd download your entire album and even PAY for it!!

  16. I have yet to discover Tom Waites-This blog post may inspire me to do just that....Great blog post.

  17. Music takes me back like nothing else.
    Mine is 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by Richard Thompson...
    I dunno - maybe it's the girl's name.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...