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Friday, 3 January 2014

Tom Waits' 'Children's Story'

Welcome to my first blog post of 2014!

I began to get obsessed with Tom Waits when I went to see a production of Robert Wilson's The Black Rider as part of my A-level drama course. The libretto was written by William Burroughs (whom, as a Beat-loving teen I really wanted to like but couldn't really stomach) and the music was written by Tom Waits. I was immediately beguiled by the lilting melodies, and embarked upon a voyage to discover the entirety of Waits' back catalogue. I am something of a Tom Waits nerd. For those who are interested, my favourite pre-Island record is probably Blue Valentine; my favourite 'middle' period record is Rain Dogs (which is also my favourite overall), and my favourite from the latter years is probably Orphans, a sprawling three-disk album containing the above track, 'Children's Story'.

It may be that, through juxtaposing the innocence of the title with the bleakness of the content, Waits is going for irony. Indeed, Waits' mastery of dry humour is such that this interpretation may strike most as obvious, even banal. But if this is correct then something interesting is highlighted: the assumption that the story is, in reality, not for children at all.

I would dispute this. Aside from the term 'piss pot', which probably wouldn't appear in a children's story, I would argue that many children thrive on a dose of the macabre. I am reminded in particular of classics such as Heinrich Hoffman's Der Struwwelpeter and Edward Gorey's The Gashleycrumb Tinies, books which seem to rebel against the myth that childhood is a place of idyll and harmony. And this is a myth, a myth which, by adopting its ironic tone, Waits' track may be indirectly and unwittingly buying into.

Speaking for myself, I'm sure that, as a child, I would have enjoyed Waits' Children's Story, and it remains part of my aim as an author to dispute the pernicious misconception that childhood, by its very nature, is best depicted my multicoloured lambs gambolling in flowery fields.