Artist: Tom Waits
Released: September 1, 1983
I’m behind a snow plow, tonguing salt and exhaust fumes, white-knuckling a compact car, and screaming at a hamper of clean clothes to just keep from crying. Tom Waits is with me, wailing as we swerve, any of these songs seeming appropriate soundtracks to crash quietly into the ditch with.
Missouri exists as anonymous wasteland through the windshield— all contrast, grain silo tops shining, rusted torches against the sun. Tom Waits sings the word “Illinois” in two consecutive songs, with an interloping interlude, organ-based. We are both listless though the tires provide us with some direction.
The Ford Focus is situated atop the Avenue of the Saints, which is Highway 61 for a while until it isn’t. Following closely the form laid by like-minded semi-fatalistic pioneers, Tom and I slow the car as a means to stay alive, warned occasionally by brake lights, lit up all rabid-eye red.
At one slowing, two wrecked people are standing on the highway shoulder, wrapped in a pink blanket, holding their dog and waving. The top of a U-Haul peeks out from behind them in the ditch, its tailpipe coughing. Tom delivers ”Frank’s Wild Years” while a tow truck appears.
Waiting for the next plow, we take refuge at a highway gas station. Tom waits in the car. The woman behind the counter tells me to BE CAREFUL, that there ISN’T MUCH CHANCE of it letting up. She lets me fill up my cup for free. Time sags, becomes a harmonium, bows in awe of the compass point: North. At this rate, we still have all afternoon yet to go.
Near Ottumwa, I catch sight of half a semi going the wrong way down the median. I find out where the cop tailing us is going and sigh, wishing we all knew when this would end. Tom talks about pulling on “Trouble's Braids,” but now we don’t even have the cop to worry about anymore.
We reach our destination at dusk, past the state fairgrounds, the capital city all lost in white and ice. One county ago, I left Tom behind and headed over to AM radio, which was telling me early and often to BE CAREFUL. So I was, after they told me to.
Everyone says that Rain Dogs is better, but for me, it’ll always be Swordfishtrombones all the way down, after christmas, driving snow.
Drink: free gas station coffee, gone cold