I love Tom Waits. I love August Kleinzahler. I’ve always paired them, songwriter and poet, as artists of the America that lies, north and south but mostly middle, between west coast and east.
Alas, Kleinzahler doesn’t love Waits. This is from Music XXXV, which is printed in Music I-LXXIV, a collection of the poet’s short essays: ‘I never much cared for Waits. He’s terrifically talented, to be sure, but he overwrites more often than not and seems to have gotten stuck on his make-believe seamy stage set.’
He has a point. Waits songs, about barflies and boozers, farmers and rural maniacs, have a great deal of make-believe in them. They are often theatrical and not particularly real. (Superb) examples: The Piano Has Been Drinking, Jockey Full of Bourbon, Get Behind The Mule. At least, they’re not real in the way of many of Kleinzahler’s poems. (Superb) examples: Sports Wrap, Storm Over Hackensack, The Single Gentleman’s Chow Mein.
Kleinzahler strikes again: ‘But there’s a far larger problem with Waits, and one he’s destined never to get past. Brecht and Kurt Weill got there first.’
Still, so what? In the broadest terms, Waits is an expressionist, taking seamy reality to make an elevated, Brechtian art. Small Change getting rained on with his own .38 is an outtake from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The Black Rider caroms off the style of Weill.
Kleinzahler is a realist, taking seamy reality and making art without much exaggeration. He’s not really like anyone. He’s close to Waits. Cutty, One Rock, his memoir of, among other things, his brother and the mob, could have been called Small Change. But he’s different.
I love them both, and I love to listen to Waits songs as Kleinzahler poems set to music. So there, Kleinzahler.
To the point. How’s It Gonna End is from Real Gone, a stupendous album from 2004. Set to a shuffling low beat, a chopped guitar, some banjo and a stand-up bass, lyrics written with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, outwardly it is a muted and unremarkable thing. Other late Waits songs – 2:19, Chocolate Jesus, Don’t Go Into That Barn, the manically brilliant Iraq nightmare Hell Broke Luce – are more startling, more stagey, and could have been chosen here.
But there is something about How’s It Gonna End that crawled under my skin and stayed there. It seems to be a crime story, something nasty but intoxicating from that land between the Palisades and the Pacific. Its lyrics are about having ‘three whole dollars and a worn-out car’, a wife who is leaving – ‘in the middle of the night… lipstick on the glass’ – for good.
There is Cormac McCarthy in it. Someone called Joel Tornabene is ‘broken on the wheel’, Shane and Bum Mahoney working, horribly, ‘on the lamb’. There are motels and there are lakes into which girls ‘sink like a hammer’, harbours into which bodies plunge. ‘There’s a killer and he’s coming thru the rye’, and he may be ‘the father of that lost little girl’. As Waits sings, seamily, murkily, ‘it’s hard to tell in this light’.
Kleinzahler, who writes superbly about the Californian boho culture from which Waits came, because he knew it too, thinks Waits, when young, got a little too interested in the Beats and Bukowski. He may be right again – How’s It Gonna End is pulpish, loose, boozy, menacing and allusive to the point of parody. But that’s the point on which Waits forever balances and I think he never falls off it. He’s unique, he’s parodying himself. How’s It Gonna End is a road song, like a road movie or a road novel something which can easily fall into cliché. Waits never does, even though he often quite deliberately writes in cliché. To me if not to Kleinzahler, he is dazzling.
Waits’ refrain – ‘I wanna know the same thing/ Everyone wants to know/ How it going to end’ – refers to the song and the story or stories within it but also to life itself. And once it has done its insidious work, he sings a final verse that simply knocks me flat.
The sirens are snaking their
Way up the hill
It's last call somewhere in
The reptiles blend in with the
Color of the street
Life is sweet at the edge
Of a razor
And down in the first row of
An old picture show
The old man is asleep
As the credits start to roll.
I think that’s pure Kleinzahler. The hill is in San Francisco, where the poet was friends with Thom Gunn. It’s last call in a jazz club or a crappy bar or just at the lo mein counter where the animalcules and Pseudomonads are blossoming under the heat lamp. Out by the park where Jimmy the Lush has a pint in him and red-tailed hawks wheel together above, the reptiles blend in with the colour of the street. They have to, to hide from the hawks. Life is sweet at the edge of a razor.
And down in the front row of an old picture show – probably showing Elizabeth Taylor in something awful from the 1950s, Waits and Kleinzahler’s youth – the old man is asleep. Waits was born in Pomona, California, 67 years ago. Three days later, in Jersey City, Kleinzahler followed him into the world. The credits are starting to roll.
And I want to know
The same thing
Everyone wants to know
How it going to end?
Martin Pengelly is weekend editor for Guardian US, for which he writes about books, rugby and Donald Trump. From his desk at home in upper Manhattan he can see the Palisades – but not what's behind them. He tweets @MartinPengelly