Tom Waits – Lonely Essentials

The first time I heard the song was a foggy October day in Massachusetts, junior year. I walked from my dorm aimlessly, past the homecoming football game, through a path in the woods with the leaves scattered across the road. The air had that unmistakable New England crispness; it evoked Vermont Septembers past – elementary school, soccer practice.

Closing time Tom Waits LonelyI heard it in the school’s co-op, whose stereotype at the time consisted of a mostly unknown, motley collection of sometimes naked cooks and pot-smokers. Its album, Closing Time, was on the kitchen stereo. From time to time, people meandered in and out, but I stayed, munching on apples and making quesadillas.

The album itself is one of the best, but it’s “Lonely” that really made me stop and listen. The softly added sevenths in the first chords, played as if Waits was at an upright bar piano, complete with crackle in instrument and voice, are what catch you first. The rest of the album moves along at its own, regular pace. “Lonely” is what stops you in your tracks and makes you think of the first girl you had a crush on, or your mother singing songs to you as you go to sleep, or, as in my case, scampering around a soccer pitch as yellow and red leaves blurred the boundaries. Waits lingers – the song is one of lingering – on each pitch, hitting each high note with a crack in his voice that you just might believe is due to him thinking the same, wistful thoughts you are. It is a deep, intoxicating ballad.

The melody is simple; the words simpler: “Lonely / Lonely / Lonely /Lonely eyes / Lonely face / Lonely, lonely in your place.” It is a precise, visceral transcription of all that poetry, in its lack of meter and organization, attempts to capture but cannot due to its tonelessness. To me, there is an honesty, a purity to Waits more when he sings this song more than any of his other classics. “Lonely” is a masterpiece. After all these listens I still haven’t been able to find another song that paralyzes me like this one.

Tom Waits – Lonely

(On an additional note, the song that inspired Tom Waits to use the lyric “Lonely” so prominently was the bridge (at 1:30, here) of Randy Newman’s classic ballad, “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.” Nina Simone’s version is my favorite.)

Nina Simone – I Think It’s Going To Rain Today


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