Earth Dies Screaming: Tom Waits’ ‘Bone Machine’ revisited

An appreciation of Tom Waits’ dystopian grand opus, twenty-five years on.

The oft-peddled image of Tom Waits as the twisted circus performer with a larynx coated in nicotine and out-of-date barbecue sauce was never more adequately realised than it was on ‘Bone Machine’.

Waits’ 1992 album is a dystopian grand opus that marries the fragile emptiness of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, steampunk-soaked instrumentation and the frenetic thud of Mad Max. At times it verges on horror. Opener ‘Earth Dies Screaming’ chews up and spits out biblical grotesqueries that would leave Stephen King writhing in jealousy from the first verse:

Rudy’s on the midway
And Jacob’s in the hole
The monkey’s on the ladder
The devil shovels coal
With crows as big as airplanes
The lion has three heads
And someone will eat the skin that he sheds
And the earth died screaming
While I lay dreaming

The album – Waits’ first since 1987’s ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ – was recorded in the cellars of Cotati, California’s Prairie Sun Recording Studios, in what went on to be known as “the Waits Room”.

“I found a great room to work in, it’s just a cement floor and a hot water heater,” Waits told Thrasher Magazine in 1993. “Okay, we’ll do it here. It’s got some good echo.”

Waits also drew upon a talented crew of trusted musicians and enchanting cameos. Keith Richards contributed guitar and vocals to closer ‘That Feel’. This was Richards’ second appearance on a Waits record, having supplied more extensive work to 1985’s ‘Rain Dogs’.

The aforementioned ‘Earth Dies Screaming’ featured Les Claypool of Primus, while Claypool’s former bandmate Bryan “Brain” Mantia lent his drumming acumen to ‘Such a Scream’ and the hypnotic ‘In The Colosseum’. Mantia later went on to have a six-year stint with another circus performer when he played with Guns N’ Roses from 2000 to 2006.

Waits’ minimal surroundings cast a heavy spell over the record. It resides in the scuzzy blues chant of the on-the-nose ‘All Stripped Down’, the scarecrow melancholy of the funereal ‘Dirt In The Ground’ and the paranoid, muttering, despondency within ‘The Ocean’. The latter finds Waits whispering about “mischievous braingels” who make him “love to go drowning”. One constant throughout the album is the bombastic and varied percussion; the sounds of skeleton armies, biker gangs and the perpetual thud of the human heart.

‘Bone Machine’ is the logical conclusion to Waits’ exciting mid-period; a nine-year stretch that saw him release ‘Swordfishtrombones’, ‘Rain Dogs’, ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ and ‘Bone Machine’ to both critical and commercial acclaim.

Constantly evolving, exploring and ploughing his own furrow, Waits and his spouse Kathleen Brennan – who he had married in 1980 – covered more ground in less than a decade than many do in a lifetime of music. ‘Bone Machine’ is a fitting farewell to this dimension of Waits. The album’s obsessions with death and decay a symbol of the artist shedding their skin and moving on.

Sure enough, Waits’ next move was scoring the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 film ‘Night On Earth’, before going on to work with William Burroughs and Robert Wilson on ‘The Black Rider’; a stage adaptation of the German folk tale ‘Der Freischütz’. Waits, as ever, showed no signs of slowing or stopping.

Waits’ influence on his contemporaries and successors has always remained subtle but wide-ranging. The album’s themes, narrative and simple magnetism pulled admirers from far and wide. ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ – perhaps Waits’ most emotionally open and genuine song – was ably covered by the Ramones on their final album, ‘¡Adios Amigos!’. It also appeared on Scarlett Johannson’s Tom Waits covers album, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’.

‘Earth Died Screaming’ wound up ghouling around on the soundtrack to ’12 Monkeys’ while the mutinous ‘Goin’ Out West’ turned out on ‘Fight Club’, ensuring Waits’ cult status bled onto the big screen from the speakers.

In a world seemingly beset by hushed talk of the End Times, the Rapture, people telling tales from the Book of Revelations, ‘Bone Machine’ may still be on the edge a quarter of a century on. Waits’ work isn’t a survival guide, nor does it ever proffer an answer to its audience. It’s about survival, adaptation and having to do what is necessary to see the following day.

❉ ‘Bone Machine’ by Tom Waits was released by Island Records on 8 September 1992. It is available from Amazon as a mid-price CD.

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