Michelle J. Martinez on Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs

Tom Waits: Rain Dogs

Twenty-one years ago, I lived in an old polished wooden house that carried a light scent of mildew in its core. It wore the sanded down and lacquered over footprints of hundreds of students, young bewildered energetic folks like me, hungry for freedom, control, booze, and sex, stepping out in to the unknown to try on a future self. At 17 and a half years old, I was the youngest in the house. I occupied the smallest room in that house on Dunn Street. A tiny perfect square, drab, with no closet, only a metal rack clinging to the thick wall like the kind in motels or boarding houses. There was one electric outlet in the room, and no phone jack. It was like stepping back in time. 1990 wasn’t all laptops and iPads like now and most people had remote control cable tv and VCRs, but something pure and sad about that room comforted me with its secrets. The window had no screen and opened over the back rooms of the house, so often I climbed out there to smoke and brood and soak in the quiet that takes over a college town in summer, leaving it all green grass and thunderstorms. All summer long I listened to Rain Dogs by Tom Waits. Somewhat steampunk and vaguely cookie monster, his vivid images and discordant harmonies spoke to the juxtaposition of the life I knew, and the dirty guitar through the album, strummed by Marc Ribot, just tickled me.

We sail tonight for Singapore, take your blankets from the floor, wash your mouth out by the door, the whole town’s made of iron ore, every witness turns to steam, they all become Italian dreams, fill your pockets up with earth, get yourself a dollars worth, away boys, heave away. The captain is a one armed dwarf, he’s throwing dice along the wharf. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. So take this ring. “Singapore”

Most nights I slept in my boyfriend’s bed. He had the only bedroom downstairs, and the only one with its own bathroom. He was the reason I had transferred to that college at 17 and a half and was paying for it myself, one class at a time, working weekdays for an eccentric old artist who was trying to squeeze 30 years of art and hoarding from a three story Victorian house into a two bedroom Craftsman. While I spent afternoons sorting and packing collections of ironing boards, antique salt shakers, and other obscure tchotchkes with the artist’s self-portrait painted gravely on their surfaces, listening to her political rants and tales of sadness, my boyfriend spent his days elusive and aloof. Under his white blond curls and sun golden skin, there was a dark edge. I would sneak into the forest with him, small shovels and collapsible water cubes in our internal frame backpacks, hydroponically grown clones of skunky high-test pot plants carefully packed in old coffee cans and lunch coolers. Deep into the humid Green County, Indiana forest we trekked and planted each one, hoping to harvest and cure in time for the student party surge at Homecoming in the fall.

Uncle Bill will never leave a will and his tumor is a big as an egg, he has a mistress and she is Puerto Rican, and I hear she has a wooden leg. Uncle Phil can’t live without his pills, he has emphysema and he’s almost blind. And we must find out where the money is, get it now before he loses his mind. “Cemetery Polka”

Some nights we slept on the front porch of the polished wood house to listen to the thunder and rain. When my boyfriend was gone on some overnight trip I was not invited to, I tossed and turned on the thin futon in my drab little room, and would flick on the little desk lamp perched on an overturned plastic crate stamped STOLEN FROM IGA and write until the pink dawn. Although I was only 17 and a half and taking one college course, I had already worked at homeless shelters and food banks in Minneapolis, Boston, New Orleans, and Indianapolis as well as had been exposed to the culture of the Midway of the state fair circuit and farm work in South. My memories were peopled with strange and rough characters, speaking in various languages and accents, smelling of stale smoke and drink. In fact, my own family had its fair share of these kinds of characters too. There was something about that room and the album Rain Dogs by Tom Waits that helped to pull these stories out of me. He spoke of a world I understood, a multi-cultural landscape of poverty and booze. I sat cross-legged under the window on the faded linoleum floor, pen pressed in hand and spilled prose into a lavender satin journal, the only thing left of my ‘little girl’ room back home.

Well it’s 9th and Hennepin. All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes. And the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky, like a tarp thrown all over this, and the broken umbrella like dead birds, and the steam comes out of the grill like the whole damn town’s about to blow. And the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos and everyone’s behaving like dogs, and the horses are coming down Violin Road and Dutch is dead on his feet. And all the rooms, they smell like diesel and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept there. And I’m lost in the window, and I hide in the stairway, and I hang in the curtain, and I sleep in your hat. No one brings anything small into a bar around here. “9th and Hennepin”

Because he was 21 years old, my summer golden boyfriend went to the bars a lot. When a band I knew was playing, they let me carry in gear through the back of the club with a warning not to drink. I could see the show, but had to respect the favor. I knew I could drink later. I would often hide in the middle of the crowd and close my eyes and dance. If I danced with closed eyes I wouldn’t have to see my boyfriend dance too close to the other girls, feeling them pressed next him, rolling his hand down their curves, unbothered by whether I had gotten into the club or not. Most nights that he went out, I stayed in and scribbled into my journal or the tiny spiral notebook I kept in my pocket, Tom Waits and his colorful cast of characters and discordant harmony keeping me company.

Sane, sane, they’re all insane. Fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame. A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame, hanging out the window with a bottleful of rain. Clap hands. Clap hands. Clap hands. Clap hands. Said roll, roll the thunder and the roll, son ‘bitch’s never coming back here no more, the moon in the window and the bird on the pole, we can always find a million in a shovel load of coal. “Clap Hands”

While the boyfriend had gone out a few days on a trip to see some Dead Shows in the east, I had had a couple VCR movie night with a few friends. We watched Down By Law and Stranger than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch captured the black and white doldrums that existed in the eighties behind the AquaNet and neon colors. Tom Waits and John Lurie personified much of the angst I felt and craved. This fed my need to hear Rain Dogs more. The guitar in some tracks tore through my core. Tore out any fear I had, pulled some of my anger to the surface, made me aware of my name. I scribbled with fury onto small paper as Marc Ribot’s strings awakened something in me I knew of the lives in the songs, more than I had ever been willing to admit to anyone.

Well you play that Tarantella, all the hounds will start to roar, and the boys all go to hell, then the Cubans hit the floor. And they drive along the pipeline, they tango ‘til they’re sore. They take apart their nightmares and they leave them by the door. Let me fall out the window with confetti in my hair, deal out jacks or better on a blanket by the stairs. I tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past, so send me off to bed forever more. “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore”

One of the nights that I sat alone with the Rain Dogs on Waits’ cassette tape, I composed a short story called “Jazz, My Love?”. It became my first published story and earned a much-needed $250. The friend who had convinced me to submit the story excitedly delivered the news while also scolding me for not being easy to find. Summer golden boyfriend had replaced me with an anthropology major and I was hiding out on Smith Street, subleasing a shotgun apartment without a phone while its usual tenant was finding adventure somewhere in Central America. Ten years later, when I showed the tattered copy of the story to my present partner, a weathered musician from New York, and told him the story of it while we were in the early lustful interview portion of a relationship, he informed me that he played drums and percussion with Marc Ribot and John Lurie, and worked on the music for the Jarmusch films that had influenced me a decade earlier. For the first time in a very long while, I felt like I was home.

Inside a broken clock, splashing the wine with all the rain dogs. Taxi we’d rather walk, huddle in a doorway with the rain dogs. For I am a Rain Dog too! Oh how we danced and we swallowed the nights for it was all ripe for dreaming. Oh how we danced away all of the lights, we’ve always been out of our minds. The rum pours strong and thin, beat out the dustman with a Rain Dog. Aboard a shipwreck train, give my umbrella to a Rain Dog. For I am a Rain Dog too! “Rain Dogs”

Michelle J. Martinez and her weathered musician partner live in Tempe, AZ with their two kids and small dog. They all pound on drums and keyboards and yell their heads off in discordant harmonies.

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