Starving In The Belly Of A Whale – Tom Waits

We squandered our first bite at this particular weeviled sea biscuit way back when the siren song of The Decemberists had us post SteveForTheDeaf’s first Whale inspired post. Starving In The Belly Of A Whale may have been the predecessor to The Mariner’s Revenge Song in my record collection but it had a bonkers video in which a school play did the whole sorry tale and I had a real Decemberists phase a few years back.

Tom though. Mr Waits. He’s a constant. A creative force written through my record racks like a rich seam of storytelling and strange noises. I’m a Tom Waits megafan. Yes he’s been on here before. I’ve shied away from posting him too often as I find his oeuvre hard to represent. The school of thought that there’s romantic crooner Tom and bonkers junk yard Blues Tom sells things really short. You’ve got musical theater Tom, convivial diner Jazz Tom, traveller of the dusty highways Tom, satirist, cinematic story teller and arty noise maker. There are hundreds of personas in his songs. From Mr Knickerbocker and Uncle Vernon on Rain Dogs to The Eyeball Kid, Table Top Joe, Poor Edward and One Eyed Mara the Queen of the Galley who bottle fed an orangutan named Tripod.

It’s no surprise Tom has some songs about the high seas. The debut bonkers period album Rain Dogs itself begins focussed on the South Pacific, Singapore, iron boats and stern warnings. Circus from the album Real Gone warns what snares lay in wait for tipsy sailors lassoed by Yodeling Elaine.

At his most audaciously barking and bizarre Mr Waits put out two albums on the same day in 2002. Not just two albums, two concept albums… On the same day. Both of which feature songs that suggest they were recorded while Waits was possibly still in character as Renfield from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a fine platter of harpsichords, violins, tubas and all sorts of instruments I can’t name. Proper intimidating arty noise.

I’m going to steer clear of Alice in this review all together. A concept album about a Lewis Carroll novel by a crazed Tom Waits deserves full focus if it is to be discussed at all. Blood Money is the record that gifted us Starving In The Belly Of A Whale. Basically the Jonah fable all over again. Only this time it’s Tom inside the belly of the beast.

Blood Money is a terrific record. Not least becuase it’s on such a downer. It goes to places of such wretchedness and loathing so you don’t have to. The album opens with Misery Is The River Of The World and segues into Everything Goes To Hell in case the opening number didn’t scare off enough casuals and tourists. It has beautiful moments like Coney Island Baby and Another Man’s Vine, you’re never far from the main theme that God’s Away On Business and with a track simply titled Woe it’s pretty prevalent that this album is for listening to in solitude while you’re working through some stuff.

So to the track itself. It rolls along to a wonky ohm pah brusquely enough. Tom is doing his deepest gruffest guttural bark.

“Life is whittled, life’s a riddle, Man’s a fiddle that life plays on, when the day breaks and the earth quakes, life’s a mistake all day long”

The tunes relentless as Tom spills around the room knocking over glasses and bottles telling you all it’s fruitless and pointless and filthy and spoiled.

“You tell me, who gives a good goddamn, you’ll never get out alive, don’t go dreaming, don’t go scheming, a man must test his mettle, in a crooked ol’ world”

Wait a minute. This song isn’t actually about a whale at all. It’s about hopelessness. He’s talking about bull’s horns, doberman teeth and runaway horses while repeating the song title over and over but there are no boats, no penitent whalers and no oars snapped by the teeth of mighty beasts. There’s no dingy resting on the guts of a titanic beast. There’s just lousy hopeless luck. Life like a torrid ocean. I doubt this character has ever even hoisted a main brace. He’s a bar room drunk with a bad case of the pity meeeeees.

As old D.H. Laurence once wrote

“They say the sea is cold,

but the sea contains the hottest blood of all,

and the wildest,

the most urgent.”

Let’s get back out on the water.


5 thoughts on “Starving In The Belly Of A Whale – Tom Waits

  1. Deep and sharp lyrics like a stiletto to the gut. I don’t think anyone could — or should — sing them straight. He has to squelch/muffle/drown them some or it would be too much to bear. Your post mirrored the lyrics which reflects in the brilliant video with its emotional rollercoaster. I see the video was a school project for someone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘as Tom spills around the room knocking over glasses and bottles telling you all it’s fruitless and pointless and filthy and spoiled’………that brought a massive grin to my morning Steve.

    And blowhole week – that’s some concept. If only your old teacher could see what she inspired 😄😄😄

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for including Tom Waits. It took me a while to get to hi in a meaningful way but, thanks to my lovely wife’s unreserved love of his work, I did indeed get there and now he is a staple of our household listening.

    Liked by 1 person

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