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Step Right Up - Tom Waits

Sorry about the delay. I was wanting to complete the songs by the fraternity of poets in Guy Clark's Mission Beach bar and had come to Tom Waits. But which Tom Waits song? The first of his songs I ever heard was San Diego Serenade which opens with the great line:

"Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night..."

and then I remember the first time I ever saw him was on tv on the Old Grey Whistle test where his rendering of "Small Change" lasted exactly the length of time it too him to smoke a cigarette, the song starting with the sound of his struck match flaring and ending with the last bass note as he stubbed the fag out on the studio floor. That impressed young me. And his voice sounded like he smoked 40 a day.

But then it hit me, there is only one choice if we're talking about there being no money in poetry:

- a salesman selling the ultimate product. Tom starts off like any sharp salesman, mid-pitch, hot on the heels of a potential sale. At first it's all typical salesmen stuff, ( "......fifty percent off original retail price, skip the middle man....") but then it gets more and more surreal, the old wild west elixir that cures everything, becoming an increasingly sublime and hilarious inditement of consumerist culture with every word. Here are some choice nuggets:

" mows your lawn and it picks up the kids from school.... entertains visiting relatives...

...change your life, change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy, get rid of your wife, and it walks your dog, and it doubles on sax.... gets rid of your gambling debts, it quits smoking...."

On the original Small Change vinyl album dust jacket, it is the only song on the record that doesn't have the full lyrics included. Instead it says:

"For the lyrics to "Step Right Up" send by prepaid mail a photo of yourself, two dead creeping charlies, and a self addressed stamped envelope to: the Tropicana Motor Hotel, Hollywood, California c/o Young Tom Waits."

Guy Clark's notion of the freedom of the poet is particularly pertinent to Waits as the latter has consistently refused to allow his songs to be used in advertising. In 1988, he successfully sued Frito-Lay Inc, a subsidiary of Pepsi Cola that sell crisps and snacks, who had approached him to use "Step Right Up" in an ad and been turned down but had then used another performer to produce a very similar song sung in his style for the commercial. Given the subject of the original song, this is ironic.

As Tom said: "If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?".

For full enjoyment, the song has to be listened to four times in succession, with two minute gaps. There may indeed be money in poetry, but what else of yourself do you have to sell with it? How many of us can say we never sold out?

As Tom says as the quivering sax fades into the darkness: "the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away."

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