Friday Morning Download – "Jesus Gonna Be Here" by Tom Waits

Tom Waits remains one of the unsung heroes of paradoxical theological insights – take some of these quotes from lyrics off his back catalogue:

“The Lord is a very busy man….. Jesus is always looking for the big picture.”
“The bullets that lead straight to the devil’s world, just like marijuana leads to heroine.”
“There ain’t no devil, there’s just god when he’s drunk”
“Even Jesus wanted just a little more time, when he was walkin’ spanish down the hall”
“You can tell me that it’s gospel but I know that it’s only church”
“Won’t you tell me, brave captain why are the wicked, so strong, how can the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on.”
“Theres a golden moon that shines up through the mist/And I know that your name can be on that list/ There’s no eye for an eye there’s no tooth for a tooth/I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth/He was down there by the train.”
“If you’ve lost all hope, If you’ve lost all your faith/ I know you can be cared for, I know you can be safe /And all of the shamefuls, and all of the whores. And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord/Is down there by the train.”

I must admit that I came to Tom Waits late in life – but certainly in the fullness of time. As Tom sang in ‘Black Market Baby’ (1999) – “There’s no prayer like desire” and I was certainly desiring something more than ‘safe music’ in my early 30’s yet probably too much of a coward to look beyond my steady diet of singer/songwriters such as Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn. As with providence, it is not that which we seek that matters as much as that which finds us. In the case of Tom Waits, it was wrestling with an angel and having my hip dislocated in all the right ways. Frankly, I had no idea what was about to hit me. I was over at my then girlfriend/now wife’s house and she put Bone Machine on the CD player and then I heard… no… experienced the opening track – Earth Died Screaming – with all its redemptive horror akin to an ‘audio stigmata’ or falling face first into Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood. While ‘Earth Died Screaming’ is a song for the end of the world – “What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies / We’re all going to be in the same place when we die” – ‘Jesus Gonna Be Here’ is a song of sorrowful hope beyond hope amidst a miserable world:

“Well, Jesus gonna be here
He gonna be here soon, yeah
He gonna cover us up with leaves
With a blanket from the moon, yeah
With a promise and a vow
And a lullaby for my brow
Jesus gonna be here
He gonna be here soon, yeah”

The song has the whisky stained tremor of a preacher pushed beyond reason – maybe beyond theology – akin to the Psalms of Asaph like Psalm 73. There is sorrow, there is cynicism… but there is also hope like flowers in the dirt. In the hands of some singer/songwriters, these lyrics would come off as camp or, at worst, painfully unaware of conditions. But somehow Tom Waits can do this and when I listen to him scratching out a plea for unity and peace like in ‘Day After Tomorrow’ off of his latest “Real Gone” I believe that he is in touch with more humanity than most CCM singer/songwriters I have heard winning Dove Awards:

You can’t deny, the other side
Don’t want to die anymore then we do
What I’m trying to say is don’t they pray
to the same god that we do?

And tell me how does god choose
whose prayers does he refuse?
Who turns the wheel
Who throws the dice
on the day after tomorrow
I’m not fighting, for justice
I am not fighting, for freedom
I am fighting, for my life
and another day in the world here

What I love about the God that Tom Waits muses about and laments for is that his God is earthy in a way that I can touch, taste, feel… and yes, hear. His world is all-too-clear to me and very hard to ignore. That seems to be the earthiness of Jesus’ ministry – so earthy, so vivid, so tangible and painfully attuned to our wavelengths as people who live and breathe and bleed in this world of laughter and pain… that we feel at the deepest parts of what makes us tick is something that this guy understands in ways we dont understand ourselves.

Tom Wait’s Kindgom of God is filled with one-legged dwarves, blind dogs, drunk preachers, forgotten children, and all humanity in-between. The nice thing amidst this ‘audio noir’ is that no one is marginalized other than those who find solace in drawing the margins in the first place. In ‘Sins of the Father’, Tom sang a pretty insightful charge to the congregation “God said: don’t give me your tin horn prayers.” Or perhaps he frames this more pointedly to those who are whining about their middle-class plight in ‘Come on up to the house’ from “Mule Variations” – “Come down off the cross we can use the wood.”

Time to get busy buildin’…before the earth dies screamin’…

3 Comments

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  1. Dig you, sensei – I’ve been waiting for a Tom Waits FMD!! This is a great post – and that’s all I have to say about THAT!

  2. I’m in a strange category regarding Tom Waits. I’ve listened to him played more than I’ve listened to him.

    When I was a junior in high school living on a country road in Maine a stay-at-home dad moved in across the street with his family – Al by name. Al was new to the area so he was happy to hang out with me. On cold winter nights, Al liked to invite me over to his house after his kids were down to:

    Beat me at chess.

    Relate the hell Vietnam was.

    Antagonize my faith in God.

    Berate Reagan’s Central American foreign policy.

    Expound upon the virtues of pot and the dangers of cocaine – he was still doing the former and the latter had almost wrecked his life.

    Sing and play Tom Waits songs on the piano – especially the more “earthy” ones.

    Not a bad time for a 16 year old, all things considered. So when I think of Tom Waits I see Al sitting at a piano singing Wait’s songs with a delighted and mischievous grin; trying to both entertain and perhaps slightly scandalize this too innocent, but not unopinionated, Christian adolescent.

    What a gift he was to me.

  3. Good insights, Matt. There is a bandwidth with regard to TW that defines category – and in that regard I say (with great confidence) that he is truly a ‘genius’. The sweet spot of sorrowful hope and gothic idealism is a hard place to dwell… and he does it so naturally. The song “Day After Tomorrow” from his recent CD just chills me to the bone – the vantage point of the solitary soldier softly crying out to the God of ‘both sides’… profound and timely.

    Everyone should own “jesus’ blood never failed me yet” – his EP collaboration with a street person… simply amazing. I wish I were a pastor and could just end a service with everyone listening to that 18 minute song as it builds and builds…

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