by Lissa Townsend Rodgers

was truly primed to see Tom Waits. Five rotten days of guilt, rejection, self-doubt, dashed hopes and two flavors of heartbreak took their inevitable toll and, come Thursday night, I was stuck in a subway tunnel, toting brown liquor and a stuffed elephant with the pasted-together air of someone's who's spent most of the afternoon in tears. But, as a friend pointed out, "Do you want to go see Tom Waits right after you've gotten a raise and a marriage proposal?"

o, at 8:15pm I was shoving through a haze of last cigarettes into the Beacon Theater, running down the aisle, spilling a drink on myself as the lights went out. Then there was a roaring noise and Tom Waits himself coming down the aisle in a porkpie hat and a suit that didn't quite fit, shrieking the "Black Rider Overture" through a megaphone—"Ladies and gentlemen, Harry's Harbor Bizarre is proud to present, under the big top, tonight: human oddities!" He stopped at my aisle, threw some sparkly glitter at me and hollered for a good 15 seconds, a mere four feet away. I could do nothing but hold my drink aloft and toast his presence. (A great moment in my life, perhaps even greater than the time Telly Savalas winked at me.)

pon hitting the stage, he kicked up clouds of dust strewn all over the floor (sawdust to go with glitter? some sort of dustbowl effect?) and launched into "Get Behind the Mule," segueing into a genuinely creepy swampwater gospel rendition of "Jesus Gonna Be Here." Another highlight was a haunting, waltzing "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and the eerie spoken-word "What's He Building in There?" in which Tom actually admitted there is no place called "Mayor's Income, Tennesee"—he's "checked all the atlases." The show featured a lot of "Mule Variations" and "Bone Machine" material.

ne thing I've got to say—from the funeral of the family matriarch to opening night at the ballet, I've never been in such a hushed and reverent audience. Oh, they laughed at the jokes, they applauded until you'd think they'd rip their heads off and toss them onto the stage in tribute, but when he sang, nary a sound. The same behavior was extended to Waits' crack band—the keyboardist and drummer were both especially impressive, perfectly navigating the vast variety of instruments and sounds Waits' music demands. Rather than do the usual solo-and-introduction series for the guys, Tom whipped out a bowler studded with disco-ball mirrors and pranced about during an exotic instrumental, letting the lights come up on each musician as he took precedence, lauding each with another handful of glitter.

f course, the Waits wit was in full effect, dedicating songs to the moon, pattering about how his son asked him for $90 to buy some cologne. "You wanna buy a home? You wanna buy some cologne?...When I was young we made our own cologne. Rubbing alcohol...beef...." For the old-schoolers, he did two short sets-within-a-set, sitting down at a notepaper-bedecked piano with a cup of coffee and a standup bassist for some of the old numbers from his days in Purgatory's piano bar. The opening notes of "Invitation to the Blues" evoked hollers; suddenly Tom bounced up from behind the piano—"What, you can't see me?"—marched over to the neglected side of the audience and doffed his hat before returning to his piano stool.

ost two-and-a-half hour shows will drag, and carefully staged light shows can look overdone, but this concert had a balance. There were macabre stompers like "Cemetery Polka" or the malevolent, tin-can-rattling "Sixteen Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six." But there also were simple heartbreakers like "Hold On," which has the desolate sound of a empty road at midnight, or the stately, moving hymn "Come on Up to the House." Like the man's talent itself, the concert blended theatrical flash and panache with simple, honest insight—there's no mistake in his giving the all-seeing sideshow freak "Eyeball Kid" a birthday next door to his own. (December 7, 1949. Send a card.) As Tom, back at the piano, led the audience in a fourth chorus of "Innocent When You Dream," he grinned out at the howling crowd, "Beautiful. Just beautiful." And worth a 12-year wait.

ot enough Tom? CitySearch has all Waits, all the time...

"Innocent When You Dream": LTR surveys the history of Mr. Waits.
"I Know What He Means": Kiki Gonzales recounts her greatest Tom moments.
A review of Tom's most recent album, "Mule Variations."

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