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THE CROOKED TREE

When you told me you were listening to Waits, I knew you weren't listening to him but finding solace in him.  That's all you do with him...He can break you if you let him, into powder as fine as the flour on a green linoleum table top from your past.

This from a letter sent me by my brother who understands me like no other.  And the man who first insisted I had to hear this guy.  Dry Branch, Georgia.  Back woods.  No matter.  Waits has a way of finding you where you are.

Why he's decided after seven years to let us watch it up close I don't know.  His wants are small he's said.  This was back when he was living at the Tropicana Motor Lodge in Hollywood.  He was twenty-seven then but unlike so many at the mercy of their fickle audience and the lure of the greedy dollar, Waits has remained.  He seems only to want to live comfortably up away from Los Angeles, but close enough for the demons to get home in case of an emergency.  I always wonder, when I see one of the greats especially, is it out of some generosity, some kindness towards the ones the music reaches, or is it that they need to see us every once in a while.  To remind themselves. 

The thing is, it's going down.  Going down during our lifetimes.  Like so much more we had no right to expect. It is the show we've waited seven years for and in Atlas, the bar adjacent to the Wiltern Theatre you can hear the buzz.  There's the usual pre-show electricity, but if you listen beneath the top static, the conversations amongst strangers become almost intimate.  It comes in pieces as I stand in the rumble.

“The only man for me is a man who disturbs me!”

“I don't know why but Johnsburg, Illinois...I hear that and I see my mother.” 

“He's the real thing.  Not much to compare him to...oh, have you read Charles Bukowski?”

“I feel at a loss.  I just discovered him.”

Inside now, inside this old green palace, the lights dim like they always do eventually and from the front row of the mezzanine, it's hard to tell exactly what's happening.  The band has come on.  They're playing but the announcer isn't here.  Ladies and gentlemen, step right up, and we know it's him, around us, his voice unmistakable and unmistaking coming up from solitary nights when the only way to wait out the moon was through his music. Circus music, like so much of his, carnivalistic like life in L.A. or anywhere really and coming at us through a bull horn and looking around I see us, the freaks, gathered under the tent of our ringmaster as he comes down the isles, weaving through us, charging us and the atmosphere with his promises.  We'll have a gay old time.

I don't know what Waits has been up to for the last seven years apart from what he's inspired and accompanied up on Hollywood Boulevard where I spend my days now.  And I think he'd like that.  But I see him now in low cut boots, pointed, with buckles on the side, striped button up shirt and a hobo's jacket soaked through and I'd like so much to believe he's giving all that to me.  That with everything in him he's trying to tell me I'm not alone.  Trying to free me up.  I'm innocent when I dream

He doesn't spare us though, the hardness of the days.  They've torn down his neighborhood, too.  All but the churches over on Union near Alvarado.  The house he grew up in and his favorite of all time corner store, too.  The jackhammer's digging up the sidewalks again.  He's lived a long time.  Long enough to need to get back to something a least a little more innocent than the worlds we've made for ourselves.  How the hell did I get here so soon?  I don't want to grow up.  But he has.  The inevitable bears down and to pass through it, he reminds us to play, clear through to the instrument he chooses -- a toy piano like my papa gave me when I was five.  And it's happening again.  We're all going back so we can take a few more steps into the wild unknown future.  Moving into places where we'll feel left out too...and shouldn't we all feel a little insignificant not to be incorporated into the population signs bordering our towns?

Aw, get behind the mule

Press on.  Love.  Listen.  Laugh.  Let it burn.  But whatever you do, don't take it for granted.  If we do, we'll miss the poetry in the junkyard.  In the living, in the routines we settle into, in the days we breathe through in such ordinary motions, in the trading of experience for these days, it keeps coming back to this:  it's time that you love.  He would like so much for it to go backwards, and so would we when we're honest about the failing.  The loss.  All that's gotten away from us -- flying so fast that it's all we can do just to hold on.  Get behind the mule.  Remember, he spent all his buttons on that old pack mule almost twenty years ago.  And it was on that mule he scrambled through the hole in the sky.

It's not so hard really to imagine him, passing through towns long since blown away into desert dunes, tying up the mule and pushing through those worn out saloon doors.  It's not hard to hear a conversation that never happened.  A man who'll only be here for a couple of hours asking questions we've been trying to avoid all our lives.  Questions that hunt us down and find us where we live.  Do you cry? Do you pray?  Do you wish them away?  Do you still leave nothing but bones in the way?  Did you bury the carnival, lions and all?  Excuse me while I sharpen my nails.

I didn't know what I was listening to that summer in my brother's bedroom -- young, old, dead?! black, white, didn't even know what kind of music to call it and none of that mattered at all because it quieted me through to the core.  And no one spoke until he finished.  When I came back from the music, mama was crying.  We were virgins to this but that's not why we cried.  We cried because we weren't the only ones who never saw our hometown until we stayed away too long.  We cried because he wasn't the first to hope he never fell in love with us.  We cried because it's not just Martha who grew old in a home other than her true love's.

But mostly we cried because that tender loneliness in us was touched by knowing hands.  It is no small thing to have an unspeakable weight shared, carried even for a while by a stranger.  And whether you're the one backing out of the driveway or standing in the doorway crying, we've all been there in one way or another.  We've lost some magic we had at the start.  We've watched possibility drift away from us into a fog born of our own stormy hearts.

He's been with us through all manner of lonely -- he's a red light in a cave -- I am sure his heart is cracked beyond all recognition and you will break into powder as fine as the flour on a green linoleum table top from your past when he shows it to you -- but let him.  And don't look away as the bone snaps in his hands.  Remember, only one who knows you has the power to break you.

I'm gonna leave this place better than the way I found it.  And Jesus gonna be here soon.

…until then…Waits.

by Delight Underwood



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