#339: Tom Waits, "The Heart of Saturday Night" (1974)

Side 1

    “New Coat of Paint”

My mother still swears by a color of paint she calls “Hubert’s white,” a mixture of white, yellow, and gray, which a man—named, appropriately, Hubert—used to repaint the house my parents and I lived in when I was a child. It was a ranch-style house on a cul-de-sac within walking distance of Lake Michigan, a real Midwestern idyll of a place with a trim front lawn, a wooden play set, and a back deck for entertaining. The house was dusty blue when we bought it, with cream trim and a front door done in demure red. I half think my parents picked that house because of its massive basement, which we would never have had in England. Basements are far less frequent there—something to do with flooding, I imagine.

Our immigrant story isn’t exceptional. We moved for my dad’s job when I was small. I must have asked where my grandparents were, or when we’d see them next, but I was too young to remember much of anything and there wasn’t really much to miss. England is fairly close to the U.S., culturally if not geographically. I had watched different television shows than my American friends, and read different books, but at least we spoke the same language. I learned early on that I said some words “wrong” and I learned to correct myself. By the time I was nine, I was indistinguishable from any other solidly middle class Midwestern schoolkid, and I was peeved that my parents wanted to repaint our house, then sell it.

We were moving again, this time to Virginia, once more for my dad’s job. As a nine year old I could name all 50 states, but I wouldn’t have been able to point to Virginia on a map. Being 4,000 miles from my hometown in England didn’t mean anything to me when I was four, or five, or even nine, but the 800 miles between our home in Wisconsin and our future house in Virginia was a real gut-wrench. I was used to weekly phone calls with my relatives, to recording all our birthdays and holidays on film for our grandparents as my sister and I aged, but I couldn’t conceive of my life without my friends, or the tree outside my bedroom window, or our blue house.

My parents insisted that the house would need to be painted for it to be sold. Dusty blue didn’t look fresh enough in a market that was already chock full of saleable homes in sensible neighborhoods. Enter: Hubert and Hubert’s white. Hubert’s son and his other assistant were kind to our dog, and to my sister and I, so they were okay by us. We would play outside near where they worked when we could, but we liked to pretend to be scared of Hubert, who was Polish and had a strong accent. I think my mother gravitated toward him because he was also foreign, and we pretended to fear him for the same reason. The painters finished their work and the house sold not long after we moved.

Of course, Virginia was nothing like Wisconsin, because I wouldn’t let it be. At age 10, I was insistent that my childhood was done. Our new neighborhood’s 4th of July parade had nothing on the ones we used to go to. In Wisconsin, we got to play in fire trucks that reeked of carnauba wax and diesel. We ate our first hot dogs and waved our first American flags. There was a big picnic and we got to drink whole cans of Squirt and gorge ourselves on homemade fudge. It was as American as me mishearing “for which it stands” as “for Richard Stands” in the Pledge of Allegiance, then convincing a friend that my version was right. This Virginia 4th of July was one long parade of oversized trucks filled with middle-aged people I didn’t know, throwing Tootsie Rolls to the people watching by the roadside, cheering for something I didn’t know or recognize.  


Side 2

    “Fumblin’ with the Blues”

I want for The Heart of Saturday Night to gel with my memory of life in Middle America, but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel much of anything when I listen to this record—no “haunting innocence” or “restlessness,” as Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden experienced when he reviewed the album back in 1974. When I hear The Heart of Saturday Night, I’m waiting for a chord Waits never strikes—one of sincerity. More than 40 years of music has been recorded since, and maybe it’s the worn out cassette tape sound that’s getting to me, but putting these particular clichés on repeat hasn’t gotten me any closer to the sentiment of this album. I’m fumbling with something, but it’s not “the Blues” or even sadness. I want for Waits’s Midwest lonely to feel the same as my Midwest lonely.

It amuses me that this record went Gold in the UK, a place that I also think of as home, full of people whose lives are far away from Tom Waits’s, as far away as I feel from this album. The sound and the lyrics must have come together to ring something like true to them. I wonder if they heard “The Heart of Saturday Night” and thought about apple pie in truck stop diners and believed that’s what the United States was, that this was the quintessential “American experience” that everyone talks about. Being both inside and outside American culture, I feel strongly that there’s no such thing. Maybe distance is what allows us to cozy up to something outside our own experience, and to love it, without looking too closely.

It’s not as if Waits wrote with me in mind. The album was released almost exactly 16 years before my birth, and it’s for folks whose memories are places full of road noise and truck stops and past-midnights. Beyond sheer time and geography, Waits also cites Jack Kerouac as one of his major influences, a rootless misogynist with little regard for anything outside the narrow lens of his own experience (read: women’s lives and feelings). For all that I feel I’m always attempting to broaden the scope of my compassion, my heart really flatlines when I hear Tom Waits sing about women on this album. It’s not a delight to hear about his women, rendered, as they are here, in two dimensions.

I wanted this album to mean something to me. I wanted “Midwest dreaming of a Wisconsin bed” to be about my life, and my differences, and my desire for music to be the puzzle piece that bridges the gap between my feelings and experiences. All the classic barriers to entry are present in this album: I’m not a man, or old enough to consider myself an expert on any kind of sadness, or working a blue collar job—a rare instance where my circumstances are a hindrance rather than a gateway. But I struggle to think of anyone for whom this record could ring true. The closest I get is that someone out there must feel the same way about night driving and cigarette smoke hanging in the low light over a bar as I do about fire trucks and grapefruit soda and the 4th of July.

—Helen Alston