Fret Not

I guess everyone knows who Tom Waits is, the singer with a voice like rocks being dragged over sheet metal – go ahead: take a quick listen – but I’ll bet not everyone knows how grateful and quietly pleased he seems to be with life. It’s something I learned by hearing him talk with Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” a few months ago when his latest album came out.

The first cut on “Bad as Me” is one where you’re just sure you’re hearing the pops and clicks of vinyl; you think it’s a record. Nope: that’s the sound of chicken on the barbecue, a sound so like the sound of a record you’re positive he had a phonograph there in the studio.

So too he said he could name no better way to get the sound of snare drum than to jump on a trampoline in November when it’s all weighed down with an autumn windfall of sticks and branches.

The man takes that kind of delight in the world; a child’s delight.

He said he’s been known to put a tape recorder inside a trash can and wheel it around the yard to see what kinds of sounds he gets, what kinds of rhythms suggest themselves.

You don’t need to worry even if you haven’t written for a whole year, he said, because the music is always there and all music has rests in it; you know that. You, you’re just on a rest if you’re not creating right now. No worries.

He also said he often just sings spontaneously, making up any old tune as he goes along, as does his collaborator and wife Kathleen Brennan. “What’s the choreography of a bee?” he said rhetorically near the end of this interview. Bees don’t have instruments. Bees don’t take lessons in how to weave the patterns of their flight. They just fly.

It seems like a perfect lesson for a brand new week: Just fly. Just sing. You don’t need a guitar, he said, ’cause one thing is sure: “There are no frets on your neck.”

No there aren’t. In other words, sing or write any old way. That’s what I take this to mean. In other words, we make the path by walking, as the proverb goes.

Now here’s the nicest tune on Bad As Me, in my book anyway, something called “Back in the Crowd” which owes a lot to Elvis and a lot to Mexican music as you’ll probably hear right away. Enjoy!

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