Wild Years, Open Years

Finding High Fidelity

Some albums find you when you need them the most, and “Franks Wild Years” found me about a week after I graduated high school. In many ways it is a funny record for an obsessive Tom Waits fan like myself to latch onto. It is generally considered the weakest of the three experimental albums Waits recorded in the mid-eighties, after he quit playing the piano music that defined his early career. Not to imply that Pitchfork.com is the arbiter of all musical taste, but “Swordfishtrombones” and “Rain Dogs,” the two other works that heralded this turn in Waits’ music, placed 11th and eighth, respectively, on that influential music blog’s list of the “Top 100 Albums of the 1980s.”

“Franks Wild Years” did not even make it into the top hundred. It is subtitled “Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts” and grew out of a fairly unsuccessful play Waits staged at Chicago’s Briar Street Theatre in 1986. It gained a small bump in popularity after the song “Way Down in the Hole” was used as the theme for the HBO series “The Wire,” but apart from that the album for the most part has slipped into obscurity.

But none of that mattered to the terrified teenager who was about to move 3,500 miles away from home in London to the United States. I spent the beginning of the summer after graduation putting on a brave face for my parents—as I am sure they were doing for me—and drinking cheap wine with my friends. As those June days dragged on and my friends began to leave home one after another, I realized just what a momentous transition I was about to endure. That is precisely when the beautifully discordant, haunting, and melodic “Franks Wild Years” found me.

“Wild Years” struck me as incredibly honest. Waits is legendary for his exceptionally gravelly voice, but on this album his usual gruffness is transformed into a mournful wail, the type it is impossible to fake. As I listened to him pour his heart out in “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)” and “Train Song” during those balmy summer nights riding home on the Tube for yet another going away party, I would take comfort in this honesty. It felt like he had found the courage to share his deepest sorrows and frustrations with his audience. His voice, combined with that brassy, vaudeville sound, gave me the space I needed to think through my own anxieties about leaving home and the possibility of slowly drifting from the friends who helped me survive high school.

That summer it seemed like my life revolved around “Franks Wild Years.” I listened to it in the car and on the flight from London to Boston. I bought a vinyl reissue of it on Amazon.com so that I could play it on my new turntable. I even found a way of playing “Cold Cold Ground” on my cello, holding the instrument horizontally and strumming it like a guitar. I would sing along, doing my best to impersonate Wait’s bourbon-soaked voice. (I don’t smoke and back then I couldn’t stand whiskey, so I could never quite achieve the intended effect.) Perhaps most tellingly, I would always give myself a minute to reflect after hearing “Train Song,” the penultimate track on the record. It narrates the final chapter of the concept album’s protagonist Frank, who after reaching the stars and crashing back to earth like the all-American Icarus he is, finds himself broken and alone on a train hurtling through the midwestern countryside.

Now, three years after my original run in with “Franks Wild Years,” I still have fond memories for it. Although I shudder with embarrassment when I think of myself strumming my cello, I still do occasionally work through some of these songs on my guitar, and like a toddler making truck noises when playing with toy cars, I try to impersonate Waits’ signature growl when I sing along.

­—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at nguiney@college.harvard.edu.

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