JANUARY 19, 2020
[I]f you think that you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you’d have to tell a lie.
— Tom Waits, “Swordfishtrombone”
THE STORIES WE TELL ourselves are important. Stories, we know, help us coordinate the exceptional with the mundane, and they help inflect that mundanity with the beguiling glow of exception. Stories make sense of what is otherwise an entropic fate, an untethered spiral out of and across history. And it is in this way that all stories are fantasy: the fabric of the unreal laid over the craggy terror of our day-to-day.
We need better stories, because everything is on fire and we don’t have enough time. How, though, does one tell a story about the death of a world? In his 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh lamented the lack of climate-focused realism. The trappings of narrative — especially what he somewhat speciously calls “serious” fiction — are, he claims, ill-suited for the long duration of our collective end — the flimsy human chronotope easily overmastered by the geologic flows that exceed us. We remain as we have been: too much, not enough.
This is an essay about the apocalypse. It’s about the earth turning over, and our collective failure to grasp it. But it is also about what art — that seductive decadence of our modernity — is meant to do for us at such times. It is about our clamoring for stories, and our refusal to listen.
And so, fittingly enough, a story.
I. Murder [by] the Red Barn
The ground was frozen, covered with a thin coating of January frost. The thing about frozen ground, I learned, is that it keeps things out. The romantic agricultural cycles I had liked to imagine — rain falling to the earth and soaking underground, nourishing an already fecund soil — were suddenly cut, hardened over.
This is what kept the blood out.
I first heard Tom Waits’s 1992 album Bone Machine in County Tipperary, Ireland, at a farm to which I had retreated for reasons that would be uninteresting to describe in any detail. Suffice it to say that I was young and feeling the too-much of youngness, and I had an opportunity to go do something that seemed useful, away from the kind-of-druggy and very aimless mode of being I had found myself in. Quarter-life drift, interrupted.
After my first months of work, I took a weekend away in Dublin. My generous and world-wise host Anne had gently suggested that my vision of work — something of an overinsistent diligence or, more realistically, cloying suburban self-sacrifice — was, well, stupid.
Upon my return, I learned that something had happened. This something was unthinkably grisly, though — rather scandalously to me — of the order of the everyday to nearly everyone else: a horse had to be put down, and put down he was, behind the barn. While the body had since been collected, a pool of blood remained on a frozen patch of earth.
Anne: “I need you to get there before Muppet—”
It plays in slow motion in my head. In perfect and stunning symmetry with this directive, Muppet appeared: the farm’s beloved sheepdog, long white hair and an enchanting smile thickly coated in cold horse blood.
I had not yet heard Bone Machine at that moment. I know this because I remember that moment rather vividly. Some weeks later, alone in a field, hammering away at some nonce structure that would temporarily house adolescent pigs who, I was soon to learn, were not long for this world, lyrics flashed before me: “For some / Murder is the only door thru which they enter life.”
These words came from Waits’s song “Murder in the Red Barn” (1992). Our barn wasn’t red, and this wasn’t murder exactly. But these were strange moments. The lyrics cobbled together a story about human flourishing, the routinization of death, and the earth’s bizarre and stubborn resistance at every turn. They told a story I had been trained to forget: that humans are inadequate to their surroundings; that the earth does not care for us particularly, especially as we so blusteringly refuse to care for it.
Again, the lyrics: “Hell is boiling over / And heaven is full / We’re chained to the world / And we all gotta pull” (“Dirt in the Ground” ).
Bone Machine keyed me into something elemental about trying to live on a planet long past its sell-by date. It showed me that our collective end carries with it our collectivity, our shared-ness and sociality aboard this sinking ship.
When I would return to the farm in the years that followed, I’d hear of unseasonable frosts followed by dry summers — slight but profound strains on the local economy. Unexceptional, really, for these unseasonabilities were general across the globe. The less and less subtle drawing near of what we all know to be coming. Truly, a derangement.
Tom Waits has long written on behalf of the deranged. Not only by way of those extravagant characters slouching off barstools in seedy all-night dives — louche and unkempt, rolling stale tobacco into ragged cigarettes — but also in the worlds thrown up around them. These are the worlds found at the corners of Heartattack & Vine and 9th & Hennepin, at closing time in some bombed-out gas station in California’s San Fernando Valley.
By the time Waits wrote Bone Machine, he had at least two major periods behind him. His early career might be said to canvas a sort of grotesque jazz-folk fabulation, somewhere between a rumpled Texan stuck in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, and Bing Crosby in the sanitarium. A slumped, drunken piano slurring out chords and character studies of life askew.
When Waits left Asylum Records (his first label) for Island Records, though — after the release of Heartattack and Vine (1980) — things changed. Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987) twist the worlds of his first eight albums, adding to their well-tuned narratives a sonic infrastructure that would become Waits’s signature. Indeed, these worlds are not just their stories. They have a sound: a sonic atmosphere that colors and shapes the narratives, investing both the Minneapolis sex worker and the California arsonist with shared coordinates of place and desire.
The clanging car-parts-and-plumbing percussion that underpins the circus march of “Underground” (1983) is as good a summation as any. The chorus puts language to what the pinched, angular guitar already seems to know: “There’s a world going on underground.”
Bone Machine would surely not satisfy Ghosh. There is no central calamity at its core, nothing that points to that great catastrophe of our time. But the record knows something about time and its sundry movements. It forecasts and retreats, circulating images of our clamoring for life and the many ways we fail.
First and most prominently, there are scenes of death. At the album’s opening it’s the earth, which “died screaming” as the narrator “lay dreaming”; but then, a track later, it’s us, as we learn our fate to be “dirt in the ground.” And then it’s the antagonism of the man and the world: “The ocean doesn’t want me today.”
Scenes from our modernity spin out into new and crooked paths in “Earth Died Screaming”: “There was thunder / There was lightning / And the stars went out / And the moon fell from the sky / It rained mackerel / It rained trout.”
Scenes of destruction and outsized production in “Whistle Down the Wind”: “Sky is red / And the world’s on fire / And the corn is taller than me.”
Scenes of apocalypse and cracked messianism in “Jesus Gonna Be Here”: “I’m gonna get myself / Unfurled from this mortal coiled up world.”
History appears as a ribald, shuffling slideshow: the Colosseum, the red barn, going out west. The grotesque and the blessed mingle in a repeated portmanteau — “strangels” — that haunts the record.
Where are we? Is this what will be, or has it already happened? Somewhere between portent and regret, these lines describe a world at once recognizable and deeply deranged.
None of this makes much sense, really. No narrative through-line to hold. We get only fragments — interpenetrating but inconsistent. Still, something happens in these images wrought by sound and vision.
III. Closing Time
Our encroaching calamity will not be solved by a pop record any more than it will by “serious fiction.” One would like to believe, if that were possible, that we would have written our way out long ago.
There are forms out there that attempt to solve problems: union songs, protest anthems, militant chants. These ask us to coordinate and commune, moving together toward a common goal. They are directed by outcome, their efficacy readily measured. They are important.
But then there are other things, strange creations that flare up in an image of the world bent just so. Asking us to knit together something torn, these works cobble together visions of what might be and what might have been; in their rickety constitution, they solicit us to hold them together. The art adequate to our time, I propose, emerges not as program but in a flash of recognition. (Perhaps this flash cites the “environmental uncanny” Ghosh teaches us of, where our carbon pasts present themselves suddenly and without warning.) Records and stories like these are not didactic — they don’t teach us anything. But they do ask something of us. They ask that we figure them out, or just dwell a while in their spaces.
And this dwelling? It’s not nothing. For it asks us to take seriously the problem of abstraction and history; it orients us to the incompleteness of and struggle for the world.
We need better stories, sure, but we also need to pay more and different attention to the cracked stories we already have. Stories that tell of undergrounds that emerge and disappear, stories that train us to see a world in its myriad permutations. Bone Machine doesn’t have answers, but it does ask you to listen.
As our world disappears itself, we might do well to listen for our alternatives: “There’s a world going on underground.”
Robert Cashin Ryan has written on Christmas, drone music, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), and other things people hate. He is co-editor (with Sarah Osment) of the online magazine hyped on melancholy, a forum on music and sadness.