Behind the Song: Tom Waits, “Frank’s Wild Years”

The definition of what is actually a “song” can be a subjective one. Some hold the belief that if a piece is spoken word against a musical backdrop and doesn’t have a melody per se, then it shouldn’t really be called a “song.” But don’t tell that to devotees of Tom Waits, who put “Frank’s Wild Years” on their short list of the coolest songs ever.

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Waits is the legendary singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/sometime actor whose gravelly voice belies the fact that he got a music industry jump-start as the writer of a relatively straight tune, “Ol’ ‘55,” cut by a relatively straight band, the Eagles, on their first album (Waits later stated he wasn’t exactly crazy about their version). In “Frank’s Wild Years,” from his album Swordfishtrombones, Waits, against a Jimmy Smith-inspired jazz organ, tells the tale of a guy named Frank out in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, who’s decided he’s had enough of his everyman life, not to mention his wife and her diseased dog.  

If this song were cut in Nashville the vocal performance would be called a recitation, but Waits isn’t a Nashville artist. In “Frank’s Wild Years,” Waits colorfully recites the tale for just under two minutes of how furniture salesman Frank picks up a couple beers to drink in his car, then heads to a service station, where he fills up a gas can and premeditatedly burns down his house. In the song’s video, the sick dog escapes. In perhaps a nod to an old Monty Python skit, Waits states that Frank hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead.

Waits spoke of the song and its evolution, and his views on what makes people like Frank snap, in the compilation book Tom Waits Interviews and Encounters, edited by Paul Maher Jr.

“[German-American poet/novelist] Charles Bukowski had a story that essentially was saying that it’s the little things that drive men mad. It’s not the big things. It’s not World War II. It’s the broken shoelace when there is no time left that sends men completely out of their minds. So this is kind of that in spirit. A little of a [word jazz artist] Ken Nordine flavor.”

It can be a bit confusing, but a few years after the release of Swordfishtrombones, Waits, working with his wife Kathleen Brennan, actually wrote and staged a play performed by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre called Franks Wild Years (no apostrophe, not unlike R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant a year earlier). The accompanying 1987 album to the play was also titled Franks Wild Years. When he spoke of the play in Maher’s book, Waits confirmed that the primary character is indeed the Frank of Swordfishtrombones fame. 

“Yeah, that’s the same Frank. Basically, it’s about an accordion player from a small town who goes out into the world to make his mark and ends up destitute and penniless … He goes to Vegas, ends up dreaming his way back home … The dog has disappeared.”

Waits was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. And though he’s been nominated more than once, he’s never been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which many of his fans consider a travesty.

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