Tom Waits and Michael O’Brien: Hard Ground

Videos by American Songwriter

Hard Ground
Tom Waits and Michael O’Brien
University of Texas Press
[Rating: 3 stars]

In a gritty but affecting collaborative book of photographs and poetry, Michael O’Brien and Tom Waits offer up a compassionate portrait of America’s homeless. Between O’Brien’s black-and-white pictures and Waits’ boho nursery rhyme verse, this collection aches for the plight of the indigent, the disenfranchised, and the ones lost among us on our country’s mean streets.

O’Brien was inspired by his encounters with John Madden, a Georgia transplant then living beneath an underpass in downtown Miami, to capture the daily struggle of the homeless through a naturalistic lens. In the prologue, O’Brien describes this southern drifter as “a born storyteller, unhampered by facts,” which crosses over into Tom Waits’ rogue lyric territory.

Echoing the noble precedent set by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, Hard Ground depicts these hard-luck stories without sentimentalizing them. O’Brien’s unvarnished photographs dominate the book, and the stark faces stare back at the reader with defiant integrity. Waits pares back his cinematic lyricism here, and writes tender valentines from Skid Row instead (The cars thunder past/As I stick out my thumb/I am just waiting for/My good luck to come). We all know Waits conjures up the patron saint of wastrels, fugitives, and dreamers. His indomitable voice is missed here, but his gravitas spills on the page in tribute to the ones he has always sung about.

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