Just when you think you have Tom Waits pinned down as an artist, he changes it up and leaves you playing catch-up. After making a name as a last-call barroom balladeer in the ’70s, he switched it up thrillingly in the ’80s with a kind of futuristic blues sound on classic albums like Rain Dogs. Ever-evolving, Waits scored another classic with 1999’s Mule Variations, which found him doing a little bit of everything and doing it all real well. “Hold On,” a lovely, dusky ballad written with wife Kathleen Brennan, finds him in a somewhat straightforward mode, yet no less compelling.
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In an interview with Newsweek when the album was released, Waits said he felt that the song’s message was an important one to deliver. “I thought that was a good thing to say in a song,” he said. “Hold on. We’re all holding onto something. None of us want to come out of the ground. Weeds are holding on. Everything’s holding on. I thought that was a real positive thing to say. It was an optimistic song. Take my hand, stand right here, hold on. We wrote that together, Kathleen and I, and that felt good. Two people who are in love writing a song like that about being in love.”
Even though Waits and Brennan found their happy ending, the couple in the song find themselves struggling to achieve theirs. The song uses the first two verses to describe the protagonists: She, a would-be starlet who bolts out of her small-minded town “Just like a bullet leaves a gun”; he, more of a traditionalist (“When you share my bed, you share my name”), yet still captivated by her.
Yet in the third verse, there seems to have been some sort of separation between the two. Waits sings, with genuine heartbreak in his voice, “Oh, you build it up, you wreck it down/ Then you burn your mansion to the ground.” “How I wish you were here with me,” he laments, but fate has other ideas for them: “When you’re falling behind in this big blue world.”
In the final verse, we find the girl in desperate straits, cold and in a somewhat unglamorous location. But even worse than any physical malaise is what she’s missing inside: “But it’s so hard to dance that way/ When it’s cold and there’s no music.” Ironically, she ends up feeling nostalgic for what she left long ago: “Oh your old hometown’s so far away/ But inside your head there’s a record that’s playing.”
Yet every time things get really dark, the chorus comes around to offer encouragement and solace. “You gotta hold on,” Waits urges. “Take my hand, I’m standing right here.” Those lines seem to say that all problems can be endured, if not quite overcome, with a little persistence and a little help.
As we hit the 20thanniversary of the release of Mule Variations this spring, it is as good a time as ever to revisit this excellent offering from Tom Waits. “Hold On” is a good place to begin, as it represents the album’s wounded yet resilient heart.