Tom Waits, “Time”

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On Rain Dogs, his 1985 masterpiece, Tom Waits built upon the spirit of experimentation that had informed his previous album, 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. Amidst the bruised blues tracks and the anything-goes percussion, Waits balanced things out by including some of his most unforgettable melodies. The softer touches contrasted the rougher edges beautifully, resulting in an album exhilaratingly thorough in its depiction of the spectrum of human emotions.

As Waits said in a 1985 interview with NME, he was looking for a semblance of thematic unity with the songs on the album. “Rain Dogs is like, well I don’t want to sound too dramatic but I wanted there to be a connection between the tracks,” he said. “I was going to call it ‘Beautiful Train Wrecks’ or ‘Evening Train Wrecks’.”

It seems like all of those doomed trains converge on “Time,” the gorgeous ballad that serves as the album’s emotional focal point. There is no clanking rhythmic approach on this song; just guitar, bass, and accordion to capture the melancholic mood, along with Waits’ one-of-a-kind croon that manages to add grit and truth to even the most sentimental musical settings.

“Time” features some of Waits’ most richly evocative songwriting, with metaphors that bring the song to vivid life. Consider these lines from the first verse: “Oh and it’s east of East St. Louis/And the wind is making speeches/And the rain sounds/Like a round of applause.” Such effortless street poetry proves that Dylan wasn’t the only songwriter to be affected by Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the rest of the Beats.

Yet the lyrical adeptness isn’t wielded just for showiness’ sake; it’s meant to conjure the lonely, displaced feeling that’s shared by all of the song’s rogue’s gallery of characters. Napoleon, Matilda, and the rest of the folks who trudge through Waits’ rain-drenched streets are united in their restless yearning even as the narrator casts a romantic glow on their exploits.

He doesn’t want them to stay suffering though. In the chorus, Waits drops all of the hipster riffing for a simple, powerful plea that’s meant for the song’s inhabitants but is just as useful to every stubbornly solitary person who might cross its path: “It’s time, time, time that you loved/It’s time, time, time.”

So the next time that your head is clouded by the deafening conversation between the things you can’t remember and the things you can’t forget, or when you heart is filled with weeds, pop in Tom Waits’ “Time.” The verses will show you that there are others suffering right along with you, but the refrain will convince you that company is always better than misery.


The smart money’s on Harlow
And the moon is in the street
And the shadow boys
Are breakin’ all the laws
Oh and it’s east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds
Like a round of applause

And Napoleon is weeping
In a carnival saloon
His invisible fiancée
Is in the mirror
And the band is goin’ home
It’s raining hammers
It’s raining nails
It’s true there’s nothing
Left for him down here

And it’s time time time
And it is time
And it’s time
And it’s time time
That you love
And it’s time time time

And they all pretend they’re orphans
And their memory’s like a train
You can see them getting
Smaller as they pull away
Oh and the things you can’t remember
Tell the things you can’t forget
That history puts a saint
In every dream

Oh she said she’d stick around
Till the bandages came off
But these mama’s boys
Just don’t know when to quit
And Matilda asks the sailors
Are those dreams or are those prayers
Close your eyes son and this won’t hurt a bit

And it’s time time time
And it’s time time time
And it’s time time that you love
And it’s time time time

Oh and things are pretty lousy
For the calendar girls
The boys just dive right off the cars
And splash into the street
Oh and when she’s on a roll
She pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons
Fall around her feet

So put a candle in the window
And a kiss upon my lips
As the dish outside the window
Fills with rain
Oh and just like a stranger
With the weeds in your heart
Pay the fiddler off
Till I come back again

And it’s time time time
And it is time time time
And it’s time time time that you love
And it’s time time time

And it’s time time time
And it is time time time
And it’s time time time that you love
And it’s time time time

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