9th & Hennepin

A MUSICIAN CAN be said to have won a certain high-culture esteem when the hooting and applause between his songs necessitates the wearing of earplugs, and the music does not. So it was last week for bohemia's most favored bellower, Tom Waits, during his sold-out, two-night stand in the gilded hall of the State Theatre. For the past decade or two, Waits has toured with the approximate periodicity of some odd crop infestations. And so his appearance with a four-piece band in support of the album Mule Variations (Epitaph) drew the kind of passion among the crowd that we typically reserve for charismatic preachers and the people who perform sexual favors on us without expecting payment.

Most of Waits's fans have probably only seen him do his shtick in movies--a format that denies the performer his absurdist stage patter ("I was in an army/navy store today. I was there because I need a life raft that seats 125. Family reunion."). Wearing a tight-fitting brown suit that might have cost less than a pair of front-row tickets, and gesticulating wildly as if flashing hobo gang signs, Waits will play for an audience's affections like a vaudeville warm-up act on a glorious downward career spiral into carnival barking.

Despite the faux-shabby charm of his performing persona, there is something uncomfortable in the public's cultish embrace of Waits--an old-fashioned sense that living American eccentrics were meant to be shunned and not canonized. (Perhaps in tacit recognition of this dynamic, the State was rife with rumors that Waits is in failing health.) The ungroomed Americana that Waits has celebrated throughout his career might offer road-weary tramps a slice of pie and a patched corduroy jacket--and a swift escort to the county line. One thinks here of the brilliant American composer and political exile Conlon Nancarrow, who sweated in the obscurity of a Mexican ranch house creating intricate piano-roll scrolls for no intended audience. Or the speaker in Waits's unexpectedly stirring gospel number "Come On Up to the House," who declares "The world is not my home/I'm just passin thru."

Since the songwriter's postmodern musical makeover 15 years ago (when his instrumentation switched from piano or guitar to Balinese metal aunglongs), Waits has shown an affection for tossing around references to Jesus--along with mules, dreams, old photographs, and the island nations of Southeast Asia. Yet Mule Variations is the first of the artist's albums to present the Lord in a manner that might be compatible with belief. God rules by a powerfully felt absence in the song "Georgia Lee," which sketches an untold tragedy that has befallen a girl, and whose chorus repeats the question "Why wasn't God watching?" And the sparely orchestrated and parable-like "Pony" tracks a traveler whose life's path has turned into a dusty expanse without markings. Waits's relationship to these characters--which might be the most emotionally direct since his boho songs of the Seventies--recalls a lesson from Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh, recounted by the great scholar Martin Buber.

"He whom life drives into exile and who comes to a land alien to him, has nothing in common with the people there, and not a soul he can talk to," Barukh said. "But if a second stranger appears, even though he may come from quite a different place, the two can confide in each other...and cherish each other." Barukh uses this example to explain a psalm where the speaker compares his isolation on earth to God's--both being sojourners without a proper place in the foreign realms of humanity.

Some of Waits's Mule Variations find a similar touch of divinity in the meetings of strangers: the alien-yet-empathetic musician and his wild-eyed fictional outcasts.

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