By David Colburn
On March 14, 2011, iconic singer-songwriter Tom Waits will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. After receiving the news last December, Waits issued the following statement: “I never really cared about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…but now I’m surprised to discover how much I do care.” Such a sentiment may echo in the minds of quite a few fans of Tom Waits and of more experimental music in general. While there have been intriguing honorees in the ceremony’s past, 1995’s posthumous presentation for Frank Zappa, 2001’s induction of Talking Heads and 2010’s induction of Genesis come to mind, many of the inductees exert a much more conventional and obvious influence on the namesake genre. After all, when one considers the phrase “rock and roll”, it is likely that Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly spring to mind long before the faintest notion of Tom Waits even surfaces.
When the already vague definition of the genre is allowed leisure, the official guidelines of induction, as referenced from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website, provide a surprisingly clear justification: “Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” Influence is a key term, rather one is discussing Waits or any of the previously-mentioned artists. Each honoree has ensured a lasting influence through a carefully crafted and ultimately unique style that extends beyond simple measure.
Marimba-laden melodies creep around vast darkened alleys of jazz and blues while being commanded by a growl that is both daunting and compelling; this is the music of Thomas Alan Waits. Incredibly diverse yet consistent; raspy and raw yet infectious and delicate. Wait’s work exists in a series of paradoxes that only adds to its appeal. By applying disparate elements of far-reaching genres, the literary legacy of the Beat writers and an unmistakable stage persona, Tom Waits has formed a style that merits its own genre classification.
Multiple musicians, including Neko Case, Rod Stewart, The Ramones, and The Violent Femmes, have covered Waits’ work and the aural influence is expressed through the contemporary works of Modest Mouse and Man Man, to name a few. One of the most striking and aspects of Tom Waits’ work is how the listener’s reaction changes over time; while initially bombarded by the toppling rhythm and swagger of the music, one may find that the lyrics pack the most potent punch in cementing a lasting memory. Rock and roll, whatever it may mean to the reader, is based heavily in the creation of a very distinct, vibrant, and ultimately unforgettable atmosphere, perhaps Tom Waits is one of the more appropriate inductees of the ceremony’s twenty-five year history.
Other honorees include Alice Cooper, inducted by Rob Zombie, Neil Diamond, inducted by Paul Simon, Dr. John, inducted by John Legend, and Darlene Love, inducted by Bette Midler. Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and Specialty Records founder Art Rupe will receive Ahmet Ertegun Awards, and Leon Russel will receive the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award for Recording Excellence, formerly known as the “Sideman” category, inducted by Elton John. The event will be broadcast on Fuse TV the following Sunday, March 20, at 8 p.m. central-standard time.