Shahen Galichian – keyboard, piano, accordion, and occasional harmonica player in Police Dog Hogan (new album Overground out now) – is the latest member of the band to join us At The Barrier to share his thoughts on the grizzly old crooner Tom Waits.
It was the summer of 1989 and I was a student in Loughborough. Sitting in my dingy digs and desperately trying to seem sophisticated, smoking a ghastly filterless French cigarette, I heard drift through the window what initially sounded like pots and pans clattering alongside someone being throttled. I was intrigued and went next door, where my even “cooler” neighbour was playing Tom Waits; more precisely the track 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six from the fabulously named Swordfish Trombone album. What on earth was this? A question I still cannot answer today to my own satisfaction.
I began devouring Waits, from his early gentle melodic ballads to his progressively clangy, raspy later works. And I do still. He has a way of depicting depravity alongside heroism, always the underbelly, the lonely, the lame, the weak and criminal, that no one else comes close to. He’s the uglier and darker brother to Dylan. He once said “I think all songs should have weather in them, names of towns and streets, and they should have a couple of sailors. I think those are just song prerequisites.” I love that. So everything is anchored, but universal at the same time.
And he’s a great raconteur. I remember queuing up in a Paris back-street in the 90’s to get into an unadvertised Waits gig. It all felt appropriately underground and grotty. He chain-smoked his way through songs and stories that night. Everyone was mesmerised. Speaking of his upbringing, I remember him saying that his Father was the one dysfunctional part of his childhood, “like a bad tooth in a smile”. We were putty in his hands that night.
You’ll have seen that we have a song called Hold On on our new album Overground. We were recently chatting about how many other songs have that title. For me, Waits’ is the stand-out. It’s about a free spirit longing to get out of her small town. It starts strong: They hung a sign up in our town, ‘If you live it up, you won’t live it down’, So she left Monte Rio son, Just like a bullet leaves a gun. Genius!
The pithy poetry of his lyrics is endless: “There’s nothing about her a hundred dollars won’t fix”, “There ain’t no Devil, it’s only God when he’s drunk“, “Our love needs a transfusion; let’s shoot it full of wine”. And almost every line from the album Blue Valentine, surely the best album ever recorded.
And that voice. It’s been through a number of transformations, but even at its throatiest and raspiest, he never misses a note, always in tune. And lastly, even though he’s sometimes credited with saying “a gentlemen is someone who can play the accordion, but chooses not to”, you can tell his true affection for the instrument in the intro to Rain Dogs. The Eastern harmonies here, as well as in songs like Tango Till They’re Sore, Telephone Call From Istanbul, speak to my own roots (the South Caucasus).
What’s there not to love!
Thanks to Shahen for joining Don and James from PDH in contributing to the Why I Love pages. We’ll hopefully be catching the band when they kick start their Seven Crows tour at the start of February. Dates and details here.
Here’s a snatch of live PDH from 2018:
You can read more from our extensive archive of Why I Love pieces from a wide array of artists on an even wider array of subjects, here.