There’s a scene in the first Muppets movie where the furry, felt-featured gang are at a car dealership trading their car for a van big enough to take them to Hollywood. They met Sweetums – a eight-foot monster whose job at the car-yard seems to alternate between car jack, and tow truck – and invite him along, to which he screams ‘Hollywood’ and scuttles away scared. The gang shrug, get back onto the road, and you cannot see any of the strings. Then Sweetums comes back out with his suitcases, looking all excited until he realises they have left without him. His heart breaks in which is quite an upsetting kicker to an upbeat scene – but I always felt that it should have been tailed by a montage of Sweetums walking mournfully in the rain, singing sadly to himself, and the voice should have been that of Tom Waits.
The throat of Tom Waits is an otherworldly beast of an instrument – a whiskey-soaked, acid-scratched howl that can flip from mournful sailor to drunken, crazed tramp to anything else between. What he cannot sound like is a kid in his early 20s. Remarkably, given both the depth of feeling and this lonely hound dog howl, ‘Martha’ was recorded a few months after Waits turned 22. It’s a shock to realise this – least of all because if you have only known Waits as a jacket-toting elder statesman, it would be easy to assume his vocals were gravelled-up by age and abuse (see: Bob Dylan, Madge from ‘Neighbours’) but it would appear from his debut album that he was born with a cigar in his mouth and bourbon on his breath.
The real shock comes with the depth of the lyrics in ‘Martha’ – Waits was remarkable at capturing a sense of deep regret and longing for a lover past. There’s a certain hubris in a 20-something attempting to capture the wisdom and well of emotion of someone in their twilight years – as if the old poets had to love and lose, fight wars, battle addictions, and “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, whereas these kids can just imagine it all. There are only a few rare examples of young artists who can capture this (see: Don Walker, Paul Simon, Madge from ‘Neighbours’), which is why Paul Simon can still play ‘The Boxer’, while Mick Jagger had to stop singing the youthful ‘Satisfaction’ forty years ago… Well, he should have, at least.
The conceit of ‘Martha’ is that he is reaching out to a past lover after many decades without contact. He is calling collect – because first impressions count – and requesting a coffee date to “talk about it all” – the “all” taking on a heavy weight. Also, I’m sure he didn’t refer to it as a ‘coffee date’. There are a few scattered signs that betray Waits’ age – the undergraduate rhyming of “tomorrow” and “sorrows” and “roses” and “prose” in the chorus are the main obvious ones – but old people can be shit at poetry too. The wealth of emotion behind the sparse bar-room piano, his gravel-pit voice, and the yearning (oh, the yearning) makes it easy to skip over such trivialities.
The second verse introduces husbands, wives, kids to the picture – remnants of full, long lives spent separately – and hints at his past inability to make her feel secure, a theme that is visited more fully in the third verse. “I was always so impulsive, I guess that I still am” suggests this call was hastily made after a bottle of whiskey, while, “All that really mattered then was that I was a man” indicates their conscious uncoupling was very much the fault of his male bullshit. He knows it, and he knows it’s too late. That’s the real tragedy of this tale: all the late night phone calls and remembrances are ultimately useless. He destroyed something worthwhile back when he had it, and while time is great at healing wounds, it also erases love.
The most heartbreaking part is the one-line coda that brings the tale to an end: “And I remember quiet evenings, trembling next to you”. Whether the couple are making love or freezing through the winter nights together, this is the most intimate line in the song – and perhaps in Waits’ entire career – and a sad hook to hang his bowler hat on. Ultimately his most crystalline memory is the most tender they shared, and that’s the real ghost that has haunted him – not the wasted decades, not his male posturing or impulsiveness, but those trembling, loving evenings he will never experience again. And all this from a 22-year-old.