The Persistence of Memory

Someone once teased me that Tom Waits just does stupid bad boy stuff all the way to the bank. Well, I’ll plunk my money down. It’s true he’s a poseur. He’s a persona built out of Bukowski and the Beats, Brecht and the Bible. He doesn't sing from his heart, so it's all the more to his credit that he can make you believe.

There are definitely some believers in Texas. I’ll be going there this fall for the Austin City Limits Festival. I’ve been exploring the town online and stumbled across an oddity called the Broken Clock Cabaret. It’s described as a “small-scale spectacular featuring dance, puppetry, and risqué vaudeville weirdness, utilizing the songs of Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan and played live by Austin's No Salvation Army Band.” Time has stopped for the troupe. They are on hiatus, apparently due to a legal threat over the use of the songs. Tom’s picky that way. You may recall he tangled with Frito Lay a few years back. They asked to use his music to sell Doritos and he declined. So they hired someone to imitate his voice. He sued and won.

"Commercials are an unnatural use of my work," Tom said. "It's like having a cow's udder sewn to the side of my face."

That's a comment Salvador Dali would appreciate. There's a new exhibit of his work at the MoMA in New York. It explores the role that cinema played in the artist's work. A persistent memory for me is the opening of the film Dali made with Luis Bunuel. The image of a man appearing to draw a razor across a woman's eyeball is cut into a view of the night sky with a sliver of cloud passing in front of the moon. Maybe it's just weird for the sake of being weird. Maybe it's a call to break with the conventional ways of looking at the world.

Those same possibilities are present in "Eyeball Kid." It's an encore song in the Tom Waits concert recorded in Atlanta less than a month ago and posted at the NPR music site. The Eyeball Kid is a sideshow freak born without a body, “not even a brow.” The song is played mostly for jokes such as "He's not conventionally handsome," and "He'll never be tall." But then Tom injects a few cosmic questions…

How does he dream
How does he think
When he can't even speak
And he can't even blink
We're all lost in the wilderness
We're as blind as can be
He came down to teach us
How to really see

How to really see is what Dali was all about. The MoMA site quotes him talking about his painting “The Persistence of Memory.”

The “paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling” are used to “systemize confusion and thus help discredit completely the world of reality.”

Reviews of the exhibit have suggested that Dali himself was a bit of a poseur, a carnival barker even. The Wall Street Journal piece calls him “the glib provocateur with his madman schtick and eye on our wallet.”

So do Tom and Salvador really have anything to say? Maybe not, but as the old phrase goes, even a broken (or melted) clock is right twice a day.