Brilliant Songs #10: Tom Waits’s “Take It With Me”

Tom Waits

Last week, a plumber digging a trench by which we will be running electricity and water to a backyard shed-glorifed-into-a-library was backing his truck up the incline of our driveway, the back weighed down by the trailing ditch witch behind him and rather severely scraping the gravel, producing a sound that reminded no one of, say, Judy Collins. Nor, indeed, of any singer in the known universe this side of…Tom Waits.

Upon reflection, I could almost see Waits in the driver’s seat, his slightly askew pork pie hat protruding from the window, backing that baby up while low-growling in accompaniment, relishing the fingernail-dirtying work awaiting him on a cloudy fall morning. Not for him the refined beauty of a choir voice, the easy swing of Sinatra, the pretty balladry of Paul Simon.

Waits never flirted with pretty, the ditch witch and its excavated mud far more his metier than is a glorious floral arrangement with an aria serving as backdrop.

Which is partly why “Take It With Me,” from his 1999 album, “Mule Variations,” is all the more of a powerful argument for Waits being one of the premier songwriters of our time, for which this song in particular stands as testament. And the thing is: The song is beautiful—in every way. Meaning melodically, lyrically, with its slow reflective tempo, its barebones instrumentation, and the ditch witch lamentations leavened by the glad-hearted memories of an old man.

Tom Waits: beautiful. We gotta deal with it.

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Waits was 49 at this song’s writing, but in both vocal timbre and elegiacal perspective, he may as well have been Methuselah. (Who purportedly died at age 969, in case you were wondering.)

“Take It With Me” is rife with pregnant words, intimacy, and evocative phrases and maxims that stand on their own. In the first line, an old man has taken the (landline!) phone off the hook, gone invisible to all the world’s people but one—his longtime beloved, with whom he is about to celebrate something (likely an anniversary?).

“It’s a long time since I drank champagne,” he then observes, world- and perhaps overwork-weariness setting the stage for a meditation that will awaken and allow his expression of the deep abiding beauty he is coming to realize, stanza by stanza, about that world, his own memories of it, and the beloved he has shared it with.

“Ocean’s blue, blue as your eyes,” he tells her in the line following the champagne. (Eternity, the oceanic bliss of her blueness…)

Which then segues, abruptly, into the title line that serves as both mournful admission of the singer’s mortality and a statement of defiance and triumph, because no matter the mortality, “I’m gonna take it with me when I go.” (Rob him of memories? Not a chance; they’re his, and he will not be parted from them…)

And that gets us only through the first stanza.

Let’s have Waits do the honors for us now, his elocution clear through the gravel, though lyrics appear in the video and at the end of this post as well. We’ll follow with a little more discussion, then an alternate version that brings the song’s sheer melodic and lyrical beauty into perhaps sharper focus, even as Waits’s original take—haunting, prayerful, aching with pathos and memory— will likely always reign as the standard.

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Yeah, I know. Bit of a heart punch, that.

Sure, the lyrics aren’t particularly sequential, the thoughts and verbiage sometimes disjointed. “Old long since gone, now way back when” is a strict English teacher’s nightmare but a poet’s delight, its strangely amorphous but evocative imagery leading to a specific geographical location of archetypal power—Coney Island! New York!—then concluding in the next line with the overarching philosophical  statement, “Ain’t no good thing ever dies.”

And he’s gonna take those things—every last one of them—with him when he goes.

My partner and I were both wiping tears when we listened to this last week in the kitchen while starting dinner. It’s what happens when a writer sets the stage in two stanzas with that kind of plaintive, abundant emotion, and then follows up with train whistles, waving good-bye, falling asleep on Beaula’s porch (Beaula!!), children playing and strangers singing, being “all broken down by the side of the road” (we all know that feeling), and then more summary philosophical renderings:

“It’s got to be more than flesh and bone
All that you’ve loved is all you own”

And then to the sign-off stanza, an almost biblical incantation of a land and a town and a house and a woman, which leaves us knowing our narrator has climbed the mountain of sadness and struggle and insight, has seen the promised land, understanding, finally, ironically, but with ultimate peace and satisfaction rather than bitterness, that it had been there all along, in the things he always and in every time had right in front of him, and has now come to remember and appreciate in all their fullness at last, great God almighty, fully at last.

***

I couldn’t find one bad cover version among the many awaiting on You Tube, the artists respectful and solemn in the face of what they know is a piece of musical heaven. Rachel Price and Chris Thile highlight the melodic and emotional wallop and loveliness attending the song. Enjoy!

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Waits photo from Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, 2005, by Rogelio A. Galaviz C., Los Mochis, Mexico  https://www.flickr.com/photos/galaxyfm/

And the full lyrics:

Take It With Me

Phone’s off the hook, no one knows where we are
It’s a long time since I drank champagne
Ocean’s blue, blue as your eyes
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

Old long since gone, now way back when
We lived in Coney Island
Ain’t no good thing ever dies
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

Far, far away a train whistle blows
Wherever you’re goin’, wherever you’ve been
Waving goodbye at the end of the day
You’re up and you’re over, and you’re far away

Always for you, forever yours
It felt just like the old days
Fell asleep on Beaula’s porch
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

All broken down by the side of the road
I’s never more alive or alone
I’ve worn the faces off all the cards
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

Children are playing the end of the day
Strangers are singing on our lawn
It’s got to be more than flesh and bone
All that you’ve loved is all you own

In a land there’s a town,
and in that town there’s a house
And in that house there’s a woman
And in that woman there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

I’m gonna take it with me when I go

6 comments to Brilliant Songs #10: Tom Waits’s “Take It With Me”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    “Take it with Me” is (as you wrote) both melodically and lyrically beautiful. For those of us who’ve had the good fortune to find that special someone it’s a reminder of just how lucky we are. Claire is that for me. . For those who haven’t yet found that relationship, it’s a song of hope.

    Although Waits hasn’t received the commercial success of others less talented, his fellow musicians and critics have praised his talent, almost enviously. Springsteen “stole” Waits’ composition “Jersey Girl” and turned it into one of his concert staples. Thanks, Drew, for your words (and Waits’) because we all need them, especially now in our present political state and its assault on our senses/values. The joy of constantly shared love can never be overrated.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for those thoughts, Robert. I think the arts are generally underrated as not only a shelter from various societal storms, but also as harboring their own transformative power to make individuals and the cultures they inhabit better and more humane. I hate the tragic mistake of schools cutting arts budgets first, as some sort of disposable “elective” rather than the essential scaffolding of civilized life that they are. And the fact that the NEH is always on the budget chopping block in this country makes me crazy. (Of course, lately they’ve been joined there by science, the environment, workplace safety…)

      Meanwhile, your last line says all the rest that need be said at the moment, my friend.

  • Robby Miller  says:

    Andrew: Thank you for this. Have always loved Tom, especially since he is the only recording artist I know of who referenced my hometown of Riverside in one of his songs (“fly-by-nights from Riverside” from Diamonds on My Windshield), but somehow I missed this masterpiece. There are so many musical gems out there. Glad you dug this one up.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robby, I too am regularly amazed at what I completely missed in the music world. There’s another category of “Things I Know About But Haven’t Yet Gotten To” (in literature, especially…), but to have missed various gems altogether always surprises me, and also, often enough, the person who mentions one to me and then stares incredulously while confirming, “You never heard of it???”
      But as you suggest: So much music, so little time…

  • Mark Donley  says:

    Hi Andrew, I love Tom Waits, but have rarely seen such a perceptive view as yours. Thanks brother.

    I’ve been following you for awhile… since you wrote a review of my wife’s work Tinka Jordy.
    (http://andrewhidas.com/artist-of-repose-sculptor-tinka-jordys-profound-humanist-vision/)
    It was and I believe still is one of the most perceptive reviews of her work I have read. You totally got her humanist visions and understand that ‘spirituality’ need not be associated with ‘religion’.

    Only Waits’ with his time worn plaintive voice can deliver a line like “I’ve worn the faces off all the cards” with such genuine authority eh?
    – Again thanks for this article.. we look forward to more
    – Mark and Tinka

    btw, we included a link to your site on Tinka’s website… We trust that’s okay…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So very good to hear from you, Mark Donley! I still gaze upon the fotos from Tinka’s work with regularity, doing so again just a few days ago. Looking forward to your spring garden party/exhibit again next year. Also glad we share Tom Waits in common, along with the glory of this particular song. And certainly, share all the links you want, wherever you want! We’re a thoroughly public entity here at Traversing…

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