Monstrous Grace in the songs of Tom Waits

Ben Myers looks for grace in the music of Tom Waits

I think it’s fitting to describe the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits as a 'theologian' – but we must immediately add that he’s a theologian of the dys-angelion, the 'bad news.' His songs conjure up a swirling chaos of monsters and madness, devils and despair – and on the horizon of this dark world we glimpse the startling first glow of dawn, the surprising appearance of grace 'out of the depths' (Psalm 130:1).
God himself suddenly breaks into Tom Waits’ songs as a strange, threatening, even monstrous presence, as an unaccountable interruption of the world’s (dis-)order. One of Waits’ most astonishing theological pronouncements, for example, is the gleeful hiss:

  Don’t you know there ain’t no devil
That’s just God when he’s drunk.

Or on another occasion he wonders: 'Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?' In such songs, God bursts onto the stage not as the benevolent projection of our own wishes and desires, but as the one who overturns our expectations and shatters our projections of what 'God' should be like. God appears not as a supreme being who calmly completes and perfects nature, but as the one who interrupts nature in the apocalyptic newness of grace. Divine grace, for Waits, is thus a kind of unnatural incursion, a perversity, a disruption of the way things are. There is a lot of grace in Wait’s catalogue of songs. Unmerited mercy; undeserved kindness and forgiveness emerge out of dark places. Grace interrupts, it shatters and strips things bare to the bone. And so Waits portrays God’s grace in a way that is uncompromisingly – often shockingly – menacing and grotesque.

Even in his more 'orthodox' gospel songs – and there are many, such as 'Way Down in the Hole', 'All Stripped Down', 'Down There by the Train', 'Never Let Go', 'Make It Rain', 'Take Care of All of My Children', 'Come on Up to the House' – even here, grace appears as a perverse interruption of a world of murder and brutality and Satanic seduction. Grace breaks into this world like a nightmare or an earthquake or a house fire – wholly unexpected, unconditional, presuppositionless; impossible to be tamed or assimilated. As Rowan Williams remarks in his study of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, 'the actuality of grace is uncovered in the moment of excess – which may be in a deliberately intensified gracelessness.' A 'deliberately intensified gracelessness' – this is the world of Tom Waits’ lyrical theology. And it’s in this way that Waits articulates the 'good news' (euangelion) through a startlingly violent and brutal declaration of the 'bad news' (dysangelion).

Grace shines from the abyss. It appears in the mode of the grotesque. And if grace is itself 'bad news,' it’s bad news only for those of us who are already complacent in our own religion and our own righteousness (our own ready-made 'Chocolate Jesus', to quote one of Waits’ most hilarious religious songs). It is 'bad news' because tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of us (Matt. 21:31), because (as Waits puts it) those who 'never asked forgiveness, never said a prayer' are nevertheless grasped and held by grace. It is 'bad news' because God – if he is really the God of grace – is not the God we want, not the God we think we need. He is the God who does not 'fit', but interrupts. He is the God whose ‘Yes’ is hidden in a shattering ‘No.’

But this 'bad news' is indeed 'good news' – the best and happiest news! – for the undeserving, the criminals, those riddled and rotten with shame and doubt. Thus in 'Down There by the Train', one of Waits’ most profound gospel songs, we are presented with an unsettling catalogue of history’s most notorious criminals, from Judas Iscariot to the school shooter Charles Whitman. The whistle of the train of salvation is heard 'From the halls of heaven to the gates of hell' – it’s heard by the 'shameful' and the 'whores,' by the criminals whom the world forsakes, by those who take the 'low road' through life, and even by the blatantly irreligious who have 'never said a prayer.' On this train, all the lonely outcasts are finally gathered into community; all sins and crimes are pardoned. On this train, God’s judgment is pronounced as the judgment of 'the lamb,' and so as the judgment of grace. For this reason, there is here 'no eye for an eye, no tooth for a tooth' – you’ll never get your just deserts on this train.

Tom Waits’ message is thus bad news for some, but good news for others: bad news for the righteous, but good news for sinners and criminals. With their shockingly grotesque world, Waits’ songs convey what the British novelist Graham Greene called 'the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God'. At the world’s dark end, all that remains is grace – the grace of God, which is always grace for the ungodly. As Waits puts it in one of his gospel songs:

  Does life seem nasty, brutish and short?
Come on up to the house.
The seas are stormy
And you can’t find no port;
Come on up to the house.

Benjamin Myers is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Centre for the History of European Discourses. He is the author of Milton’s Theology of Freedom(2006) and of many essays on the history of Christian theology.