From the beginning of his career, Tom Waits had always explored a variety of musical influences from folk to blues and jazz. But when he finally started to break from his past persona as a boozehound-beatnik balladeer -- an image that was increasingly approaching self-parody -- he opened himself up to a wider array of musical sources (including Latin, Eastern European, and avant-garde art rock), embracing the concept of "found" sound and non-traditional instrumentation and recording techniques. He also freed himself a bit from narrative structure within his songs; he still told stories, sometimes a few stories in one lyric, but now they were often impressionistic and/or surreal. With the opening strains of a percussive mambo, "Jockey Full of Bourbon" begins with a cinematic sense of urgency. Waits, in a voice just above a whisper, filtered through a cheap microphone or megaphone-like effect, begins a haunting urban nursery rhyme: "Edna Million in a drop dead suit/Dutch Pink on a downtown train/Two-dollar pistol but the gun won't shoot/I'm in the corner on the pouring rain/Sixteen men on a dead man's chest/And I've been drinking from a broken cup/Two pairs of pants and a mohair vest/I'm full of bourbon, I can't stand up/Hey little bird, fly away home/Your house is on fire, children are alone."
Waits' lyrics have always been unique, highly vivid, and witty, and he had always displayed an amazingly acute ear for conversation. Beginning with the trilogy of Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank's Wild Years (1987), however, Waits began to distill his lyrics down to rich stews of evocative images, filled from top to bottom with advertising phrases, brand names, street scenes, violence, domestic figments, skewed clichés, and other shared cultural reference points. And he created a motley crew of often desperate characters, one of which, Frank O'Brien, got his own musical play and an album's worth of songs. Waits is probably the second-best poet -- after Bob Dylan -- that popular music has produced in the last 30 years. If Jack Kerouac could write and perform music, he might have aspired to be like Waits. In that way, the singer/songwriter surpassed his early literary (and personality) influence. The lyrics skirt around sailor shore-leave scenes and the seedy life that had long been a fascination for Waits: "Schiffer broke a bottle on Morgan's head/And I'm stepping on the devil's tail/Across the stripes of a full moon's head/And through the bars of a Cuban jail/Bloody fingers on a purple knife/Flamingo drinking from a cocktail glass/I'm on the lawn with someone else's wife/Admire the view from up on top of the mast...Yellow sheets on a Hong Kong bed/Stazybo horn and a Slingerland ride/'To the carnival' is what she said/A hundred dollars makes it dark inside."
The first single from the masterful Rain Dogs, "Jockey Full of Bourbon" was featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Down By Law, in which Waits also starred. The song plays a pivotal part in setting the mood of the film. Marc Ribot played a large role in constructing the unique sonic textures on the Waits records from this era. The erstwhile Lounge Lizard and downtown N.Y. guitarist has long displayed an interest in Cuban music, and his staccato style is influenced by Latin flavors -- guitar and piano styles. His parts on "Jockey Full of Bourbon" are doubled and seem to be put through a tape echo of some kind. Larry Taylor plays double bass and Michael Blair plays the percussion, along with Stephen Arvizu Taylor Hodges on drums. Ralph Carney adds bellowing bass sax. Bluesman John Hammond Jr., with Waits himself along for the ride as producer, accented the song's Latin tinge on his cover from Wicked Grin (2000), an album made up completely of Waits covers. Hammond's rich baritone serves the song well and adds an interesting counterpoint recording to Waits' husky-voiced original.