TOM WAITS – ” What’s He Building ? “

Posted: October 6, 2021 in MUSIC
tom waits what's he building

Tom Waits is a great storyteller. As a songwriter, it’s one of his greatest talents, the world of his extensive catalogue is filled with rogues and miscreants, oddballs and outcasts, people you may or may not relate to, but you damn sure want to know what happens to them, where they came from and how they ended up in a lonely room full of junk, or on a boat, or perhaps through the looking glass. It’s easy to think of Waits himself as one of the characters in his own songs, in part because of his gruff bark and fascination with the absurd, and in part because, well, he’s a notorious liar. Not for diabolical reasons mind you, it’s just part and parcel of his uncanny skill for spinning a yarn. “My father was a knife thrower,” he said in a interview. “And my mother was a trapeze artist. So we were a showbiz family.”

It’s important to remember that when going into “What’s He Building?”, the deeply unsettling spoken-word centrepiece of Waits’ 1999 album “Mule Variations”. It’s not a true story not exactly. There are truths within it, and Waits has certainly written songs that are based in real (sometimes tragic) circumstances, but he’s not a biographer or a journalist.

We actually don’t know much about the central figure in “What’s He Building?” He’s a composite of his neighbours’ observations and speculation, the subject of busybodies’ gossip and unearned prejudices. The glow of a television screen emanates from his dark windows, there may or may not be poison under his sink. Nobody really knows for sure, but there’s just something not right about what’s happening down the street, in this house, where this unnamed loner, perpetrator of unseen deeds, lives.

The track, inspired by the “word jazz” of Ken Nordine, isn’t so much a song as a miniature radio play, crafted not with melody but static-laden drones and sound effects beneath Waits’ grumbled, one-sided narration. Squeaks, clinks, honks, crashes and rustles erupt beneath Waits’ ominous, darkly humorous reading of the neighbours’ fears and suspicions: “He’s hiding something from the rest of us“; “I heard he has an ex-wife someplace. “I swear to god I heard someone moaning low…” At one point Waits even declares, “You won’t believe what Mr. Stitches saw.” And I’d like to just take a moment to say: Mr. Stitches?!

The entirety of the track’s three minutes is filled with an eerie sense of foreboding. And there’s definitely something fucked up happening here. The He that we hear so much about in this song—without learning a single thing about him is building something. A reanimated corpse? A murder room? Some other kind of sinister mechanism for spreading mayhem among his neighbours, perhaps. But it’s not until the end of the song that Waits reveals the true menace of the song, growling, “We have a right to know.”

The song strangely took on a second life more recently as an ironic backing for videos. Though that doesn’t necessarily remove the sense of morbid curiosity and menace that the track harbours. It’s really just a question of which person on either side of that property line is the truly dangerous one. This isn’t really about what he’s building, but why it seems to bother us so much.

“What’s He Building?” by Tom Waits from the album ‘Mule Variations’, 1999

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