Saturday, August 4, 2012

Song Spotlight: "Burma Shave" - Tom Waits

Before I play it, I will sometimes explain what I was thinking when I wrote a specific song. When the timing is right I feel like hearing a couple footnotes or a more full anecdote can involve the listener in the characters more completely than hearing the song alone. I know I have had instances where I have been more deeply invested in a song after hearing it explained.

There is a flip side to this coin. Some more vague songs (or songs left unexplained) allow the listener to think about the story behind the song and apply it how they see fit. When the song is fully explained that is the only story it can ever tell. When a little wiggle room is left, it can some times have a broader and surprising connection to people the songwriter hadn't intended.

Therefore I like some songs to be explained and some to be left to my imagination (whether my imagination is wrong or not).

The song I wanna talk about today is by Tom Waits. If you are familiar with Tom Waits you know he specializes in creepy and obscure. It's not always apparent what the storyline of his songs are. But the thing I love about Tom is that , whether or not we are let in on the storyline, we don't miss the emotion AT ALL.

I always say there are two kinds of songwriter : 1) the ones that tend to write as if they were describing a movie. "Billy and Jenny fell in love , then they stole her daddy's car, then they drove west....". These writers lean heavily on chronology to tell the story. We get to know the characters as we "watch" them react to situations over time.
2) The other type of songwriter describes a solitary scene, situation or emotion. These writers tend to write as if they were describing a still photo.

Tom Waits tends to be more of the second style writer.

I am a big fan of Tom but due to him being largely a writer of the second style, I don't always "get" the characters' entire story. And I don't think I'm supposed to get the characters' story so fully. I feel like Tom gives enough adjectives to infer the characters' past lives and then paints their current situation perfectly and vividly.

I love a hundred Tom Waits' songs. But one I've always had a special affinity for is "Burma Shave".

In "Burma Shave" Tom gives us a little chronology and a little more typical Tom-like scene description.

Because I have never read an explanation of this song or heard Tom explain it, all of my analysis is strictly conjecture on my part. But I'll tell ya what I dig about this song.

First the lyrics :

licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue scrawled across the shoulders
of a dying town the one eyed jacks across the railroad tracks
and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through
he was a juvenile delinquent never learned how to behave
but the cops would never think to look in
burma shave
and the road was like a ribbon and the moon was like a bone
he didn't seem to be like any guy she'd ever known
he kinda looked like Farley Granger with his hair slicked back
she says i'm a sucker for a fella in a cowboy hat
how far are you going he said depends on what you mean
he says i'm going thataway just as long as it's paved
i guess you'd say i'm on my way to
burma shave

and her knees up on the glove compartment
took out her barrettes and her hair spilled out like rootbeer
and she popped her gum and arched her back
hell marysville ain't nothing but a wide spot in the road
some night my heart pounds just like thunder
i don't know why it don't explode
cause everyone in this stinking town has got one foot in the grave
and i'd rather take my chances out in
burma shave

presley's what i go by why don't you change the station
count the grain elevators in the rearview mirror
mister anywhere you point this thing
has got to beat the hell out of the sting
of going to bed with every dream that dies here every mornin
and so drill me a hole with a barber pole
i'm jumping my parole just like a fugitive tonight
why don't you have another swig
and pass that car if you're so brave
i wanna get there before the sun comes up in
burma shave

and the spider web crack and the mustang screamed
smoke from the tires and the twisted machine
just a nickel's worth of dreams and every wishbone that they saved
lie swindled from them on the way to
burma shave

and the sun hit the derrick and cast a bat wing shadow
up against the car door on the shot gun side
and when they pulled her from the wreck you know she
still had on her shades
they say that dreams are growing wild just this side of
burma shave


The thing that drew me so strongly to this song initially was that idea of Burma Shave being a place. When I was a child I remember being told about the Burma Shave shaving company's unique advertising strategy. Instead of posting a big billboard along the roadside, they would post 5-6 smaller signs in a row, with the series stating a slogan collectively. Something like

Sign 1: "in this world"

Half a mile later

Sign 2: "of toil and sin"

Half a mile later

Sign 3: "your head grows bald"

Half a mile later

Sign 4: "but not your chin"

Half a mile later

Sign 5 "Use Burma Shave"

I always found the tales of these signs amusing. And I always imagined them even though I never actually saw one.

Then years and years later I hear this Tom Waits' song about these two young people trying to chase their dreams and leave a dead end town. They don't even have an idea as to where they are headed other than out. The guy realizes nowhere is probably a bad destination so he makes up a ficticious place to aim. Since the Burma Shave signs look a lot like road sings (being as they are roadside and small as opposed to huge and high above) he spouts,"...i'm going thataway just as long as it's paved
i guess you'd say i'm on my way to
burma shave".

The fact he named a fictitious "better place" Burma Shave because those road signs just floored me. I was engrossed in the story.

Tom goes on to do what he does best, describe describe describe and in ways only he can : "the road is like a ribbon, the moon is like bone", or "her hair spilled out like root beer",...

Then Tom tells of the macabre car wreck our couple encounters. He describes the scene with the "twisted machine". The sunlight through the busted windshield casts a shadow on the roadside that Tom calls a "bat wing".

And the final lines give me chills

"when they pulled her from the wreck you know she
still had on her shades
they say that dreams are growing wild just this side of
burma shave"

To me, this song is one of the most eloquent descriptions of squandered dreams I've ever heard. Tom Waits perfectly sets up the idea of the "dying town" and the two seperate lives that join forces on their way out of town. Then he shows them meet their demise before they arrive at their goal.

This is a beautifully dark , twisted story if taken at face value. If the story is only about these two specific characters. But it is not hard to see how these kids jumping town could represent all dying dreams, dreamers left to watch their dreams wither , or specifically 50's-60's Americana (the era of route 66 and companies like Burma Shave) and all the dreams and ideals that accompany that time frame being lost forever.

Whatever you take away from this song , I think it's a gem. The emotions are vivid and powerful.

Tom left us all a little wiggle room to interpret the song how we see it.

I thank him for that. Because I love where this song let's my mind wander to.


  1. Thanks for that. I love that song and these lyrics so much that I'm gonna paint them on the side of the big old hippie bus I just bought and going to live in for the time being. And the first thing I'm gonna use it for is to drive away from another shattered dream. Fits perfectly, and also its just perfect poetry.

  2. I've been haunted by this song- I play it in the car, and heard it again and again, never tiring of the enigmatic lyrics. Really interesting to hear of the bill boards, totally fits the Burma Shave picture. Thanks for your words. Magic,