Earlier this month, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature, which is a unique accomplishment for a singer-songwriter. The Swedish Academy recognized Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He is the first American to win the award since Toni Morrison in 1993.
The news drew criticism from the literary community under the suspicion that awarding the Nobel Prize for literature to a musician overlooked more deserving honorees. Other praised the selection as out of the box and deserving.
Whether you believe Dylan deserved the award or not, one thing is certain: His contribution to the landscape of American expression is an undeniable one. Throughout his 50-year career, Dylan’s songs have touched on themes of exploration, love and self-discovery.
But as long we’re talking musicians with lyrics worthy of literary status, there’s another American music legend whose contribution should not be overlooked.
Like Dylan, Tom Waits has been out of the spotlight in recent years, but his deep understanding of brokenness and suffering deserves more attention. Waits is America’s favorite troubadour, his face as weather-beaten as his voice. Always demonstrating sympathy for the outsider, he’s the champion of the low-life fallen on hard times.
His songs seem to emerge from lives lived knee-deep in the guts and grime of everyday experience. Waits populates his songs with a swirling broth of vagrants and bohemians; the losers and the no-hopers, the lovelorn and world-weary, the deadbeats at dead ends.
These are the heroes of Waits’ stories. They’re characters whose every dream is frayed threadbare, yet they’re never treated in an undignified way. The tunes are often transcendent and rich in hope. Even in a song like “Ruby’s Arms,” about a tough soldier crumbling under the weight of apocalyptic sadness, there’s a sliver of hope.
Listening to a Tom Waits album is like taking a road trip through America’s forgotten dive bars, laneways, swamps and rail yards and other out-of-the-way places frequented by the great unwashed.
For most of us, this couldn’t be further from our experience of life or church for that matter.
You don’t have to venture very deep into the heart of your average evangelical Sunday to attend a service that avoids talking about discomfort or pain in life. There’s nothing wrong with joy or contentment, but church shouldn’t be a place where life looks polished and easy yet for many, this is the reality. The messiness of life isn’t welcome. So easily, reaching out to the poor and heartbroken can be sidelined instead of being core to what we do.
Waits’ music didn’t win the Nobel Prize, but it hints at something that’s easy for Christians to forget: Waits knows the poor have a unique experience of God and his mercy.
Jesus is clear about this. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” Waits’ music not only teaches us about our own brokenness, it serves to bring people who should be the focus of our attention, our mercy and our kindness back into the limelight. Jesus had a particular affinity for the “least of these” and Waits points us back to who God came to earth to rescue.
In particular, Waits helps us see five different kinds of brokenness the Bible speaks to.
Life is tough, that much doesn’t need to be said. It’s enough to bury you alive. We inhabit a world gone awry, and it’s grim out there, and pretending all is well when it’s not can often make your experience much more lonely. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is about alcoholism, alienation and a string of bad luck. This growling gentle waltz reveals what life can feel like at the bottom. “And it’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”
Scripture is littered with parallels to Waits’ compassion for the suffering. Jesus came to heal those with wounds they feel hopelessness toward. From the exiled Israelites to the beggars and homeless of ancient Judea, the bible has a focus on those going through extreme difficulty.
And throughout the Bible, we’re reminded that we’re not alone. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
Failure is normal. You’re never completely in control. In our drive for success and maintaining a façade of perfection across our social media feeds, the reality of failure terrifies us. Throughout Waits’ music, we learn our achievements—or lack of them—don’t define us. They can easily fade into the wind along with the rest of our accomplishments or progress.
The Bible is marked by strings of catastrophic and almighty failures.
Adam and Eve screwed up perfection. Moses failed as an Egyptian prince, then failed to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Peter failed to be as steadfast to Jesus as he claimed he would. The disciple Simon failed to start a revolution. But the Bible teaches that failure isn’t the end, not when we’re in Christ. The Bible says, “We have fallen, but we will rise again. We are in darkness now, but the Lord will give us light.” (Micah 7:8)
Waits authored a soundtrack to human failures—a soundtrack that points to Jesus’ story of redemption.
Love can be a mess. Our misalignment to God’s plan for relationship can often end in loneliness or havoc. In “Hang Down Your Head,” the narrator knows he isn’t to blame, but that makes the split no easier. “Tear the promise from my heart, tear my heart today. You have found another, oh baby, I must go away.”
The grief over a failed relationship is a singular variety of great pain. Whether it’s romantic disappointment or relational wounds, the Bible says “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalms 147:3) In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
No one is normal. Eccentricity is okay, and should be met with grace and empathy. We’re a complicated and volatile mix of atoms. And like the clanging anthems on Swordfishtrombones, being brash, bawdy and off-the-wall is not only OK, it’s sometimes necessary. “There are many rooms in this house of madness,” Waits said in a 2002 interview, “enter them all, son, before you finish.”
Like Waits, Jesus loved outcasts.
While living as a homeless wanderer through Israel, Jesus was himself an outsider and spent his time with social pariahs: people who were in some way racially, financially, physically or morally different than those making up the majority in Judea. For that reason, he enjoyed huge popularity amongst Judea’s poor. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” (Luke 14:13)
Life can be cruel and people can exit our lives for a variety of reasons. From Waits’ “Fall of Troy”: “It’s hard to say grace and sit in the place of someone missing at the table… my legs ache, my heart is sore, the well is full of pennies.” We accumulate bruises but that doesn’t mean we should throw down our hope, our self-respect or our will to endure.
Across testaments, the Bible emphasizes that God won’t reject or abandon you. From Deuteronomy 31:8 “He will be with you. He won’t abandon you or leave you,” to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” the Bible’s message and Waits’ music points us to one truth: Whatever you’re walking through today, you’re not doing it alone.