Tom Waits doesn’t use the term “f*ck” lightly.
In fact, in the more than 250 released studio recordings from the songwriter, you’ll find nary a mention, with exception to “Hell Broke Luce,” from Waits’ recent “Bad As Me.”
It’s unsettling to hear him say the word with emphasis — and twice! — but then again, “Luce” is an unsettling track. For this military cadence, Waits adoptive persona is a sour band of soldiers, lobbing dark humor and complaints from the frontline, as young kids would reflect on the “good homes” they left behind before they enlisted.
With the mention of Kevlar, meth, Humvees and suicide bombs, Waits effectively pairs the familiar “left right left” marching chant with vernacular and specific terrors of today’s wars in the Middle East. And yet, the lost limbs, scorched skin, body bags and general laid waste are depressingly evergreen. With a “boom” he makes his thesis, that the horrors overseas follow soldiers home to America.
“Well I was over here, America, to vote / I left my arm in my coat / My mom she died and never wrote,” he chants. Take the title of the song, with Luce as a character: “Now I”m home / and I”m blind / And I”m broke / What is next?”
“Hell Broke Luce” is a terrifying song. It’s supposed to be, and it’s also one of Waits’ greatest achievements, new or not. It’s a painful and political anti-war song for and within the fighting ranks, for after the war is “finished.”
“How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess / Got their sorry asses stapled to a godd*mn desk?” his narrators question. “Kelly Prozelo [sp] got his thumbs blown off / Sergio”s developing a real bad cough… What the hell was it that the president said? / Give them all a beautiful parade instead.”
“Luce” has more than one relative in Waits’ catalog. Scathingly political “Road to Peace,” off of Waits’ “Orphans” set from 2006, details specific violence between Israelis and Palestinians. His criticism of those in powerful political positions is similar, and he names names: “Now our president wants to be seen as a hero and he’s hungry for re-election / But Bush is reluctant to risk his future in the fear of his political failure / So he plays chess at his desk and poses for the press 10,000 miles from the road to peace.”
Where religion provides little comfort “Luce” (represented in a paltry meal with the Pope), Waits addresses the mighty Lord himself in “Peace”: “And if God is great and God is good / why can’t he change the hearts of men? / Well maybe God himself is lost and needs help.”
The gross terror and the schlep of ever-war is also tackled in equally terrifying “Blood Money” (2002) track “God’s Away on Business,” where the Big Man also plays a central role. The track was written for a fresh stage adaptation of German play “Woyzeck” — a story about a soldier who loses his mind living on the edge of blue-collar poverty.
“There’s a leak, there’s a leak in the boiler room / The poor, the lame, the blind / Who are the ones that we kept in charge? / Killers, thieves, and lawyers,” he growls in a similar carnal (and carnie) fashion found in “Luce.” “Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick / It’s a job, it’s a job… God’s away on business / business.”
There’s a parallel to such inanities of our broken bureacracy — “business” — in “Luce”: “Big f*cking ditches in the middle of the road / You pay a hundred dollars just for fillin” in the hole.”
Which brings me to today’s news, the music video to “Hell Broke Luce.” Featured is Waits and clones slogging duplicate single-story dwellings across yellow and gray sand-dirt, between the fire of battleships, over grave sites, under circling vultures and flying bullets. The surreality is interspersed with images like a war general playing Risk at his desk, sharky submarines, the watchful eye of God closing and a blurted half-ass of “Taps” on a trumpet. At 62, Waits is no young man, and his bobbing hat resembles a working-class helmet. It’s a job in the war, and it’s a job in its aftermath.
The clip’s director, Matt Mahurin, specializes in this kind of grotesque desperation: he’s helmed Metallica’s iconic “Unforgiven,” R.E.M.’s dirt-erotica “Orange Crush,” Silversun Pickups’ similarly surrealist “The Royal We,” on top of a few other Waits vids. Mahurin’s photographs and portraits are like a collection of shadows. Around 1:20 of the “Luce” clip, he brings some in, as casualties/prisoners with numbers and no names… later, there’s a snow of ashes, falling on more nameless duplicates.
“Can I go home in March?… March!”
Finally, a worthy protest song. Give the man a f*cking medal.