Book Review: David Smay’s Swordfishtrombones (which is about Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones)

Oh hey, I still have a blog!

I’ve just been busy lately, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like. On top of that, one of the books I am reading is both really long, and not as engrossing as I’d like, so that’s kind of stalled me a bit. More on that one in … whenever I get around to reading it.

But! I just finished a book that was both short and interesting, so woo! That boo41xbvzuuh4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_k in question is David Smay’s Swordfishtrombones. I’ve covered 33 1/3rd books before– basically, each volume of theirs concentrates on one particular album by one particular artist, and explores the history and ideas behind it. And, as you could expect, Swordfishtrombones is about Tom Waits’ 1983 album Swordfishtrombones.

Tom Waits is an institution these days, and rightly so. However, Swordfishtrombones was a turning point for Waits, the album where he really cut loose to do whatever the hell he wanted, and thusly became the Tom Waits we know today. At least, that’s Smay’s argument throughout the book. He makes a compelling case, bringing in little tidbits and anecdotes concerning Waits’ life. In particular, Smay keeps returning to the unique relationship between Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, who he married shortly before starting his work on Swordfishtrombones. It’s a fascinating story– though one Smay has to paint in rather broad strokes, given how reclusive Waits can often be about his personal life.

Swordfishtrombones is far more straightforward, far more focused than the last 33 1/3rd book I read, Flood. Smay doesn’t try to tie Swordfishtrombones to any larger subcultures– it is, ultimately, a book about Tom Waits. But then again, given how deep Waits’ music can go (quite literally, in the case of a song like “Underground”), this serves as a rich topic to explore. Smay’s book is peppered with fascinating facts, anecdotes, and half-truths. These cover everything from Waits’ obsession with dwarves (the actual little-people kind, not the Tolkien-ones with axes), to polka bands covering “In the Neighborhood,” and a dozen other random tangents besides.


Smay manages to write in a dreamy, surrealist way that’s evocative of Waits without becoming imitative. This turns out to be Swordfishtrombones‘ greatest strength, the thing that really distinguishes it from just another musician biography. Really, the tone of Swordfishtrombones can be summed up in a passage early on.

FACT: Tom Waits was born September 8, 1683, during the siege preceding the Battle of Vienna– on the very day that Turkish sappersbreached the Nieder Wall but four days before King Sobieski led the glorious charge of the Polish Hussars and drove the Turks from the field, forever blunting the Ottoman Empire’s ambitions in the West and preserving Christendom. (It is important to clarify that Tom Waits was not born during the better known 1529 Siege of Vienna. That would make him 487 years old today! This confusion stems from the popular depiction of the Siege of Vienna in Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture,” which introduced the character Red Sonja, leter to be adapted into the Conan comics continuity and portrayed onscreen by Brigitte Nielsen, who went on to toy with Flavor Flav’s affections in Season Three of The Surreal Life, but relevant here because Sylvester Stallone is Brigette’s ex-husband.)

This is on page six.

The whole book isn’t written in such a dreamy tone, but Smay delves into it a couple of times just to spice things up. All and all, Swordfishtrombones is worth the read for any Tom Waits fan.


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