Saturday, December 31, 2022

Song Highlight: Tom Waits - Eyeball Kid

Tom Waits has had quite a career trajectory, starting out with fairly conventional folk songs in the early 1970s, before becoming a jazzy crooner grounded by one of the most gravelly voices in popular music, to eventually transitioning into what sounds like the spokesman to a carnival ushering in the apocalypse. Waits has always been interested in exploring themes of isolation and death, focusing on deadbeats, alcoholics, and lost souls, but it was really with the 1992 album Bone Machine that he truly became a troubadour of the End Times. The songs on Bone Machine are even more unhinged than his previous work, which had started to become more and more unconventional, the songs are carried by sparse instrumentation and clanging, awkward percussion. His 1999 album Mule Variations took the sonic weirdness of Bone Machine and combined it with downtrodden, bluesy ballads of his earlier work, creating an album that is much more approachable to the uninitiated. 

The song “Eyeball Kid” is the least played song from Mule Variations on Spotify, but is one of the most distinctive and memorable. It is punctuated by clangs and haphazard percussion hits and vocal welps and screeches, and at one point the spit-fire rambling of an auctioneer as an extra texture. The song is about a child born with one large eyeball as a face, the titular “Eyeball Kid,” and his forays in show business. It is told from the perspective of the Eyeball Kid’s manager, who first encounters him in Saigon:

“Well the 1st time I saw him

was a Saigon jail

Cost me 27 dollars

Just to go his bail

I said your name will

be in lights

and that's no doubt

But you got to have

a manager that's what

it's all about

People would point

People would stare

I'll always be here

To protect you and to

cut down on the glare”

What brought the Eyeball Kid to be in jail in Saigon is never explained, but it is little details like that which really bring the story Waits is telling to life. His manager wants to make money off of the Eyeball Kid’s unique physiognomy:

“He's just a little bitty thing

He's just a little guy

but women go crazy

for the big blue eye

They say how does he

dream? How does he think

when he can't ever speak

and he can't ever blink?”

Towards the end of the song, Waits mentions that we are all blind and lost in this world, but maybe the Eyeball Kid could help people see what really matters. Likely not, with everyone clamoring for the next spectacle:

“We are all lost in the

Wilderness we're as

blind as can be

He came down to teach us

how to really see”

The final interesting thing that I want to point out is that the song mentions the Eyeball Kid was born on the 7th of December, 1949, which happens to be Waits’ own birthday. So perhaps there is something of the Eyeball Kid in Waits himself?

If you have not listened to Tom Waits, I suggest you remedy that! Mule Variations is a pretty good place to start. Buy it here!

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