Masterpiece Mixtape - (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night
This article belongs to Masterpiece Mixtape column.
Tom Waits is an interesting figure in the landscape of popular music. Rarely do we find artists who are so highly influential and yet so anonymous. Often, when I mention Tom Waits in conversation with people I'm met with only blank stares. Those unfamiliar with his music listen to it for the first time and always get that familiar sucked-on-a-lemon expression. They have no idea what to make of it.
Waits' work has always been more about art than aesthetic. He's less interested in making pleasant sounds as he is in making interesting sounds. That's obviously not to most people's tastes. In his early career, however, he was highly melodic. He didn't journey into the nightmarish soundscapes and investigate the disquieting themes as readily in his formative years as he does these days. A good example of this is (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night, off his 1974 album The Heart of Saturday Night.
This song is a quiet ballad for the hardworking man. The average guy, unhindered by the anchorage of family, who works his weekday job to earn enough money to enjoy his one night of freedom. The weekend – for those who work a full-time job – is a sacred time. For those two simple days, it seems anything is possible. The freedom one feels is almost tangible. Friday night is for recovery. But Saturday night is for adventure. And it's all this that Tom Waits sings about.
A man driving down the boulevard in his car . . . It's this simple, strong image that the song returns to again and again, and it's one that's highly relatable. It's this act that most of us would be incredibly familiar with; looking for the weekend and its freedom rather than actually experiencing it. Waits' protagonist is left aimlessly wandering, unaware of how to fill the free time he's been blessed with, that he's been looking forward to. He sings of having "your arm around your sweet one", but this person is never given a name, a personality, a presence. She (or, of course, he) is a faceless spectre, just another aspect of the weekend's dreamtime.
In fact, anonymity is a very large aspect of the song. Waits mentions a barmaid and a second cousin more than once, but these two are also nothing more than ciphers in the mist. They offer no comfort, no joy. They are merely totems, figures that signify the weekend but who do not make it. Of course, as they're the only characters mentioned, it would seem that they are the most significant. The weekend is made up of nothing but faceless strangers, none of whom help fulfill the promise of Saturday night. The character is left to continue his search.
The weekends mount. Their quiet monotony goes on and on, breaking Waits' protagonist. Saturday night is no longer fun. Now it's a routine that sits on one's shoulders, bearing down with its weight. A cruel reminder of a life spent in darkness, interrupted only by the buzzing of neon signs and a telephone ringing. By the end of it, Waits' character is no longer looking for the heart of Saturday night. He's now stumbling onto it, punch drunk and broken. It's a cycle, with no ending in sight.
Sure, it's depressing. But the reason for that is that it speaks so strongly to a feeling that we all experience at one time or another. It's that melancholy loneliness that comes from being in the middle of a crowded room, where the only thing you want to do is escape, even as you're supposed to be having the time of your life.
Expressing this feeling is what Waits' has always done so masterfully. He takes ordinary moments with ordinary people and brings a sense of poetry and beauty to them, in all their understated sadness. Perhaps it's this ability of his to so perfectly capture ordinary heartbreak that keeps him on the fringe of popular knowledge; people don't care to have their sadness so acutely reflected back at them.
Of course, the fact that his singing so often sounds like the Cookie Monster who is as high as hell probably doesn't really help matters. But, different strokes for different folks.