What Tom Waits Can Teach You About Powerful Writing

Tom Waits isn’t just a musician, he’s a lifestyle choice. The growly-voiced singer-songwriter has created some of the most powerful, haunting music I’ve ever poured into my ears. Waits does it with simple, sad music, but more importantly, with a mastery of poetic language that would make Lord Byron pull his hair out with envy.

Especially the metaphor. Waits’ music is filled with metaphors, which gives it the emotional impact and depth you just don’t get with the Single Ladies and Poker Faces of the world. (Most of today’s music has all the emotional complexity of a high school prom, but Waits is an in-depth, all-night discussion about the meaning of life.)

A couple months ago, I wrote about why metaphors make for more powerful writing than similes. I said:

I don’t like similes. They’re weak. They’re the pencil-necked milksop of literary devices. They say things are similar, but not quite that item. Life is like a box of chocolates, but not really.

Take a look at (this) example: “Men’s words are bullets.” That’s a powerful phrase. It doesn’t say they’re like bullets, that they remind people of bullets, or “words can hurt people sort of like bullets can hurt people.” That’s just smarmy, wishy-washy pap.

“Men’s words are bullets,” on the other hand, makes you feel the the emotional damage that can be done by words, feeling the piercing, crashing power of a bullet fired from a large gun.

I’ve been listening to Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner album a lot lately. It’s my favorite Waits album, and carries my favorite Waits song, Putnam County.

Any writer who wants to learn about the power and grip of language should give this a listen, and pay careful attention to Waits’ use of language. A quick check showed only one simile in the entire piece, and the rest were metaphors.

If you want to master writing and create language that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you to pay attention, study these lyrics, listen to the song, and see if you can introduce this style into your own writing.

Putnam County, Tom Waits

I guess things were always kinda quiet around Putnam County
Kinda shy and sleepy as it clung to the skirts of the 2-lane
That was stretched out just like an asphalt dance floor
Where all the old-timers in bib jeans and store bought boots
Were hunkerin’ down in the dirt
To lie about their lives and the places that they’d been

And they’d suck on Coca Colas, yeah, and be spittin’ Day’s Work
Until the moon was a stray dog on the ridge and
And the taverns would be swollen until the naked eye of 2 a.m.
And the Stratocasters slung over the Burgermeister beer guts

And swizzle stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools
And the witch hazel spread out over the linoleum floors
And pedal pushers stretched out over a midriff bulge
And the coiffed brunette curls over Maybelline eyes
Wearing Prince Matchabelli*, or something
Estee Lauder, smells so sweet

And I elbowed up at the counter with mixed feelings over mixed drinks
As Bubba and the Roadmasters moaned in pool hall concentration
And knit their brows to cover the entire Hank Williams songbook
Whether you like it or not

And the old National register was singin’ to the tune of $57.57
And then it’s last call, one more game of eightball
Berniece’d be puttin’ the chairs on the tables
And someone come in and say, ‘Hey man, anyone got any jumper cables?’
‘Is that a 6 or a 12 volt, man? I don’t know…’

Yeah, and all the studs in town would toss ’em down
And claim to fame as they stomped their feet
Yeah, boastin’ about bein’ able to get more ass than a toilet seat

And the GMCs) and the Straight-8 Fords were coughin’ and wheezin’
And they percolated) as they tossed the gravel underneath the fenders
To weave home a wet slick anaconda of a 2-lane

With tire irons and crowbars a-rattlin’
With a tool box and a pony saddle
You’re grindin’ gears and you’re shiftin’ into first
Yeah, and that goddam Tranny’s just gettin’ worse, man

With the melody of see-ya-laters and screwdrivers on carburetors
Talkin’ shop about money to loan
And Palominos and strawberry roans

See ya tomorrow, hello to the Missus!
With money to borrow and goodnight kisses
As the radio spit out Charlie Rich, man,
and he sure can sing that son of a bitch

And you weave home, yeah, weavin’ home
Leavin’ the little joint winkin’ in the dark warm narcotic American night
Beneath a pin cushion sky
And it’s home to toast and honey, gotta start up the Ford, man

Yeah, and your lunch money’s right over there on the drainin’ board
And the toilet’s runnin’! Christ, shake the handle!
And the telephone’s ringin’, it’s Mrs. Randall
And where the hell are my goddamn sandals?
What you mean, the dog chewed up my left foot?

With the porcelain poodles and the glass swans
Staring down from the knickknack shelf
And the parent permission slips for the kids’ field trips
Yeah, and a pair of Muckalucks) scraping across the shag carpet

And the impending squint of first light
And it lurked behind a weepin’ marquee in downtown Putnam
Yeah, and it’d be pullin’ up any minute now
Just like a bastard amber Velveta yellow cab on a rainy corner
And be blowin’ its horn in every window in town

(Here’s a YouTube video of a different version of Putnam Conty than the one you’ll hear on Nighthawks at the Diner, but the lyrics are the same. Listen to it and read the lyrics again. You’ll get a sense of what Waits can do with language, and the power it can have to move people.

* Update: I have to thank Allison (see the comments below) for the correction on Prince Matchabelli. I originally had Prince Machiavelli in the lyrics, which I got from the original lyrics source, but apparently Matchabelli is an old dimestore makeup. I had always heard the name, but never paid much attention to it. And in the song, I always thought Waits was purposely butchering “Machiavelli,” (not to be confused with the Machiavelli (mock-ee-uh-velli) who wrote “The Prince”).

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. You’re absolutely right about metaphor.

      The other thing that Waits does that makes for powerful writing is using concrete details. To quote
      William Carlos Williams -> “No ideas but in things”
      Many examples in this song ….. “bib jeans and store bought boots”

      He got better at this, I think. Another for instance from Waits ( Gun Street Girl from Raindogs)
      “He bought a second-hand Nova from a Cuban Chinese
      And dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco”

      Concrete details without comment. Draw your own conclusions – Not a “used car” …
      He didn’t “disguise himself in a gas station” … He dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco

      In Putrnam County, the rhyming of handle/Randall/sandals was always unforgivable though.
      Like “neon buzzin/Second cousin” in Heart of Saturday Night.
      Grates every time.

      Have to say, you insert an interesting interpretation by an insufficient awareness of dimestore cosmetics ;-) It’s not Prince Machiavelli, but Prince Matchabelli. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Matchabelli
      Brings a whole new meaning ….


      • Allison,

        LOVE the comments (although I disagree with your dislike of the handle/Randall/sandals rhyme. That one cracked me up the first 10 times I heard it). But it’s always great to meet another Tom Waits fan.

        Is it really Prince Matchabelli? I always thought he was purposely butchering Machiavelli. I pulled those lyrics from somewhere else, and didn’t even look it up. I sort of remember Prince Matchabelli from when I was a kid, but only heard the name, I never saw it.

        And the phrase “store bought boots” was pretty cool. I knew exactly what it meant when he said it. I’m not old enough to remember when you had to get your boots made, but to have something store bought (or “store boughten” as I’ve heard before) was sort of a badge of honor to some. And when he dropped in those three words, I could sort of see the people of Putnam County, imagine the cars they drove, the food they ate, the jobs they had. The fact that you leave money on the draining board of the sink, or that Earl Scheib would paint your car for $29.95 — yeah, those people had store bought boots. The imagery of that phrase just smacked me in the face.

        Thanks again for the comment. Love hearing from Waits fans!!

    2. Beautiful and inspiring post. Thank you.


    1. […] Use metaphors —Tom Waits — Putnam County, Nighthawks at the Diner. I talked before about how Tom Waits uses metaphors to create very powerful writing. His song, Putnam County is rife with metaphors and a couple similes. Take a look at what he says […]