Raining on Mental Health: Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs

Rain Dogs is the ninth album released by Tom Waits (1985). Thematically, the album focuses on the mental illnesses of the passers by in New York. Waits envisages the struggles that people from all walks of life experience. Waits jumps between genres confidently, from the free jazz of “Midtown” to the blues-driven “Union Square”. His voice evolves from persona to persona as he performs the songs in character. The album plays out like a short story collection. Waits’ characters suffer with loneliness, rejection and guilt, amongst other harmful issues. These topics are relatable to people of all ages, giving the listener a connection with the characters. But how does Waits present sequences of events that spiral into mental health decline in Rain Dogs?

The album opens with ‘Singapore’, a tale about a captain setting rules for new sailors. They must commit all their time to their job. Even marriage is prohibited: ‘When you hear that steeple bell, you must say goodbye to me’. The instrumentation is rustic: Marc Ribot plays a cartoony guitar, percussion is played on a chest of drawers and a marimba huffs and puffs over the track like a steam train. This piece almost passes for a Disney villain song. The underlying seriousness of pressures in the workplace are still relevant today; these pressures lead to numerous mental health issues.

‘Cemetery Polka’ puts the spotlight on an unhappy man who complains about his family members. Waits was influenced by his parents’ difficult relationships with family members. In ‘Cemetery Polka’, family members argue over money. Meanwhile, one suffers from lung disease. This song highlights how family relationships can have a negative impact on mental health.

‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ portrays a taxi driver who drives his customer, Edna to a cruise line. Edna is a murderer. She pays the driver $100 to keep her secret. The driver makes statements about himself. ‘I’ve been drinking from a broken cup’ and ‘I’ve been stepping on the devil’s tail’. These statements portray his guilt just for being involved. Self blame is common for those who feel worthless.

Waits threads death throughout the songs as a theme, the first being ‘Tango Til’ They’re Sore’, a song about a suicidal man making plans for how he wants his funeral to be. He plans to jump from a window, using the imagery of confetti to make himself feel celebrated. In reality, he knows no-one will turn up to the funeral. He asks anyone who will listen to “paint shadows on the pews” and claims that the only affordable flowers are daisies. The instrumentation has a clumsiness that gives the impression that the protagonist is an alcoholic. Turning to alcohol numbs his loneliness until it turns into desperation. The song title refers to a tango. The timelessness of this dance can be compared to the timelessness of mental health. This style of dance expresses passion, a passion that this suicidal man has never experienced himself.

Another song relating to death is “Big Black Mariah”. Waits tells the story of a policeman picking up a drug addict. The drug addict, who has overdosed on Benzedrine, has passed out in a pile of sugarcane. Whether he is dead or as good as is open to interpretation. Waits leaves the listener wondering whether the protagonist will end up in jail or in a coffin. Benzedrine, a form of amphetamine, can be used to reduce anxiety and insomnia (common side effects of mental health issues). The protagonist knows both prison and death will be an escape from the depressive life he is living.

A recurring outside-observer character provides the voice for ‘Clap Hands’ and the spoken wor­d piece, “9th and Hennepin”. A man in Minneapolis watches a woman turn to prostitution after her lover leaves. Her depression has spiraled out of control, leading to a potential drug addiction. She lacks acceptance and needs to feel wanted. The song closes as the protagonist reflects on the fact that he doesn’t know the woman. We are always making assumptions and drawing our own conclusions. “I’ve seen it all through the yellow windows of the evening train”. The alienated protagonist is trying to see optimism in his life by reassuring himself that others have it worse.

Between these hellish vignettes, Waits integrates calm instrumentation, including the country ballad, ‘Blind Love’ and the spectacular ‘Time’. On the latter, Waits describes scenes of life from an after-death perspective. The protagonists have mental health issues that put up barriers, preventing them from any form of enjoyment. The verses flow like the protagonists lives, flashing before their eyes. Waits ends each verse with the chorus: “It’s time that you love”, pointing out that these characters (along with the listener) should find time to do things they really love while they still can.

The theme of rejection is pivotal to “Downtown Train”. Waits brings radio audiences into his music by promoting the album with a more conventional single. This song shows a man being let down by his love. You can feel Waits’ voice tremble, showing loss of confidence. This song is relatable to anyone whose mental health issues have stemmed from rejection.

The album closes with the theatrical “Anywhere I Lay My Head”. People laugh at the protagonist, but he lets their comments wash over him, crooning ‘I don’t need anyone, because I’ve learned to be alone’. Accepting loneliness concludes the album on a note of sadness. This is highlighted as a marching band starts playing, creating the image of a funeral. This plays like rolling credits, concluding the album on a tragically powerful note.

Rain Dogs is relevant to this day. Waits’ theme of swept-under-the-rug mental health issues pushes lyrical boundaries. His soundscapes open a new world that has entertained generations of listeners. The album has since been awarded NME’s best album of 1985 and a spot in the ‘1001 albums to hear before you die’ book.