Misery
MISERY IS THE RIVER OF THE WORLD. 2004
Directors: Scott Waldren & Ben Grau

WHAT'S HE BUILDING? 1999
Director: Lex Brand

NOSEY NEIGHBOR. 2000
Director: W. Matthews

TOMMY THE CAT. 1991
Director: Mark Kohr

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



MiseryThere's a dismal river in the cavernous belly of the earth, captured in the flash-animated music video for Wait's song Misery is the River of the World (2004) from his album Blood Money (2002) of music composed two years earleir for a surrealist version of the play Woyzek, about a mentally, socially, & morally disintegrating soldier.

Hard to believe this is a fan video, it is so handsomely done, with echoes of Max Flescher in it. Hell's ferryman is just a guy in a hoody who pilots his boat out from the underworld & into the canals of a city.

He disembarks & stroles evil-visaged through the rainy streets. In some scenes much more than others the man in the hoody looks like Tom Waits, but usually not, the artists were not quite skillful enough to maintain the caricature. Small fault, lthough, as these four & a half minutes are crammed with superb imagery & artful minimalist animation.

MiseryI always have a slight criticism of filsm for Tom's lyrics that are too literal, & image after image keyed to the specific words of a moment kidn of harm the overall elegance & narrative value, as there is a story imbedded in the piece, but it loses itself trying not to lave out anything cool Tom sings.

Better might be to take a symbolist approach & give a real interpretation. And to keep the timing right, the animators do come up with images & events strictly their own.

The little imbedded story of the selling of a little girl to a pedarast, for example, captures the relentlessness of Tom's cynicism in this song, as he assumes all the good of the world could fit in a thimble, & everything we see is evil. So in a world like this, even a victimized little girl cannot be entirely the innocent creature she appears.

And the song is just about the most unsentimental, hopeless view of the world Tom & Kathleen ever composed. The romanticism of darkness is missing & it's just a chronicle of the evils of mankind:

"If there's one thing you can say about Mankind/ There's nothing kind about man/ You can drive out nature with a pitch fork/ But it always comes roaring back again..."


What's He Building?What's He Building? (1999) was originally filmed for a Dutch advertising company. Tom liked it enough that it became the promo video for Mule Variations (1999), getting plenty of play on MTV & elsewhere.

Tom's not in the video but he's the narrator with his spoken word number "What's He Building in There?" also known as "What's He Doing in There?" It's about a man with no children, with no dog, with no friends, whose lawn dying, & who seems to be up to something. That, or his neighbor (the narrator) is a rank paranoic.

It comes off as a tale of terror really, as the query "What's he building in there?" implies a mysterious, dark answer.

The artful video is a series of shots of buildings, rooftops, a dog, & so on, all in sepia to give it a vintage feeling. Tom's recitation is just brilliant, narrated in a low puzzled monotone, to experimental instrumentation with a solid beat to it. The video has a definite beauty, too, but nothing to compare to Tom's words:

"Now what's that sound from under his door?/ He's pounding nails into a hardwood floor/ And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low/ And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show..." The tale quite properly fails to answer the queries, preserving the mysteriousness, so neither does the video provide answers.

What's He Building?Imitating somewhat the official video for "What's He Building in There?" is W. Matthews' graphic designs college film Nosey Neighbor (2000?), which is likewise sepia-toned.

As Tom recounts his paranoic speculations, we see an obnoxious neighbor in a rural neighborhood trying his best to keep tabs on the comings & goings & the guy next door.

In Matthews' interpretation the neighbor is definitely screwy, but not, as it turns out in the half-second climax, without justification. We never find out what he's building in particular, but we do find out he's a psycho.

By providing such an obvious single "answer" to what the neighbor does the video places itself permanently in the realm of the lesser creation, too literal, reducing a complex psychological understanding of two characters to a one-line joke. Indeed, it comes off as a revenge-fantasy of some filmmaker who really did have a nosey neighbor, & ultimately nothing to do with Waits' poem.

Still, for a school film, it ain't bad, & I do hope it stays up on youtube a good long while. It'd even be nice if such films as this could find their way into some sort of compilation of "unofficial" Waits-related material produced at the fringe, so that it can achieve some degree of permanancy in the Waits video canon.


Tommy the Cat Tom Waits guests on the soundtrack only of the Primus music video for Tommy the Cat (1991). This is unquestionably the best thing Primus ever did, thanks to Tom guesting as lead singer.

This was the group's second version, recorded with Waits for their third album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese (1991). Two years earlier, on their first album, bassist Les Claypool's grampa sang what would become Tom Waits' lines. In concert, Les sings the whole thing.

Primus due to being funny, loud, & eccentric, & for daring to be bad, or at least primitive, had a much deserved cult following. Yet their one big success was the version of "Tommy the Cat" featuring Waits, which as a video got a lot of MTV play back when MTV cared about music videos.

Tommy the CatTheir debut album Suck on This (1989) gave rise to the tradition of praising the group by chanting "Primus sucks!"

During the last-gasp for punkdom in the '80s, it was a typical say the opposite of what you mean. But the supreme irony is Primus really did suck. And it must've been as much a curse as a blessing that by far their best known number owed so much to Tom Waits & couldn't really be sung in concert anything like the recording.

Loud, loud, loud metal-funk guitar sounds start it off unpromisingly, as they're the same rift heard from a hundred-score local bands who'll never go anywhere further than their neighborhood bars. The black & white cinematography ain't bad, showing the typical bar scene wherein such stereotypical moron-rock fits.

Tommy the CatBut then, just when the instrumentation makes you think there's nothing much here, the sound of Tom Waits shouting perks up attention, then we see a jibbering bartender (Les Claypool), & we seem to be Comedy Land.

A rapid rap by Tom follows; we momentarily revisit the old, old man drinking at the bar; the instrumentation gets jazzier; then we're off like a shot into a cartoon featuring decrepit alley cat characters with bloodshot eyes. Waits' hyper-swift lyrics are about the cats that "hang out in droves" in O'Malley's Alley, lusting after a certain slutty she-cat looking for the stud-bull he-cat, "and that was me. tommy the cat."

Although Tom did not condescend to appear in the video after making the recording, for the cell-animation portion of the film he's caricatured as a fat lazy Tommy the Cat sing-rapping the story from flat on his back on a mouldering mattress amidst garbage.

The scene switches back to live action in the bar. The editing & photograph gets very surrealistic. The guitar instrumentation is again to shrug for, but the overall clowning effect of the film is all good.

Return to first clutch of
Tom Waits Videos

These films also feature Tom Waits:
Wristcutters, 2006
Roy Orbison: Black & White Night, 1988/1991

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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