Note on Tom Waits and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet


Occasional Writings

When Philip Glass asked me if I would be interested in doing a new recording of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet he assumed that I would do something similar to the first version and wanted to know what other pieces would be on the same CD. He was somewhat fazed when I said that I would do a version lasting the whole 74 minutes available.

I pointed out to him that I had no intention of simply multiplying by three the number of times each of the old repetitions would be done (an approach that would, perhaps have been his solution!). The original version had lasted for one side of a vinyl album – about 25 minutes – as I merely wanted to avoid a side-break. I decided rather to make the first 25 minutes exactly the same in terms of structure as the old version (to satisfy purists who, if they wanted, could listen no further) but then to take the music on another journey.

Effectively this makes the CD fall into three parts. The first is as the old version (which was subsequently re-released on CD by Virgin, and I knew of their intention). The second part moves into a series of darker orchestrations, some without strings at all. And for the third I decided to add Tom.

This decision came in the middle of a telephone conversation with the record company in New York when I was explaining how the orchestration might involve. I found myself saying, almost involuntarily, that I would introduce the voice of Tom Waits at some point later in the piece.

My thinking in this was as follows: in all the versions I had made everything that is played serves to accompany and support the old man’s voice. I felt that perhaps at this point, in the context of a much larger structure, another element might join, and even provide a form of duet with the old man. All the other elements repeat like lops, as does the old man, but Tom would have an evolving part with no repetition at all.

I had begun discussions with Tom by this time of his being involved in my second opera Doctor Ox’s Experiment – in fact I had spoken with him about taking the part of Ox himself. I knew of his feelings about Jesus’ Blood as he had contacted me in the 1980’s when he was on tour in England. He had lost his copy of the LP, which he said was his “favourite record”. As it happened there were a couple of copies in my manager’s office and I had a copy sent to him. I later got in touch with him when he was working with Bob Wilson on The Black Rider, which I went to see in Paris. We had a good deal in common as I had worked with Bob in the early 1980’s (Medea, CIVIL WarS, The Golden Windows).

Although I saw him in Paris, we did not speak. So we had not met, nor spoken directly, but we did correspond regularly for a time.

I faxed him to ask if he would do the Jesus’ Blood recording and explained my thinking on the whole shape of the piece (I worked out a ‘road-map’ of the whole duration so that I could see exactly what was happening in each repetition). He agreed to do it.

The plan was that I would record all the orchestral and choral tracks in New York during November and December 1992 as we were working towards a May 1993 release. Tom had been working with Bob Wilson again in Europe (on Alice in Wonderland) and we left it that we would be in touch after he had spent the Christmas and New Year holidays with his family.

However, when I tried to contact him in January he couldn’t be found. No one seemed to know where he was and all messages were unanswered no matter who sent them. Eventually it came to a point where I had to go to New York to make the final mix and we were getting close to a cut off point. I called Tom again to say that if he really was not able to do it I would understand, but that I had 24 hours to make the arrangements and if I didn’t hear I would have to proceed without him. (In fact there is a mix without him, as Frankfurt Ballet co-produced the recording and wanted to have the option of having a version without Tom. Frankfurt’s artistic director, William Forsythe visited me at the studio in New York as I was finishing the mix).

I remember leaving a message on his machine and trying again before leaving my house to go to the university to teach in the morning. To my surprise, although there had been no reply, his outgoing message had been changed and I took this as, perhaps, a clue to encourage me, and that I might try again. When I came back from teaching in the afternoon there was a lengthy message from him (which I still have on the old microcassette tape) apologising and eventually we spoke.

The upshot was that he wanted very much to do it but under certain conditions. These were that he would not come to New York but that his part in the recording should be done in his studio in Northern California with just me and his engineer and emphatically no one from New York. Consequently when I arrived in New York from England I picked up a multi-track of the piece with a preliminary mix and with 3 vacant tracks and flew to San Francisco. I stayed overnight at a hotel in the airport, rented a car and then drove north (I remember crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in the early morning with the Beach Boys on the radio….). I followed the studio’s directions and found my way there by lunchtime. The studio is basically a converted chicken farm, with all the various rooms, containing very good equipment and with interesting acoustics, built inside unlikely exteriors. One of these rooms was a guesthouse where I was to stay the next night and so I installed myself and Tom arrived mid-afternoon. He came with his wife and two children (his wife was expecting their third child, born later that year and called “Sullivan”) in an old American car – a Chevrolet or Cadillac or Lincoln (I’m hazy about American cars) – and they had been to a comic book convention on the coast. His family left and we set about recording.

As the studio machines could not handle the large reels that I had brought with me we had to cut the tape into three separate reels, which gave us, effectively, 15 minutes per tape. For the first take Tom was in a booth next to the control room and simply sang along to the tape in a variety of ways. We listened to this take and then Tom suggested that he sing in a different building, in a room called the “Waiting Room”, where he records his own albums. All the rooms are linked to the central control room (and there is one for listening called the “Listening Room”….).

In this space he has all his own instruments and was clearly at ease as he sang to headphone playback with just me in the room. For me, it was like being in the company of one of the great blues singers from the past as he sang, eyes closed. He would construct sequences of the phrase, lasting maybe 5 or 6 repetitions, until he moved on directly to a new idea. Some were quite tender, some were emotionally very powerful and even angry. Occasionally he sang some through a battery operated voice gun. At the end we tried a few takes where he sang through this megaphone and I accompanied him on his harmonium, which only had one working pedal. (Some of these repetitions were used on the “B” version of the single that was issued later).

After a couple of hours we had recorded on all the available tracks on the tape, which I was to take back to New York, and we spent the early evening chatting. We agreed two things.

One was that we would never perform the piece live in this form (and I resolved, separately, that I would never allow anyone else to sing with the old man as Tom had done). At one point there was a possibility of our performing for a benefit concert for the homeless in New York, arranged by the record company, but this came to nothing.

The second idea was Tom’s. He said, and I agreed, that if ever some idiot were to produce some wine called “Jesus’ Blood” we would not allow them to use the music for promotion or advertising!

Eventually, to avoid his wife and family having to come all the way to pick him up later in the evening, I drove him back in my rented car.

I would say that spending the afternoon in that studio with Tom was as beautiful a musical experience as I can remember. There is a video with Tom and myself talking about the piece (a film crew arrived from the record company later that evening, in spite of my clear instructions to the contrary – and I look quite uncomfortable). He is very eloquent about the piece and about his first hearing the music over the radio at the end of a birthday party for his wife. He talks about the place being littered with balloons and confetti and they were just sitting quietly. He describes the music as settling like a dust on the evening and they just listened to the whole piece, holding hands….

When I got back to New York I sorted the individual repetitions into groups (the groups of repetitions which he had sung) and constructed a sequence that would follow the contours of the orchestration. I wanted the peak to be round about the one-hour mark, which coincided with the centre of the only accompanying phrase that lasts two whole repetitions, that for the piccolo trumpet.

In fact, in all the repetitions that he sang he never once sang the phrase ‘correctly’ (!) i.e. exactly as the old man, and I devised a series of mnemonics for classifying his versions. One of these was “Ruby’s Arms” as he often made the second phrase of the tramp’s song into the phrase that occurs when he sings, in his own song, “(I will say goodbye) to Ruby’s arms (though my heart is breaking)”.

I still have somewhere all the takes that we did – the album contains about a third. I did later re-use some of the material that isn’t on the CD for a B version when the record company made a single release. This starts with Tom and myself, and then the old man is gradually added, rather than the obverse which is what we do on the A version, and which is the way all other versions were made. Apparently this single got to number 8 in the Dutch pop charts in 1993.

Gavin Bryars

Gavin Bryars