Popular music is usually built on the raging hormones of adolescence; the overwrought coming-of-age yearnings that underpin countless songs from the Supremes to the Undertones — teenage kicks that are found or lost “in the darkness of the dances in the school canteen” as Billy Bragg put it. Songs of childhood itself are much rarer.
When childhood appears in song it is often as a kind of therapy — an excavation of memory — as adult songwriters try to make sense of their past, as in Cattle and Cane (1983) by the Go-Betweens:
“I recall a school boy coming home,
Through fields of cane,
To a house of tin and timber.”
This is adult nostalgia; a dreamlike search for meaning. “Childhood days in a shimmer and a haze” sang Nick Cave in Give Us a Kiss, and we are adrift in his subconscious. The gentle heat of the song takes us back to the familiar territory of sexual awakening: “Ah just one sip sip sip, before you slip slip slip away,” and the perfect, aching line, “you’re still hanging out in my dreams, in your sister’s shoes and your blue jeans.”
In We Are Going to Be Friends, Jack White offers up something quite different: uncomplicated innocence through the eyes of a child, a song meant to evoke nostalgia but wonderfully free of subtext:
“Walk with me, Suzy Lee,
Through the park and by the tree,
We will rest upon the ground,
And look at all the bugs we found.”
As ever it is in the cracks that we find Tom Waits. His 1978 song, Kentucky Avenue, plays both these hands at the same time. The words are from the mouth of a child, but the voice is that of a man. The type of man who might live in a cardboard box under a bridge; a man who plays the piano with all the heartbreak of a failing third marriage. We are back in a magical nostalgic landscape but, as with the White Stripes, we are not remembering, we are actually there, looking through the eyes of children — powerfully in the present tense — running, planning and dreaming of the future; back amidst the liquid conversations and limitless possibilities of the playground.
Within a few lines of Kentucky Avenue we have whole world,
“Well Eddie Grace’s Buick got four bullet holes in the side,
Charley Delisle is sittin’ at the top of an avocado tree,”
And then, like all great adventure songs, there is a direct invitation to jump into the action:
“Man, I got half a pack of Lucky Strikes so come along with me…”
Tom Waits is never afraid to chuck everything into the pot — he sets the scene with image after image, from pockets full of macadamia nuts, to the mysterious sounding ‘gooseneck risers’, to a eucalyptus tree shaped like a hunchback. The cast of characters is equally long: Dicky Faulkner, Bobby Goodmanson, Ronnie Arnold, Hilda, Joey Navinski are all in there and remarkably, they are all real people from Tom Waits’ own childhood.
And just when you think these boys are getting ahead of themselves in their wildness, there is a lovely reminder of how young they are: “let me tie you up with kite string and I’ll show you the scabs on my knee.” There is no hint of adolescence here; no interest in girls. Hilda is just someone that Joey Navinski said “put her tongue in his mouth” — an act as mysterious, thrilling, and probably as dangerous, as their plan to “go down to the hobo jungle and kill some rattlesnakes with a trowel.”
And then Kentucky Avenue takes us to another place, where it’s just him and us and we can escape all of this. The strings swell and there is a beautiful twist:
“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings,
And tie ’em to your shoulders and your feet,
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs,
And we’ll bury them tonight out in the cornfield.”
A more touching portrait of the magic of childhood friendship it is hard to imagine. Only Tom Waits could pull this off and yet he has often distanced himself from the song, calling it “a little dramatic; a little puffed up,” seemingly ignoring his own brilliant back catalogue stuffed full of dramatic and puffed up songs. Perhaps the truth is that it is too direct, too close to home. Tom Waits’ world has always been one of dark corners, half-truths and Southern Gothic mythologising, and yet despite its romanticism, Kentucky Avenue contains real people inhabiting his own childhood. Waits grew up on Kentucky Avenue in Whittier, California and his best friend, Kipper, was indeed afflicted with polio.
“I didn’t understand what polio was,” he said in 1981. “I just knew it took him longer to get to the bus stop than me.”
As Kentucky Avenue builds to an emotional peak it becomes a true song of romanticism and escape, in the long American tradition: songs of the highway, songs of the promise of a better place just beyond the mountains; Springsteen’s Thunder Road through the eyes of a ten year-old.
“Just put a church key in your pocket,
We’ll hop that freight train in the hall,
We’ll slide down the drain all the way,
To New Orleans in the fall.”
And yet the tone is completely at odds with Thunder Road’s youthful exhilaration and boundless horizons. Kentucky Avenue ripples with a grief that stirs just beneath the surface; yes, the unspoken grief of children refusing to see the limitations of a wheelchair, but also the deep current of nostalgic grief that follows all grown-ups in their wake — the memories of a lost world that can never be returned to.