Basement Songs: Tom Waits, “Kentucky Avenue”

Written by Basement Songs, Music

The first time I heard Tom Waits’ “Kentucky Avenue” was in my AP English class back in 1987. My teacher, a brilliant “Mr. Chips” type of character named Mr. Denman, transformed what could have been a yearlong excursion into literary hell into a brilliant combination of English, music, history, film and theater — it was more like AP Pop Culture than AP English. I had many great failures in that room (including a wild misinterpretation of Robert Frosts’s “The Mending Wall”), but those eight months in Denman’s class have a profound effect on the man that I am.

One morning, entering the classroom, I heard the acid-drenched voice of Tom Waits crackling from the small record player sitting on the floor. Adding to the moment were the hisses and pops of Denman’s abused copy of Waits’s album, Blue Valentine, which probably never met its sleeve after the day it came out of the cellophane. I know for fact that Denman treated his records like shit; on any given day, you were likely to find six LPs stacked on top of each other in a corner near the heater. As a music fan, I found it appalling, yet somewhat rebellious and cool, too. “Kentucky Avenue” floated through the air, yet the commotion of students entering and books being shuffled made it near impossible to understand what Waits was singing. Still, the melody was so haunting and beautiful, it stuck with me for the rest of the day. Years later, I heard the song again while hanging out with my friend Matt. Finally able to focus on the poignant lyrics, I quickly identified the song as a favorite.

Waits sings with such feeling and conviction, you can’t help but wonder if he’s singing about someone in his own youth. There is a deep pain seeping up from underneath his reflections of childhood, and an abrasive honesty to every word he sings. He purposely leads us to believe that the song is just a flashback of youth gone wild. Then, with a sudden impact, the lyrics reveal the true story:

I’ll take a rusty nail and scratch your initials on my arm
And I’ll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore

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 in the cornfield

This isn’t just some song about two punks; this is a song about two friends, or perhaps siblings, one of whom is disabled. The other is doing everything within his power to make his companion feel “normal,” as if there were such a thing.

Memories of the many misadventures Matt and I shared arise whenever I take a ride down Kentucky Avenue, in particular the time we tried shoplifting comic books from the convenience store near the city water tower. We came out of the store with 20 books under our shirts and fled on our bicycles, only to have the comics spill out on to the pavement in the middle of the crosswalk of a busy intersection. We scrambled to pick up the books and raced away, scared shitless. Later, laughing at our idiocy, we felt like bad boys, though we were the farthest thing from it. Those comic books helped build the foundation of our relationship; we studied the art, then read and reread the stories. In the backyard, we would imagine ourselves as Green Lantern or Superman, joining forces to defeat evil and save the world (getting the girl wasn’t so important back then). A couple of years later, the two of us would trace over the pages of those comics, trying to learn how to draw the images of the musclebound heroes we wanted to be.

I store these memories in my hip pocket for quick access during those times when all I can recall are the sour notes on which our friendship ended. Once we were young; once, we loved each other like brothers.

The other person I think of when I listen to “Kentucky Avenue” is my son, Jacob. He is getting older, asking questions about his disease and noticing that no one else he knows has cystic fibrosis. I fear for him. I don’t want the monster living inside his body to prevent him from having both good and bad childhood experiences, like the ones I had. I want him to feel as “normal” as the other kids in his class. I believe that all parents want this for their children; all parents hope that their children will have wonderful lives growing up. But all parents also have that fear that something terrible may happen to their son or daughter. Oh, we may not talk about it, but the fear resides inside of us. For me that fear is ever-present — each morning when he does his breathing treatments and every time I hear him cough.

If I could get a hacksaw and cut away the cystic fibrosis from Jacob’s life, I would do it in a heartbeat.

One of the greatest lessons I took away from that AP English class was carpe diem; to live life to the fullest every day we’re alive. We did our best, Matt and I. We will never again run wild like the kids we were, and the next time we’ll be able to laugh at each others’ mistakes is when we’re side-by-side in heaven. For Jake, I hope to instill in him the same philosophy my great teacher taught me. I will do all that I can to ensure that he can make mistakes and experience life; I will do everything I can to make sure he can take a trip down his own Kentucky Avenue someday and sing about it.