Cover Art Review: Tom Waits' Rain Dogs / by Neal Auch


The second instalment in my series of cover art reviews is Tom Waits' 1985 album Rain Dogs.  Waits is a bit of a departure from my usual musical diet of creepy dark ambient and weirdo experimental, but this is an interesting piece of music accompanied by an absolutely wonderful and perfectly matched photo by Anders Petersen.

Over a career spanning decades Waits has honed to near perfection an image of himself as a kind of vagabond poet who sleeps in ditches and stirs his brandy with a rusty nail and croons passionately in a gravely voice about long lost loves.  He's kind of like Bukowski meets Captain Beefheart meets a 1920s train-hopping tramp.  Along with Swordfishtrombones and Frank's Wild Years, Rain Dogs is an album about the urban dispossessed and, fittingly, the album was composed during a two-month stint in a basement room in a rough part of Manhattan.

The cover art for Rain Dogs is by photographer Anders Petersen, whose work I greatly admire and who I've written about previously on this blog.  The shot comes from Petersen's famous work Cafe Lehmitz, which life at a dive bar on the Reeperbahn in the late 1960s with stunning intimacy.  Petersen's subjects were on the fringes of society: many were drunks, addicts, sex workers, etc.  In other words: Petersen's subjects were precisely the kinds of people Waits' songs seek to give voice to.

In my inaugural cover art review I suggested three criteria for a piece to work: relevance, consistency, and quality.  I intended these as vague guidelines and I can certainly imagine a successful piece that flouts one or all of these "rules".  That being said, the cover of Rain Dogs fits my criteria as perfectly as I can imagine.  The image is relevant thematically and consistent tonally, as is evident simply from understanding the context of both the record and the photo.  But the relevance goes deeper when we note how much the man on the cover looks like Tom Waits.  This guy is absolutely not Tom Waits -- the couple depicted are named Rose and Lily -- but the resemblance is so striking as to almost be a bit creepy.  The last criteria, quality, is also undeniable, at least for me.  I love Petersen's work and I love this image, I love how intimate the moment is, how real the emotion is.  I love the weird crop on the laughing woman's face.  I love the odd peacefulness of the man, perhaps drunk and near falling asleep on her chest.  It's all fucking perfect.