Farewell to Arms

There is a universal perception of meditated and/or striven for completeness in the number seventy that transcends time and place. Which is why this number resonates in totally disparate cultures and religions.  A sensation of coming full circle as we are about to be clutched and vaporized by our mortality. Whether we have led fulfilling lives or will be redeemed is another matter.

Not that we need to reach the proverbial three score and ten to ponder about all this. We have harboured this perception for millennia.

Why is number 70 preying on my mind? Because today, December 7, (there goes the happy fluke of another seven) Tom Waits turns seventy. It’s thanks to one of my LinkedIn friends that I discovered his voice. A gruffness which grates on the ears in such a haunting way that you are thankful for the years of alcohol abuse with which he has sandpapered his rasping vocal cords for decades. There’s also a soulful mesh of vulnerability and defiance in the contours of his croaking which infuses both the text and subtext of his lyrics. I imagine his years of living rough fired by a love/hate relationship of his middle-class roots also have something to do with his deliberate and self-conscious hobo image.

And while Waits has made both a life and an art of going against the grain, in ‘Ruby’s Arms’ he threads a piercingly tested romanticism spun with unadulterated lachrymose lamentation. Its power as complete as our collective unconscious seventy.

To begin with, Waits heralds his heart-wrenching war ballad with the vibrations of an alto and baritone horn (at least that’s what they sound to my ears) to instantly trigger a military setting even though they give way to piano and strings. The lyrics tell of a recruit stealing out of the house at the crack of dawn to head to the railway station and subsequently to the battlefield.  Meanwhile, the woman he loves is still fast asleep. Nor can the connotations of blood, passion and something infinitely precious be missed in the choice of her name – Ruby.

Significantly, he has chosen to say a silent goodbye that refuses to look her in the eye and take a last embrace with promises of letters and the hope of returning. In fact, he deliberately tears away shunning all memory of her and their togetherness except for a scarf plucked from her ‘clothesline’. Saying ‘goodbye’ and likely for the last time redefines harrowing grief. There is no painless way to part. More so, if you have suppressed your emotions all your life but now the heartache is cracking your armour. At this point, all masks are shed and there is nowhere to hide. That most men are conditioned to ever put on a brave face and refuse to shed a tear renders a more shattering collapse.

The song, in fact, unfolds as an interior monologue that compels the recruit to confront his naked feelings like never before. He takes one last look at Ruby’s sleeping face, fingers through her clothes, hurries past her chest of drawers and feels his way down the darkened hallway in a ghostly daze. These are the motions of someone who is both bolting and clinging. There are two reasons for the sensation of ghostliness.

Firstly, he knows that their story is over and even bitterly envisages another soldier taking his place in Ruby’s arms before Christmas whether he survives or not. Is he being bitter because she is not so steadfast in her love for him, or is he beginning to wallow in self-pity?

Secondly, his former stoicism has crumbled. What makes this song so incredibly moving is that his heart ‘is breaking’ precisely at the point of shedding his suppressed emotions. No wonder his eyes pick out the ‘broken window chimes’ and that ‘everything is turning blue’ because he is seeing his unmasked, emotional self for the first time and seeing his emotions reflected in all that is broken and rainy. How poignant to note that the break of day denies rather than bolsters hope. The moment of self-awareness and self-revelation spell out raw emotion which he never shared and never will. Nor is there anything he can do about it except tear away furtively from Ruby’s arms.

That Waits reiterates and adumbrates saying goodbye to the warmth of Ruby’s embrace much more than the tenderness of kissing her lips is also very telling. For an embrace demands full-body contact, heart pounding against heart, while inhaling each other’s smell, exhaling entirety.

The irony of course, is that he has denied acknowledging his emotions until his call to arms. He is staring helplessly at an unfillable emotional void which gravel voice; wail of strings and reverberating brass hollow out even more.

I have a hunch that Waits dug into or resurrected Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms when he wrote this song and came up with his own take on an emotionally blighted recruit crushed by regret. If not, the affinity strikes me as one of those weird coincidences. For like Hemingway, Waits’  sparse prose jolts us into realising the cruel pun in the meaning of ‘arms’ as upper limbs and ‘arms’ as weapons. How many champions of war ever think about that letting go of killing machines avoids letting go of love?

What an achingly beautiful blue flame turning into white heat of a song!

Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. Beautiful song!

    Great Tom Waits!

    Wonderful article!

    I am unfortunately at odds with English but I loved Tom from the moment I heard him for the first time because it’s not at all necessary to know what he sings about – you still understand this, feel, sense, perceive…

    Tom is the blues himself – all power, all energy of a musical piece is manifested through his performance and transmitted to the audience.
    Tom is definitely a genius… at least a musical genius…

    I can’t say whether Tom really was putting in the meaning you are writing about, however, your article and your analysis definitely correspond to the level of his work.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you, Smartus, for your time and enthusiastic response. Unlike you, Waits is a totally new discovery for me and I am still getting to know his songs while falling under the spell of his gravel voice. ‘Ruby’s Arm’ struck a most resonant note right from the first brass note to the final cadence imparting the very last farewell.

      • In my opinion, Tom Waits is definitely one of the best contemporary musicians, along with The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan…

        Good music, first, emotions and nativeness, and then mind – something tribal, mystical, that is inherent in the best blues and that’s exactly what every Waits’ song has…

  2. Noemi, each article you write becomes an experience: a cultural one, because your articles give us the Roots of your background and it’s a Learning.
    Then, I can have many insights, because your reflections are thought provoking. You mix your deep thoughts departing from a poem, a lyric, an event, and you enrich the Reading, or listening, with your feelings and perceptions, to those ones We can feel connected.
    Last, your writing becomes a New poem in itself…
    This is What makes me Enjoy through reading your articles.
    And … I learn English as Well, improving my language skills.
    Tom Waits, I loved This singer since I was a girl, and still do…
    Thank you!

  3. “The voice of Tom Waits: as if it had been immersed in a vat of whiskey, then hung in a smokehouse for a few months and finally taken out and hit with a car”. Daniel Durchholz, music critic.
    … And I think there is far beyond the sound of this vocal expression by Tom Waits, which I really like … I don’t think it’s just a calculated use of the voice, as it happens too easily today in the name of the god of money, where a person who has the gift of having a beautiful or even a particular voice in itself is considered an artist … Certainly it is a gift, a great gift, the voice, of course … But art, which is a viscerally deep expression , is another thing, as I understand it … It is a sensitivity that vibrates, constant emotion to communicate, in the best way that one has and that one can. It is a sigh, a breath … An experience that you live, that is be inside … Thank you Naomi for having pitted and expressed this experience of yours … it is true, you write very well, you make yourself feel at ease, always coming … it is beautiful …

    • Grazie mille, Claudio, per il tuo apprezzamento e, la citazione precisa di Daniel Durchholz inoltre, per i tuoi commenti perspicaci sull’autentica espressione artistica. Non manca mai di stupirmi e commuovermi come assomiglia a una fioritura del divino.

      Thank you so much, Claudio, for your appreciation and Daniel Durchholz’s spot-on quotation; and, moreover, for your insightful comments about authentic artistic expression. It never fails to amaze and move me how it resembles a flowering of the divine.

      • …Good morning, perhaps it may seem that it goes a little further, even if this is not my intent, but continuing to know some of your articles / thoughts / expressions of you as art, I confirm that what you write is intense and light , comes as a confidential dialogue … it’s nice to read you and share … thanks

  4. Thank you so much for your heartfelt appreciation. It’s not easy putting yourself into the shoes of soldiers parting for war. If only we could all become conscientious objectors!

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘help’ but I am grateful for the time you took to read and comment. Do tell me who you are for it’s a good feeling to address you by name. Thanks again.

  5. Hi! Noami.
    A Call to Arms! The whole way you have written this has touched my heart very deeply.
    I believe your description of a soldier’s feelings may have been well documented in the case of some soldiers as they leave their loved ones.
    As I read your blog, I could almost put myself there as he was leaving Ruby , you write very well.
    I don’t think this has helped very much, but i really enjoyed reading your blog.

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