Listen To This: God’s Away On Business

Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood / Join the mob

The inimitable Mr. Waits

Some art gets dated quickly, like sci-fi movies or disco hits. Other art exists closer to the unmoving hub of culture’s spinning wheel. It can seem prophetic to us, but only because what’s being communicated is never irrelevant; never subject to fad. A good example of the latter is Tom Wait’s “God’s Away On Business,” released 18 years ago but suddenly, bitingly descriptive of our unhappy present situation.

The song starts like an aggro Kurt Weil stomp, with oompah brass and trash can drums. Waits then delivers some uncanny lyrics in a raspy mutter that occasionally turns into a strangled Howlin’ Wolf overtone. They’re worth quoting in full, just so you can feel their accreting, creepy resonance.

I’d sell your heart to the junkman, baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you’re looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch
You’re out of luck, you’re out of luck

Ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking

There’s leak, there’s a leak, in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers

God’s away, God’s away
God’s away on business
Business

Digging up the dead with a shovel and a pick
It’s a job, it’s a job
Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood
Join the mob, join the mob

It’s all over, it’s all over

It’s all over

And there’s a leak, there’s a leak, in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business
Business

Ha!

Goddamn there’s always such a big temptation
To be good, to be good
There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby
It’s a deal, it’s a deal
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On business
Business

I narrow my eyes like a coin slot baby
Let her ring, let her ring

God’s away, God’s away
God’s away on business

“I don’t know what to say, it’s song logic,” Waits responded when asked about the meaning of the lyric. “I don’t know. Perhaps he’s away indefinitely. Perhaps he was never here. It feels sometimes in the world that God is away on business and he’s never coming back.”

I don’t have to explain why a song about plagues and the mob and hopelessness and isolation is relevant right now. I just want to remind you that art is long and life is short, and I’ve never seen a clearer look inside Donald Trump’s head than when I listen to this tune.

Also, if you want a less darker experience of “God’s Away On Business,” here’s a delightful mashup with the Cookie Monster. Googly eyes make everything better; even the End Times.

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.

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