Anything more than a passing acquaintance on my part with rock and other modern music is down to one of two people: my 20-something daughter, Avital, and my brother, Leonard, a London-based entertainment lawyer who has spent decades in the music business. When I'm over for a visit, he's likely to put on a CD by a singer he favors and await my reaction.
Thus was I first exposed, a couple of years ago, to California-born veteran rocker Tom Waits. My introduction to his oeuvre was "What's He Building in There?," whose brilliant, sly lyrics parodying the suspicious small-town mind are spoken, not sung, and whose effect is spooky, to say the least.
Listening to more, I strongly sensed that this Waits was an acquired taste - one, moreover, that my brother's family were determined not to acquire. Any mention of his name, any move to play his songs, elicited loud cries of disapproval.
My brother was clearly a fan; the family clearly weren't; and I was undecided - until the day I left, when my brother drove me to the airport and on the way played two melancholy Waits ballads: "On the Nickel" and "Ruby's Arms." I was so utterly taken with both that I refused to get out of the car until he had promised to send me the songs.
FOR those unacquainted with the singer, here are some descriptions of his vocal abilities - all, I can now confirm, fairly accurate:
"Tom Waits' voice is like the serenade of a drunken train engineer who is aiming the train into the side of a cliff."
"Tom Waits' voice is like broken glass and gravel and fingernails scraping on a blackboard."
And from the London Times's Richard Owen in 2007: "One critic described [Waits'] voice as sounding 'like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car.'"
ON THE face of it, it's difficult to fathom how a voice which runs the gamut between a growling whisper and a hoarse bark, with only the rare errant sweet note, could have a claim to beauty. And yet many of Waits' songs are beautiful - haunting, insightful, poignant and deeply touching.
Part of it is the highly original lyrics and arrangements, including some which soar into exquisite orchestral music (a treatment Waits has, regrettably, largely eschewed since the mid-1980s, calling it too stifling); but the beauty is undisputedly centered in the singer himself - a performer who paradoxically has, over the decades, cultivated an image of personal weirdness.
WHICH prompts the question: How can ugly be beautiful?
"Waits is unique," my brother reflected. "There's no-one else like him. His music reaches down into a place where other music doesn't go - probably too scared of who or what it might find there!"
While a song like the pretend-German "Kommienezuspedt" - in which Waits sounds alternately like someone being strangled and the one doing the strangling - is admittedly hard to stomach, other tracks from the same album, Alice (2002), are outstanding, each one different, each a surprise, whether bizarre ("Everything You Can Think"; "We're All Mad Here"), offbeat ("No-One Knows I'm Gone"; "Lost in the Harbour"), sultry ("Alice"; "Watch Her Disappear"), or deceptively simple ("Flower's Grave"; "I'm Still Here"). There's even a track ("Reeperbahn") with a strong klezmer influence.
And if you still don't believe the man's an original, listen to "Poor Edward" and "Table Top Joe."
"He's up there with the best that popular music has ever produced," my brother said. "It's a case of expect the unexpected - for example, the contrast created when that wrecked voice sings the tenderest of ballads. It gives them a raw honesty, an openness and an authenticity."
I have to agree; I've listened to "Ruby's Arms" (1980) on dozens of occasions, and been moved each time.
So here's an attempted answer to my own question: What looks like ugliness can open the way to a deeper, unexpected beauty.
CHANCES are you've probably sat with a child or grandchild and watched Walt Disney's delightful film Beauty and the Beast, and I wonder whether you share my feeling: that the Beast is far more interesting - and appealing - in his beastly persona. Once the spell is removed from the castle and he returns to being, as it were, a mere prince, he becomes a rather plasticky, Ken-like figure - that amazing transformation scene notwithstanding.
Is the Beast ugly? One would have to say yes. And yet, there's a beauty there, too - an authenticity, as my brother put it, that makes one look beneath his surface appearance.
For what? For character, for individuality, and - amusing as it sounds in this particular context - for humanity.
A FEW years ago, American David Horvath and his wife Sun-Min Kim co-created a toy line that has become hyper-popular. They called it Ugly Dolls, and named their company - what else? - Pretty Ugly. In 2005, it brought in over $2.5 million in sales.
A earlier generation of little girls had gone gaga over Cabbage Patch Kids - a range of soft, fat-faced dolls that looked as if they spent every spare minute stuffing themselves with food until they were about ready to burst. Appealing? Legions of preteens thought so.
Horvath's mother designed toys for Mattel. "She would bring home her beautiful unique prototypes, but when I saw them in the toy store, they looked the same as everything else," Horvath told Time magazine.
Was he intimating that beauty can be... boring?
LET'S be honest here. Almost every person alive, asked if they would rather be beautiful or ugly, wouldn't hesitate to say the former. Physical beauty is a calling card with the potential to smooth the path of life for its possessor in ways that make the rest of us envious, sometimes resentful.
Never mind that it can shape its owner's personality in problematic ways and create its own kind of insecurity; modern society worships beauty, and modern man - especially woman - is ready to suffer in sometimes unbelievable ways to achieve it.
And yet those who lack conventional good looks needn't despair. There's a reason why those offbeat dolls are so well-loved: because they strike a human chord.
We have flaws? So do they. We're less than physically ideal? So are they. How comforting.
It's true that Barbies, with their chocolate-box prettiness, have maintained their popularity, but important to remember: They aren't the supreme, or only, model for feminine appeal.
Does any normal woman have legs that long?
MANY years ago, a British Sunday newspaper carried out an interesting experiment. It took portraits of some of the most beautiful actresses and other legendary celebrities - Marilyn Monroe was one - and superimposed them on top of each other. Ditto with the most-admired men.
The premise was that the resulting two images, an amalgam of all those stunning features, would be a super-beautiful man and a super-beautiful woman.
The result was disappointing. In each case, the final picture was an uninspiring, ordinary looking face that wouldn't stand out in a crowd. The reason? I think it was because the individuality, the human particularity, had been obliterated.
Whoever coined the expression "Beauty is skin-deep" clearly knew what they were talking about.