Reading this back, I really don’t enjoy the style of writing the instructor had us use. It feels like a forced (and cringy) opinion on the song and being that it’s a paper written for a class there was a need to make obvious statements in my analysis, which just reads weird to me. I wrote it about 2 years ago so maybe I’m too far detached from what the purpose and goals of the assignment were, but reading it now, I almost don’t want to post this. If anyone even takes the time to read this, just know that if I were to write about this today, it would be vastly different, but it’s sort of “fun” to read?
Just don’t take it too seriously.
“Rhetorical Analysis” written for Honors Writing at Oregon State University and submitted December 3, 2017.
Tom Waits’ album Alice was originally created as part of an experimental opera in 1992 for Hamburg’s Thalia Theater (Alice, 2002). The album drew inspiration from author Lewis Carroll and his obsession with Alice Liddell, the young girl who inspired Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the book, during Alice’s encounter with the Cheshire cat, it tells her “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad” (Carrol 82). One song from the album is titled “We’re All Mad Here” and repeats the title throughout the song, giving the impression the point of view may be from the Cheshire cat. This particular song takes on a rather somber mood depicting death and sin, but there are subtleties in the text that hint at deeper meanings beyond what is directly stated, which is why more analysis into the context surrounding this song is necessary to understanding it fully.
This analysis will ignore the musical aspects of the song “We’re All Mad Here” and focus on the meaning behind the text and the context surrounding the song. Although the musical choices made by Waits do add to the mood of the song, this analysis will ignore that aspect of the piece and focus on digging out the meanings behind each line to bring clarity to why he made the language choices he did while writing it. There are subtle hints dispersed throughout the song that indicate Waits was trying to persuade his audience that author Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. The methods Waits utilizes quite a bit are the Aristotelian Appeals of pathos and logos. He especially uses pathos with words like Devil, mud, dead, and decomposing, which all have some eerie and negative connotations. Waits’ use of logos with words and phrases such as “We’re all Mad Here,” heart-shaped, rose, and Mrs. Carroll all reference different aspects of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Much of Waits’ lyrics seem to be a series of nonsensical lines so, his effectiveness in clearly stating his claim, which is being deduced as his implication that Carroll was a pedophile, is not totally effective. However, if his goal is to make his audience as confused as Alice was while falling down the rabbit hole, then he does so quite effectively.
Another important factor that will be analyzed is the mental state of Waits himself. It has been rumored among his fans that he has Asperger’s Syndrome and Waits even mentioned in interviews that as a child he thought he might have a developmental disorder because of the way certain sounds affected him (O’Hagan). Although the lyrics of this song paint a vivid picture, this analysis will try to decipher the meanings behind some of the phrases, and investigate the man behind the text to hopefully bring that picture into focus.
In a 2006 interview with Sean O’Hagan, Waits recalled the sound his sheets would make as he was heading to bed at night as a child: “It wasn’t a cool thing. It was a frightening thing. I mean, I thought I was mentally ill, that maybe I was retarded. I’d put my hand on a sheet like this [rubbing his shirt] and it’d sound like sandpaper. Or a plane going by” (O’Hagan). He was also described by O’Hagan to be rocking back and forth in his seat while recalling the memory. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, three common signs of Asperger’s Syndrome are: Avoiding eye contact or staring at others; projecting unusual facial expressions or postures; lacking social reciprocity; and having heightened sensitivity to loud noises, lights, or strong tastes or textures (APA). There are of course other symptoms of the disorder, but a person does not need to exhibit all symptoms in order to be diagnosed. These three, however, seem to fit Waits quite well. In interviews and performances available online, Waits has a distinct slinky, slouched, posture about him. If Waits does have a developmental disorder, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, it would likely have contributed to the nonsensical, scattered nature of the song.
There are performances and interviews that show Waits acting in peculiar ways, demonstrating his unusual stance and performance style. One example where this is particularly evident is from his 1999 performance on the Late Show with David Letterman where Waits performed his song, “Chocolate Jesus.” He is seen slinking around on a sawdust-covered platform in an almost cat-like manner (AquaticBigfoot). Another example is from his 1979 interview with Don Lane where he is often seen fidgeting or failing to maintain eye contact throughout the whole conversation; Waits comes on stage sort of reluctantly, chain-smokes the entire time, is almost constantly slouched over and shifting in his chair, often rubs his face and neck, and mumbles some of his responses (JensdePens). It is apparent through interviews such as this, that Waits is highly intelligent, but the way he sees the world is not necessarily the same as the average person. Although none of these examples definitively proves Waits has Asperger’s Syndrome or is even on the Autism Spectrum, but it provides some context into Waits as a person and as a performer. It also shows that his way of thinking is a little off-beat, which could be contributing to his language choices and style of writing in “We’re All Mad Here.”
The first line from “We’re All Mad Here,” is “Hang me in a bottle like a cat,” which not only alludes to the Cheshire cat, but is also similar to a line from William Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing. In the play, Benedick says to Don Pedro, “If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me. . .” (Shakespeare 100). The hanging of a cat from a tree was a sport in olden days where bowmen would use the cat for target practice (Brewer 147). Right off the bat, the song begins with a bit of morbid imagery, setting the tone for the rest of the piece with clear usage of pathos and logos.
The next line, “let the crows pick me clean but for my hat” continues the story from the first line: The speaker wants to be hung up, shot, and now left to be picked at by crows until all that is left is his hat. The next three lines of the verse are:
Where the wailing of a baby
Meets the footsteps of the dead
We’re all mad here (Waits)
This whole section seems to imply the hanging is taking place in a cemetery or perhaps the last place their dead loved ones have walked – the children of those who have died (babies) wail and mourn the dead where they once walked. Another potential meaning behind the second and third lines of the first verse are in reference to the Queen of Hearts, who seems to be constantly wailing and screaming like an irreverent child, always yelling for her underlings to chop off the heads of those who contradict, disobey, or simply annoy her (Carroll). This is an example of Waits use of logos to try to tie in references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
“As the Devil sticks his flag into the mud” starts out the next verse and it’s reasonable to assume that the mention of the Devil would imply some sort of sin is being referenced. When someone sticks a flag into the ground, it is usually a mark for staking claim on something (think Iwo Jima or the Moon landing). The fact that the flag is being stuck into mud implies there is some sort of mess involved. It has been speculated that Carroll (age 30) asked to marry Alice Liddell (age 11) and this proposal understandably upset her parents, thus terminating the Liddell-Carroll friendship; others believe it was a matter of misunderstanding where the Liddells confronted Carroll about his friendship with their daughter and being embarrassed by the inquiry, Carroll parted ways with the family (Fitzgerald). It is said that many of the pages from Carroll’s diary from this period are now missing so, we may never truly know whether he had pedophiliac tendencies or if he was truly a child at heart who enjoyed the company of children (Gray). The logos and pathos in this verse supports the idea that Waits believed, and was trying to imply that Carroll made some inappropriate action toward Alice Liddell.
The second line of the second verse, “Mrs. Carroll has run off with Reverend Judd,” may at first seem like arbitrary names. However, the coincidence of the name Mrs. Carroll shouldn’t be overlooked. Lewis Carroll was never married and his real name was Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Woolf). If the rumors about a botched, ill-received marriage proposal are true, or even if they are not, its possible Waits was making a statement about what he believed the truth was. It can come across as confusing because the previous line mentions the Devil, implying sin, but to give, presumably Alice Liddell, the name of Mrs. Carroll could be taken as Waits’ approval for the marriage. Or even still, it could be indicating Waits believed there was some delusion in Carroll for ever believing he would be able to make Alice his wife. The name “Reverend Judd” does not come up in any stories or references to Alice Liddell, however Alice’s father was a Reverend, as was Carroll (Woolf). It is possible Waits chose the name Judd simply for musical purposes, to rhyme with mud. This section proves to be a bit unclear, which as stated earlier, could be due to Waits’ choice of writing style to make the listener as confused as Alice was in Wonderland.
The remaining portion of the second verse further implies a sin (or sins) have been committed and because of those sins, the person whom Waits is referring to will wind up lonely in Hell. This, once again, alludes to the rumored relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell:
Hell is such a lonely place
And your big expensive face
Will never last (Waits)
The third verse picks up where the second verse left off and is clearly talking about death and decay, with clear examples of logos that tie in more aspects of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
And you’ll die with the rose still on your lips
And in the time the heart-shaped bone
That was your hips
And all the worms they will climb
The rugged ladder of your spine
We’re all mad here (Waits)
The language Waits uses here further portrays Wonderland, such as his use of the words rose, lips, and heart, which elicit imagery of the Queen of Hearts and her garden. Stepping back to the previous verse where Waits says, “And your big expensive face
Will never last” does not seem to correlate to either Alice Liddell, or Lewis Carroll, but could be referencing the Queen of Hearts as well by referring to her wealth.
The final verse uses more logos to take us back to the Cheshire cat; when the cat lurks in the darkness and all that is visible are his big glowing eyes, and grin while perched high up on a tree limb:
And my eyeballs roll this terrible terrain
We’re all inside a decomposing train
And your eyes will die like fish
And the shore of your face will turn to bone (Waits)
As to where the decomposing train, eyes dying like fish or the face turning to bone comes from, there is not a clear correlation to Alice Liddell or Carroll’s book, but its evident Waits is hinting, once again, at death. The decomposing train could be him creating imagery on how our bodies are slowly breaking down as we move, non-stop, through life like a train traveling onward toward the horizon. Waits’ description of the eyes elicits images of eyes drying out like a fish that’s washed up on a bank. He continues that washed-up-fish imagery on the final line in the verse where he mentions the word “shore.” This entire verse builds on the idea of drying out, aging, and dying. This verse lacks a bit of clarity, which brings to question the effectiveness of getting his point across to the listener, but it does paint an intense, albeit nonsensical, dreamy (nightmare-y) picture of dying.
The whole song takes on a rather somber mood, which is fitting when considering the story behind author, Lewis Carroll and the girl he was rumored to be infatuated with, Alice Liddell. Tom Waits has proven through his musical career that he is an eccentric character. Regardless of whether his antics are a result of Asperger’s Syndrome, some other disorder, or simply his own quirkiness, after uncovering some potential meanings behind the lyrics of “We’re All Mad Here,” this demonstrates he digs for deeper meanings in his music. He seems to put a lot of effort into carefully choosing language to elicit imagery, references notable individuals such as Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, and draws on emotion through his use of this language. Waits effectively creates a confusing lyrical piece in “We’re All Mad Here” using obscure phrases, yet still provides enough hints to persuade one to believe Lewis Carroll was a pedophile.
American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders : DSM-5. 5th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Print. 15 Oct. 2015.
The DSM 5 is a credible source used by professionals in the field of psychology. It is good to get some background on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it is diagnosed in order to get an idea of whether the syndrome is applicable to Tom Waits or not.
AquaticBigfoot. “Tom Waits – Chocolate Jesus – 1999.” Online Video
Clip. YouTube.com. YouTube, 3 Nov. 2006. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
This clip is of Tom Waits performing “Chocolate Jesus” on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1999 and shows Waits’ eccentric performance style, which is essential to understanding what type singer/song-writer he is. This clip also shows a brief interview with Waits by Letterman, which further displays Waits’ character, but in non-performance setting.
Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham. A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 17th Ed. Rev and
Corrected. ed. London: Cassell, 1880. Print. Pg 147.
Brewer’s book provides an organized list of phrase and fable from the time, in 1880. The phrases are dated and not all of them necessarily correlate to modern day phrases, but due to the references in the examined document, “We’re All Mad Here,” it is key to understanding outdated phrases. There are not many references or sources online that clearly explain the phrase, “hang me in a bottle like a cat,” like Brewer’s book does.
Carroll, Lewis, and Peake, Mervyn. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 1st U.S. ed. New
York: Bloomsbury, 2000. Print. Pg 82.
Carroll’s book is a fairytale about a young girl named Alice who tumbles down a rabbit hole where she discovers fascinating characters and nonsensical wonder. It is important to study the original text that the wording of “We’re All Mad Here” has been based on so as to be able to pick up on some of the subtleties in the verses.
Fitzgerald, Ian. “Death of Lewis Carroll.” History Today 48.1 (1998): 36+. Academic
OneFile. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
This is a peer-reviewed article that talks about the life and death of Lewis Carroll and goes into some detail about the Carroll-Liddell friendship to bring some perspective to the uncertainty behind what ended the friendship. This article is helpful because it leaves the answer sort of ambiguous while still providing some context to the story, which is kind of what Waits does with his song.
Gray, Margaret. “Review: Exploring what happened between the real Alice and Lewis
Carroll.” latimes.com. Los Angeles Times (5 Feb. 2015). Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
This article talks of a play that was performed, which depicts the relationship between the Liddells and Lewis Carroll. This is one of many examples that show there is very little known about the truth to what ended the friendship between them, but the obvious desire to assume there is truth to the allegations that Lewis Carroll made inappropriate advances toward Alice Liddell.
JensdePens. “Tom Waits interview by Don Lane, Australia 1979 with Paradise Alley
clip!” Online Video Clip. YouTube.com. YouTube, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
This interview shows a young Tom Waits being interviewed by Don Lane back in 1979. This clip in particular shows the awkwardness of Waits, his mannerisms, and body language during a social interaction. He could simply be nervous, but it is a good example of how he acts when not performing.
O’Hagan, Sean. “Off Beat.” theguardian.com. The Guardian (28 Oct. 2006). Web. 14
This interview is a candid look into Tom Waits’ life with some first-hand accounts of his childhood. It clearly shows Waits has questioned his own mental state at times, which shows there is a possibility Waits may have a developmental disorder.
Shakespeare, William, and Cox, John F. Much Ado about Nothing. Cambridge, U.K. ;
New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Shakespeare in Production. Pg 100.
Much Ado About Nothing is riddled with drama, love, betrayal, argument, and celebration. Shakespeare being a world-renowned writer, and the context behind much of his works involving love and torment, helps allow a deeper level of understanding of “We’re All Mad Here.” The particular reference to being hung in a bottle like a cat, said by Benedick, as well as some of misunderstandings in Much Ado About Nothing, increase the likelihood Waits is referencing the botched relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell.
Waits, Tom. “We’re All Mad Here,” Alice. tomwaits.com. Tom Waits (2002). Web. 19
Tom Waits has a very gravely voice that makes it easy to mishear his lyrics, which is why it is particularly helpful to utilize his website. He has lyrics to all his songs as well as album descriptions to read more about the compilation of songs as a whole. This was especially helpful in learning that the album Alice was created for a play and his explanation of the songs provides insight into some of the meanings.
Woolf, Jenny. “Lewis Carroll’s Shifting Reputation.” smithsonian.com. Smithsonian
Magazine (April 2010). Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
This document gives Lewis Carroll’s real full name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and provides further insights and analysis into the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the Liddell family. It also gives detailed background on Dodgson such as the fact that he was never married.