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"Come On Up to the House"

A song written by Tom Waits in 1999

This song was written by Tom Waits, and his performance of the song on his 1999 album Mule Variations is certainly worth hearing. His delivery sounds like that of a down-at-the-heels preacher delivering the holy message at a revival meeting, or perhaps on a street corner, with a Salvation Army style brass band playing in the background. He delivers his sermon with an unarguable power and authority.

My introduction to the song, however, came during the encore performance by Sarah Jarosz at the Tractor Tavern a couple of years ago. I can still remember the looks on the faces of Sarah and her band as they delivered the song to the standing, swaying crowd, seemingly amazed at the depth of feeling and the bond between performer and audience being wrought within the house that night, as all present returned again and again to the chorus with increasing emotional commitment.

You can find other artists paying homage to this wonderful work by Waits as well, but my favorite is still the one that Jarosz and her esteemed compatriots delivered on the album Song Up In Her Head. If you haven’t heard it yet, give it a listen now.

Waits begins his song with lines that evoke the strongest possible sense of dislocation, of disharmony.

Well the moon is broken,
And the sky is cracked.

And with these two simple lines he paints a picture, not just of heartbreak and human tragedy, but of a shattered cosmos. In other hands this would be a prelude to an expression of existential despair, but in the very next line Waits instead offers a seeming remedy.

Come on up to the house.

And then, in the next two lines, he suggests that the person he addresses is suffering from a distorted perspective.

The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack.

And then, of course, he offers the same suggestion.

Come on up to the house.

In the next verse he makes it clear that he is not recommending any sort of martyrdom, and is certainly not sympathetic to those with a traditionally Christian solution to the problem, and is still interested in practical matters of daily life. Quite a lot of meaning to pack into a mere seventeen words, if we exclude the repeated admonition to “Come on up to the house”!

All your crying don’t do no good.
Come on up to the house.
Come down off the cross,
We can use the wood.
Come on up to the house.

And now, after the first two verses, we get to the chorus.

You got to come on up to the house;
Come on up to the house!
The world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through.
Come on up to the house.

Again, of course, we hear this repeated injunction, but now with this additional clarification, “The world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” And so, Waits seems to be saying, even if traditional religions offer no help, and even if we are properly focused on solving the daily problems of living here on earth, we need to be cognizant of some higher calling, something greater than this broken world we inhabit.

Waits is at his imaginative, playful best in the next two verses, painting the direst, most fanciful, images depicting his audience’s situation, even managing to work in Thomas Hobbes’ description of the natural state of mankind, bereft of any form of human society, as described in his book Leviathan, first published in 1651.

There’s no light in the tunnel,
No irons in the fire:
Come on up to the house.
And you’re singing lead soprano
In a junkman’s choir:
You gotta come on up to the house.

Does life seem nasty, brutish and short?
Come on up to the house.
The seas are stormy,
And you can’t find no port.
Come on up to the house.

After another delivery of the chorus, Waits has two more verses for us, now seeming to more personally address his listener’s inner state.

There’s nothing in the world
That you can do:
Come on up to the house.
You been whipped by the forces
that are inside you:
Come on up to the house.

Well you’re high on top
Of your mountain of woe:
Come on up to the house.
Well you know you should surrender
But you can’t let go:
Come on up to the house.

Another delivery of the chorus, some ending fanfare, and then we are done.

So what are we left with? What is the meaning of this repeated phrase, “Come on up to the house”?

Well, first of all, the word “up” is interesting, because Waits is certainly inviting us to some more elevated circumstance than the one his audience is currently enjoying. And his word “house” is suggestive, since it’s often used to describe the “house of the lord,” but here seems to be used in a more familiar sense, as if simply welcoming his listener to drop by the singer’s home.

Overall, the singer seems to be inviting us to be part of a human community based on some shared, if still mysterious, sense of unity and connection.

If the words to the song seem mysterious, then, perhaps, they are intentionally so.

I am reminded of some words from Albert Einstein, from his book The World As I See It, written in 1949:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.

And also, from his book Religion and Science:

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of [cosmic] religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints.

For me, this song hints at the same type of mysterious, transcendent unity that Einstein describes.

I’m going to file this one under “Hymns of Secular Humanism,” right along with “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

August 21, 2022