Cemetery Polka – Unraveling the Ballad of Family Dysfunction
He’s a big-shot down there at the slaughterhouse
Plays accordion for Mr. Weiss
Uncle Biltmore and Uncle William
Made a million during World War Two
But they’re tightwads and they’re cheapskates
And they’ll never give a dime to you
Auntie Mame has gone insane
She lives in the doorway of an old hotel
And the radio is playing opera
All she ever says is go to hell
Uncle Violet flew as a pilot
And there ain’t no pretty girls in France
Now he runs a tiny little bookie joint
They say he never keeps it in his pants
Uncle Bill will never leave a will
And the tumor is as big as an egg
He has a mistress, she’s Puerto Rican
And I heard she has a wooden leg
Uncle Phil can’t live without his pills
He has emphysema and he’s almost blind
And we must find out where the money is
Get it now before he loses his mind
Uncle Vernon, Uncle Vernon, independent as a hog on ice
He’s a big shot down there at the slaughterhouse
He plays accordion for Mr. Weiss
Tom Waits is known for his gravelly voice and his vivid storytelling, and ‘Cemetery Polka’ from his 1985 album ‘Rain Dogs’ is a prime showcase of his ability to combine the two into an intoxicating concoction of melody and meaning. On the surface, the song is a jaunty, accordion-infused tune that seems almost jovial in its rhythm. But Waits is a master of the macabre, a connoisseur of the unconventional, and beneath the surface is a wry commentary on family, mortality, and the oddities that bind us together.
The song offers a parade of characters, each verse introducing a new family member with their own peculiarities and vices. In Waits’s melodic satire, he peels back the thin veneer of familial propriety to reveal the greed, folly, and madness that often lie beneath. It’s a polka danced in the shadow of gravestones, each step a morose twist on a family portrait.
An Accordion-Fueled Romp Through Family Secrets
The lively rhythm of ‘Cemetery Polka’ juxtaposes sharply with its lyrical content, creating a dissonance that is quintessentially Waits. The accordion, often associated with festivity and dance, here underscores a litany of family foibles and secrets. Waits, playing the part of omniscient narrator, introduces us to Uncle Vernon and other relatives, each one cast with a flaw that is simultaneously personal and universal.
The upbeat tempo forces the listener into a conundrum, swaying to the rhythm while digesting tales of selfishness, insanity, and betrayal. This contrast is a sharp tool in Waits’s songwriting repertoire, cutting through pretense and challenging us to find the humor in the darker corners of human nature.
Tales of Avarice and Eccentricity: The Relatives’ Revelation
Each relative depicted in ‘Cemetery Polka’ is a caricature of excess and eccentricity. Uncle Vernon, the slaughterhouse big-shot, and Uncle Biltmore and Uncle William, the miserly millionaires, represent greed in the face of family needs. Auntie Mame’s operatic madness and Uncle Violet’s lascivious past paint pictures of individual collapse and the futility of past glories.
These characters serve as a mirror to society’s own relatives and the often untold stories that linger behind closed doors. Waits doesn’t just mock or lament these traits; he revels in their narrative, weaving them into a tapestry that reflects the complexity of family dynamics.
The Dark Comedy of Existence in ‘Cemetery Polka’
Waits’s unique sense of humor is never absent from his work, and in ‘Cemetery Polka,’ it’s a grim, cutting humor that takes center stage. Referring to a radio that ‘plays opera’ as Auntie Mame tells the world to ‘go to hell,’ or mentioning Uncle Phil’s urgency in finding out ‘where the money is,’ there’s an underlying levity to the grim situations these characters find themselves in.
His dark comedy is a coping mechanism, a way for the listener to confront the randomness and often cruel nature of life’s lottery. Waits serves as the barker at a sideshow, pointing out the absurdities of the human condition – always with a wink and a nod.
The Hidden Meaning Behind the Madness
Beneath the rollicking veneer of ‘Cemetery Polka’ is a profound observation about the inevitability of death and how it affects human behavior. Waits unmasks the desperation with which people cling to money, status, and earthly pleasures when faced with the ultimate certainty of mortality.
In the song’s darkly festive atmosphere, Waits suggests that the dance of death is one in which we are all reluctantly engaged, and our individual quirks and neuroses are but steps in this final performance. The polka is not just a dance; it’s a metaphor for the absurdity of life’s march towards the end.
Memorable Lines That Echo Beyond the Grave
‘Cemetery Polka’ is laced with memorable one-liners that could only come from Tom Waits’s pen. ‘Independent as a hog on ice’ vividly encapsulates Uncle Vernon’s free-spirited nature, while ‘they’ll never give a dime to you’ succinctly criticizes the miserliness of the wealthy uncles.
The dark humor of these lines, like ‘the tumor is as big as an egg,’ is not lost upon the listener. They resonate because of their unflinching truth and the wry delivery that Waits masterfully employs. Each line etches itself into the subconscious, leaving an indelible mark that will be recalled with a morose smile long after the song has ended.