“you can never hold back spring” – tom waits (2005)


This week was the first full week of spring; a great milestone in every year. I just get so excited when spring is coming. Winters in Chicago can be brutal and long.  Lake Michigan makes it so much worse.  The lake effect makes the snow wetter and the wind colder; the kind of weather that cuts straight to the bones.  Although, winter can be nice at times. As much as I enjoy the snow and a crisp, grey winter day, it can get old quickly.  As soon as the winter holidays are over and we have started the New Year, I’m just done.  But, I know I have a few more months left to wait.  So, when spring arrives, I’ve had a lot of time to build up my excitement.

Spring in Chicago can be a loose and fluid concept.  This time last year, we experienced around a foot of snow.  This week, it has been relatively rainy with a mixture of appropriately warm days and cold days. It is technically spring according to the calendar, but it isn’t quite here yet.  There are glimpses, but they are brief.  Though, each time I get a little more sun and temperatures just a little bit higher, I know it is only a matter of time before spring has truly sprung.  It really is the kind of transition that can test one’s patience, but the reward is worth it.

The first time I ever heard Tom Waits was while listening to Bob Dylan’s radio show on XM (this was before it became Sirius XM). Dylan’s show was a collection of songs and musings about a particular subject.  Each show had it’s own respective theme and none of them were anything particularly abstract or vast like the subject of love.  The themes on the show were things along the lines of taxes, weather, coffee, or even the state of Tennessee.  Finishing off the first season in 2007 was a show about spring cleaning, a special two-hour episode containing leftovers from previous episodes mixed in with songs about the spring season.

The final song played was “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” by Tom Waits.  This track was released a year before in 2006 on a three-disc compilation album called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards. The collections contained 56 songs, 30 of which were brand new for the release.  Not only that, each disc represented a specific theme or style. Disc one was Brawlers, a collection of rock and blues tracks. The songs that made up Bawlers, disc two, were slower and more melancholic in tone. And the final disc that was Bastards were more experimental in nature including poems and the type of musical noise that has been associated with Waits over the years.

“You Can Never Hold Back Spring” was one of the songs included on the Bawlers disc, though it wasn’t a new track.  It originally appeared in the 2005 film The Tiger and the Snow directed by and starring Roberto Benigni.  This was my first Tom Waits song.  While I remember liking it enough, it took a long while to truly appreciate his style.  Over the course of 2007, I dabbled here and there without quite catching on. It wasn’t until I discovered his releases Alice and Blood Money, both released in 2002, that I finally started to grasp his style and personality.  Considering my inaugural track was recorded three years later, it seems that his 2000s input was the sound I appreciated the most.  From there, I was able to navigate the rest of his discography and truly appreciate his artistry.

On this track, Waits croons like a romantic balladeer.  His famously gruff voice is subdued and full of harmony.  It is dreamy and like a lullaby at times.  In this song, he is singing about his love for someone who may not fully realize their true feelings.  Waits claims that even though this person has lost their way, he and the rest of the world keeps dreaming of spring.  I don’t think Waits says this in a literal sense pertaining to the season, but rather a romantic allegory.  No matter how hard you may fight, you can never hold back spring just as you cannot deny your feelings or your love.  In the meantime, Waits isn’t forgetting the blushing rose.  It is such a sweet song and wonderfully uses changing seasons as a theme representing time and love.

Musically, the song is quintessentially Tom Waits.  The recording is scratchy and dusty as if it was recorded 100 years ago onto a 78 RPM record and left in an attic.  It doesn’t detract.  That kind of aesthetic touch only add to the song’s charm.  Backing Waits are piano and a few horns.  The music is subtle and performed low and soothingly.

Tom Waits has been a treasured musical figure in my life in the last decade.  While I tend to gravitate to other songs, albums, or periods in his career, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” was the one that started it all.  Perhaps I was heading towards a musical awakening and this song was the symbolic representation of the discovery of new sounds.  Either way, it is such a relevant song for me this time of the year.  Like the lover Waits is yearning for, I’m yearning for the warm caress of sunlight bright flowers.  Despite the dips that bring the colder temperatures and biting rain, I know it won’t last forever.  Something has got to give because spring will never be held back.