On Tom Waits and Robin Williams

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the Tom Waits song Come On Up to the House. I dearly love the song, and it has one of the best music videos I’ve ever seen.

At first glance, it’s pretty easy to read as a traditional gospel song. The first verse includes lyrics like “Come down off the cross, we can use the wood,” while a cross is being painted on the arm in the video, and the titular house seems to refer to heaven, as seen in the chorus: “The world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through/You gotta come on up to the house.”

And yet, as I sit here and listen to this song, I’m not really thinking of it as a gospel tune. This isn’t because I’m an atheist—I don’t think you have to be religious to love gospel music. It’s because I’m thinking about Robin Williams.

I always liked bearded, scruffy Williams

I always liked bearded, scruffy Williams

I’m not normally someone who is affected by celebrity deaths. But when I saw the news about Williams, I let out an audible “Whaaaaat?” Twitter proceeded to basically become a worldwide memorial to the actor and comedian. Everyone has a Williams performance he or she loves—whether you were a fan of his frenetic standup routines, or you were a kid for his genie in Aladdin, or you love his understated, against-type performance in Good Will Hunting, or Dead Poet’s Society made you want to seize the day … you get the point. Williams touched so many of us, mostly because he made us laugh. Laughter, as Patch Adams went to great lengths to convey, can cure a lot of ills.

Unfortunately, the ills laughter can’t heal are often the ones that ail those people who make the rest of us laugh. History is littered with examples of comedians who had extremely fucked up personal lives, and Williams is a classic case. He was an alcoholic, he had problems with drugs. He had apparently been battling a deep bout with depression when he decided, yesterday, to take his own life.

And so I was listening to Come On Up to the House. Listening to Waits, in his inimitable growl, sing:

“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

There’s nothin’ in the world
That you can do
You gotta come on up to the house
And 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
You gotta come on up to the house”

Those lyrics—and the way they paint themselves across the body in the video, like tattoos, or scars—make me think of Williams’ depression, his mountain of woe, and the way he allowed the forces inside him, including his addiction—something Waits, himself an alcoholic, surely understood—to defeat him. As someone who has had my own issues with depression and alcohol, I can also relate.

And then I think about that last line. “You know you should surrender, but you can’t let go.” That could be read as proselytization, an appeal to embrace faith in god. That probably makes the most sense. But I see it a little differently.

I’ve always thought of suicide, among other things, as the ultimate surrender. Listening to this song and thinking about Williams, I’m thinking about how he surrendered. I’m thinking about how he let go of this world that had stopped being his home.

Anyone who would judge or blame Williams for his suicide doesn’t know how torturous depression can be. The world that Waits says is not his home is one in which depression takes over, one that makes this life seem nasty, brutish, and short. But if we don’t let go, we can do more than just pass through. Who knows what would have helped Williams? I’ve always found that things are better for me when I can live in the moment. Maybe he just needed someone to remind him of the small, good things. Say, the idiosyncracies.

I’m not saying he needed a therapist, or even that simple reminders like in this scene would have been enough. I’m just saying that for people who are sad or depressed, it usually helps to have someone to talk to. Someone to make you laugh. I wish someone had been able to do for Robin Williams what he did for so many of us. I wish he hadn’t felt like he had to find another house.

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