The gravely voiced, balladeer of stories from skid row or as one writer said, the urban dispossessed, “stories of the barnacles on the underbelly of society.” Tom Waits is almost beyond description, his jazz-soaked poetry-stories, ever-eclectic musical mishmash of genres, he is of course an acquired taste. Maybe you are more familiar with his film and television roles? Yes, he has broader recognition for acting than music. Who saw that coming?
Tom Waits is a weird cat to figure out. Sure, you can attach some strange adjectives to his persona and musical songscapes, but that’s only the faux vagabond veneer that he projects. Although he lived the late night, flophouse, boozy, barfly lifestyle in the 1970s, soaking up the sweaty, broken spirit, skid row existence. He lived it to understand it, but was also able to leave it behind. The experiences branded him, like the country and folk singers of past generations, who could describe their hard scrabble struggles.
Waits’ songs have been described as urban noir put to music. Smart-talking bums, dames and a world of hard luck. Bonnie Raitt, who toured with Waits in the early days, said that he would find flophouses and make camp in the lobby to do his research.
Waits is profiled by Alex Harvey with a new book, Song Noir Tom Waits, And the Spirit of Los Angeles. For anyone interested in Waits or his music, Song Noir is a tremendous read. Waits, his persona and his songs are very inseparable. Harvey’s book provided some interesting background on Waits’ life, but the album reviews are mine. I spent hours listening, comparing, reflecting, and chewing on Tom Waits and his music.
“On chat shows Waits could keep banal tv hosts guessing as to whether his drunken act was real or not,” Harvey writes. “But play a part long enough and the mask hardens into the face. Waits later acknowledged how drinking and drugs had caught up with him: When you begin, it’s a man takes a drink. When you end up, it’s a drink takes a man.
Keeping my balance during that period was tricky.”
Waits was becoming the beat generation version of Dean Martin. Was the boozy, vagabond really him or an act that he brought out for show? He had a romantic relationship with Rickie Lee Jones before she became famous, and then eclipsed his fame. Drugs and other things got in the way. For years, Waits lived at the seedy Tropicana Motel, his life unpretentious and of the moment. Even by his standards, the new neighborhood was dangerous and minus the hospitable vibe. Drugs, guns and cruelty were a bad combination.
When Waits and Jones split, he was also moving around other chess pieces in his life. He moved into a real house and would begin a professional and personal transition. Waits felt at a creative deadens, though this first decade was incredibly rich in urban jazz storytelling.
Closing Time (1973) Waits was paired with producer Jerry Yester (Lovin’ Spoonful, The Association). The lead-off is “Ol’ ‘55” the song the Eagles covered, giving Waits some fame and cash. It’s wistful and nostalgic. “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” and “Rosie”are almost sweet, but they certainly has a worn tenderness. “Midnight Lullaby” hints at the after-hours world Waits will inhabit soon. “Lonely” has a naked, vulnerable quality, just Waits and his aching piano chords.
Closing Time sounds a bit like James Taylor in his early days, acoustic instruments, clean, folky-jazz-blues confections. Yester does a fine job packaging Waits, whose voice had not undergone the deepening process, it still had a clearer, higher register. The songs are hard to label, the entrance of Tom Waits to “contemporary” music.
The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) For this album he joined forces with Bones Howe (The Turtles, 5th Dimension, Elvis Presley), who would produce his next six albums. Howe described how they worked together. Waits would make a demo at some studio, just him playing. He would bring the demo to Howe. When they started recording the song for the album, the only thing written down were the lyrics. Then Howe would write the lead sheets for other musicians to use in playing to Waits tracks. That was sort of the opposite of how the recording process usually worked.
What you immediately notice is a fuller instrumentation, perhaps it’s in the engineering, or that Waits graduated to A list studio musicians like Jim Gordon, Tom Scott and Mike Melvoin. The listener is introduced to the late night jazz club atmosphere. The trade-off is the degree of intimacy on the debut album that is sacrificed with a fuller production.
Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) Producer Howe set up live recording in a studio with an audience to simulate a Waits club/lounge setting. Live performance was Waits strength, so Howe wanted to capture the vibe.
Waits and his backing band sound on fire, so Howe’s experiment worked. Wait has a strong audience engagement and comes through here. Like veteran jazz performers, he frequently talk-sings, in that smoky, Louis Armstrong growl. He entertains with each song introduction and plays off of the interaction with the audience. It’s not all mellow, he swings as well. “Big Joe and Phantom 309” is a wonderful talk/sing performance.
Waits’ style here is loose, late night, mellow, crooning. It’s boozier than his studio albums, you half expect Frank Sinatra to be heard in the background, even in a dive like this. I like this album a lot, the loose feel is soothing and has a nostalgic vibe of jazz clubs of the past.
Small Change (1976) Again produced by Bones Howe. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” has the smoothness and velvet tones that Waits now lacks in his voice. The Waltzing Matilda incorporation is lovely. The string section (arranged by Jerry Yester) is warm without schmaltzy. Bones Howe worked to provide Waits great accompaniment and present his essence while rounding some of the sharp edges, but not too much.
Waits is very effective when he utilizes the talk/scat style of vocalizing as he does in the skiffle-jazz “Step Right Up.” “The Piano Has Been Drinking” might be the quintessential Tom Waits song. The piano has been drinking, not me. It happens to us all. “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” is typical of Waits’ smoky ballads: all heart, plain-speak and basic instrumental backing (piano, standup bass, drums and occasional sax).
The cover photos are pure L.A. underbelly, especially this one. Shot by Joel Brodsky, it’s Waits in his element.
Foreign Affairs (1977) This album starts off slowly with several low-energy piano tinkling ballads, including a duet with Bette Midler on “I Never Talk to Strangers.”
“Potter’s Field” is a grand, orchestrated affair. It takes several listens to fully appreciate. Only occasionally does this album shift into a faster gear and get noisy. There is very little here that represents where the world was in 1977. That’s really the point of Wait’s music. His songs are timeless, but of an era that is difficult to pinpoint.
The songs were recorded live in the studio and are rich in cool jazz shadings. This collection is supposed to represent a musical film noir, a black and white set of loosely aligned stories. If you are looking for mellow and kind of nostalgic, this album might do it on a cool autumn evening. Rarely, does it swing, and it certainly does not rock.
Blue Valentine (1978) A bit harder-edged than previously albums, Waits discovered the electric guitar. Still Bluesy and mellow, but a little tougher sound. “Somewhere” from West Side Story is very cool, stylized with the strings, Waits gives an emotional and full-on performance. If you like singer John Hiatt, Waits at times sounds like him here.
Only Tom Waits could write a song called “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and not have it come across as cheesy. It’s a serious song from someone who understands the world of phony, grift, broken and sad – all rolled into one. “Romeo is Bleeding” is such a cool title. Gangsters and revenge, certainly not a love ballad. Jazzy, scat vocals, a Waits trademark. “Kentucky Avenue” is regarded as one of Waits’ most personal and autobiographical songs, with great emotion, remembering the bits and pieces of his childhood. The guy can write a ballad to bring you to tears.
Heartattack and Vine (1980) The last album under his Asylum Records deal. What a period of growth over seven years. Waits had established his songwriting and performance styles. He was not a big star in record sales, but he had tremendous respect within the music industry. Several of these songs would be coverage by other artists including Bruce Springsteen.
The album features Waits on electric guitar, rough and edgy blues fill the air. Waits voice continues to turn to gravel, but that increases his street cred in the hard-luck blues. This is a mature album showing Waits’ growth as a songwriter.
“Saving All My Love for You” and “Jersey Girl” are smooth ballads. “Heartattack and Vine” and “Downtown” are angry, rocking blues. The orchestrated “On the Nickel” was used in the film of the same name. “Ruby’s Arms” is also sweetly orchestrated, a gem.
One from the Heart soundtrack (1981) I have honestly never seen this Francis Ford Coppola film, the one that crashed his film studio. An expensive film that tanked. Coppola wanted Waits to write the soundtrack, and depended on Waits to paint the film’s atmosphere. Waits wanted Coppola to explain the film to him. Somehow, Waits created a beautiful score, which he got Crystal Gayle to sing on. We get the neon, late night, fantasy, but without the drug addicts, middle aged hookers and barroom vomit. Waits sounds good, his eccentricities muted, and Gayle is silky and angelic.
Waits pivoted in the early 1980s, mostly abandoning his jazzy-folk musical style for something even more eclectic, if you can imagine that. After One from the Heart, Waits told Howe that he needed to find a new producer for his next album. Howe was okay with that, he knew Waits was evolving from album to album. His job was to hold the bar higher for each album, raising the standard, which Waits would aim for, and mostly surpass.
Waits’ life was changing big time, maybe I’ll trace those years in other blog…
If you’ve made it this far, thanks, and I hope you’ve learned a thing or two. Tom Waits isn’t for everyone, and many write him off without finding what makes him such a unique poet and musical interpreter of the underbelly of life.
Tom Waits spent a lot time with David Letterman through the years. Here is a compilation of those appearances. Sample a few. Enjoy