The Guide to Getting Into Tom Waits
Whether he's sounding tired and emotional or like a mutated Salvation Army band, the marvellously spiky Mr Waits has something for everyone.
Illustration by Jacob Read
It’s astonishing just how many styles of song Tom Waits has written while always sounding unmistakably like Tom Waits. In 45 years as an active recording artist he’s managed to transmogrify from folkie Dylan wannabe to overlord of the alternative American songbook via beatnik blues and crime jazz, apoplectic polka and angry tango, Americana, hip-hop, European folk, carnival music, Brechtian cabaret and many more creative styles besides. You should be warned: getting to know the real Tom Waits is a tall order, especially for an artist who tells so many tall tales. In truth, which is usually in short supply, there’s no getting near him. He’s a ventriloquist act, a stooge who looks very much like the Thomas Alan Waits who was born in the back of a San Diego taxicab in 1949 (although that story too may be baloney).
Broadly speaking, Waits’ career can be broken down into two distinct periods: the bibulous, slightly broken troubadour before he and songwriter, artist and producer Kathleen Brennan met and married, and the cracked actor after connubial bliss. When they met—Brennan, working as a script editor for Columbia Pictures and Waits, down the hall writing the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart—Waits had exhausted his sentimental stumblebum persona. It was Brennan who encouraged him to explore his musical mores and made him listen to Captain Beefheart with fresh ears. Brennan became co-conspirator in the world of Waits, credited as co-writer on albums including Alice, Real Gone and Blood Money and inspiring her husband to go in a new direction in the 1980s. Whatever was precisely written by whom, it’s fair to say she’s as much a part of the smoke and mirrors of the Tom Waits latter-day persona as Waits himself.
So You Want To Get Into: “Accessible” Tom Waits
Let’s start by stating there is no accessible Tom Waits. That might be counterintuitive under this subhead, but so much of what makes Tom Waits great is counterintuitive. A rule of thumb you can follow is thus: if the song has been covered by somebody more famous than Tom himself and become more famous than his version then it’s probably accessible on some level. So think “Ol’ ‘55” by the Eagles, “Jersey Girl” by Bruce Springsteen, “Downtown Train” and “Tom Traubert's Blues” by Rod Stewart, Joan Baez’s “Whistle Down The Wind,” “Time” by Tori Amos, and “Martha” by Tim Buckley. All of those are fine—except for Rod Stewart of course—but none do them quite like ‘ol Tom. Scarlett Johansson in turn recorded Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of Waits covers in 2008 with Dave Sitek. Clearly there’s a tenderness in his songs that might at first be difficult to identify when he’s barking like a bullmastiff in a barn fire.
Some of his best-loved songs come from his first album where, he later admitted, he didn’t really know what he was doing. Some straighter rock ballads like “Downtown Train” and “Hang Down Your Head” from Rain Dogs demonstrate his knack for writing irresistible hooks in and among more trying material, too. Furthermore “Cold Cold Ground,” a whistleable ditty played on an accordion, soon reveals itself as being about poverty and death, proving that even when his tunes are seemingly accessible to the ear there’s a very good chance they’ll pack a sinister surprise if you hang around long enough.
Playlist: “Ol’ ‘55” / “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” / “Martha” / “Jersey Girl” / “Downtown Train” / “Hang Down Your Head” / “Cold Cold Ground” / “Take It With Me” / “Hold On”
So You Want To Get Into: Tired and Emotional Tom Waits
Now we’re getting into the sentimental gentleman Waits. His second album The Heart Of Saturday Night, with its melancholy (near) title track about the ephemeral pleasures of weekend drinking, draws us closer to the raspy-throated barfly down-on-his-luck incarnation that began to resonate with music buyers, but 1976’s Small Change truly represents his first big transformation and his first real masterpiece. Having been convinced by producer Bones Howe to write on the piano rather than guitar, Small Change is the sound of a thirsty poet finding his muse in the bottom of a bottle and his voice via a five-packs-a-day smoking habit. Tom played up to the image of the desolate figure he’d created for himself—his live album Nighthawks at the Diner was named after the famous Edward Hopper painting and he drops a line from Casablanca into a Jack Kerouac-inspired song called “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart (In Lowell)” to drive it home. Meanwhile “Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” is just about the most beautiful, teetering-on-the-edge-of-overwrought song you could possibly imagine that inexplicably segues into the bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda.”
The sentimental Waits dripped like a tap during the 70s, but Brennan fixed that tap when they met in 1980. It still drips occasionally though, notably on the gorgeous but truncated “Johnsburg, Illinois,” one of his most moving songs about Brennan herself (“She's my only true love / She's all that I think of / Look here in my wallet / That's her.”) It barely lasts a minute-and-a-half on Swordfishtrombones and is a nod to the ancien régime, as if to say “enough already.”
Playlist: “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night” / “Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” / “I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)” / “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)” / “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” / “Christmas Card For a Hooker in Minneapolis” / “Burma-Shave” / “Johnsburg, Illinois” / “Time” / “New Years Eve”
So You Want To Get Into: Hipster Tom Waits
Before we can get to the seismic reinvention, we must discuss wise-ass hepcat jazzy Tom Waits, an amalgam of all the beatnik poets who he saw as replacement father figures when his old man left at the end of the 50s. Waits had a torrid time in the early days supporting artists like Frank Zappa, with whom he was incompatible. Over time he built a fearsome live reputation, though, integrating smokey jazz with meticulously delivered conversation of a comedic bent on tracks like “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson).”
Perhaps the standout hipster Tom Waits track is “Step Right Up,” which hustles the listener with nearly six minutes of hilarious advertising pitches (“It fillets, it chops, it dices, slices / Never stops, lasts a lifetime / It mows your lawn and it picks up the kids from school”), never mentioning what the product actually is. It’s a sardonic piece of pop art that would foreshadow Waits’ very public disdain for commercials, especially when crafty advertisers tried to absorb the essence of his persona (a very expensive business for them in the end). He still toys with jazz, but it’s usually more noirish, like on “Shore Leave”, or smokey, like on “Alice.”
Playlist: “New Coat of Paint” / “Diamonds On My Windshield” / “Intro To Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)” [live] / “Step Right Up” / “Barber Shop” / “Romeo is Bleeding” / “Blue Valentines” / “This One’s From The Heart” (with Crystal Gayle) / “Shore Leave” / “Alice”
So You Want To Get Into: Weimarian Showtunes Tom Waits
Swordfishtrombones opener “Underground” must have been a big shock in 1983 when people first heard it, with its spiky guitar, detuned horn and its cartoonish Beefheart stop motion. His label Asylum hated it and it was released on Island instead. Ironically the weirder he became, the more the critics loved him and the more records he sold, but it was considered a massive risk at the time to reinvent himself so completely. “When the records Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs came out, I thought it was a very brave move, because he had a totally complete persona based around this hipster thing he’d taken from Kerouac and Bukowski,” said Elvis Costello, quoted in book Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters . “I think I was envious, not so much of the music, but the ability to rewrite himself out of the corner he’d appeared to have backed himself into.” Even the straighter songs like “In the Neighborhood” sound like they’re being played by a Salvation Army band made up of mutants.
A fondness for unusual instruments like the marimba seemed to stem from an interest in avant-garde hobo Harry Partch, while another influence—or so everybody kept telling him—was Kurt Weill. Waits hadn’t heard the German composer by then, though the European sensibilities of his new style undoubtedly have their roots in the Weimar Republic whether intentional or not. The foray into musical theatre was logical then, and he has collaborated on three productions with theatre auteur Robert Wilson, with the libretto for The Black Rider written by beat legend William S. Burroughs. Waits maintains a kind of blue collar earthiness in the collective imagination, but as Robert Christgau once put it: “he’s forged more alliances with the institutionalised avant-garde than David Byrne. And while he’s damn well in the authenticity business, he’s not in the confessional authenticity business.”
Playlist: “Underground” / “In The Neighborhood” / “Singapore” / “Clap Hands” / “Rain Dogs” / “Jockey Full of Bourbon” / “Innocent When You Dream” / “God’s Away On Business” / “Kommienezuspadt” / “Misery Is The River Of The World”
So You Want To Get Into: Throat-Clearing, Bone-Banging, Beatbox Mutant Blues Tom Waits
Waits started out his career seeking authenticity: frequenting all-night diners, taking jobs at service stations and living in and out of flophouses; contemporarily the drifter he now plays is a sort of inverse Dorian Gray, a grotesque of the tatterdemalion wreckage he might have become (he knocked the bottle on the head in 1992). One of the most interesting features of his career has been watching the character development of the imposter whose records we buy, from the wild, footstompin purveyor of mutant blues—starting around the time of 1980's Heartattack and Vine—to the beatboxing-in-the-bathroom bard of DIY hip-hop on 2004’s Real Gone.
The latter album is something of a collaboration between father and son, with Casey Waits on decks, drums, percussion and added handclaps. But even without his encouragement you expect Waits Snr might have got there anyway. The older musician’s version of hip-hop derives from an earthy, dirty blues that grows angrier and more rabid throughout his 80s New York triumvirate of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years, perhaps best exemplified on the track “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six.” 1992’s Bone Machine—which if legend is to be believed, was written and recorded around the same time he received an ultimatum from his wife related to his drinking—is suitably bareboned and sepulchral.
Playlist: “Heartattack and Vine” / “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six” / “Big Black Mariah” / “Walking Spanish” / “Telephone Call From Istanbul” / “Goin’ Out West” / “Eyeball Kid” / “Filipino Box Spring Hog” / “Lucinda” / “Top of the Hill” / “Chick A Boom”
So You Want To Get Into: Political Tom Waits
Perhaps the most significant recent change in Waits has been his embrace of the political. There had been hints before, with the moving “Soldier’s Things,” a list of personal items of a veteran being sold in a box at a dollar a pop; “Earth Dies Screaming” envisages a terrifying future probably due to global warming and “What’s He Building?” from Mule Variations encapsulates paranoid middle America’s fear of the other. “Chocolate Jesus” from the same record has a sly pop at evangelicals and “Georgia Lee” is a heartbreaking ballad dedicated to a 12-year-old black girl murdered by the roadside near Waits’ home, and inspired by the suspicion her case barely made the newspapers because of her ethnicity.
The 21st century has unleashed a fully-activated political side to Tom that might have seemed unthinkable in the surrealist years. “Road To Peace” is a diaphanous and affecting tale about a suicide bombing in Israel, antiwar anthem “Hell Broke Luce” sounds like wild napalm, while Real Gone is full of angry protest songs aimed at George W Bush and the War In Iraq, with “Hoist That Flag” perhaps the best of them.
Tom Waits’ back catalog—currently undergoing an extensive re-release campaign by his latter day label ANTI—might seem a little daunting at first, but exploring his vast, poetic, picaresque songs is one of life’s great ongoing pleasures, or indulgent miseries, depending on how you see it.
Playlist: “Soldier's Things” / “What's He Building?” / “Georgia Lee” / “Chocolate Jesus” / “Road To Peace” / “Hoist That Flag” / “Day After Tomorrow” / “Sins Of My Father” / “Hell Broke Luce”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.